GOP senators want GenX hearing; Cooper administration says discharge first reported under McCrory

Posted August 15
Updated August 16

 The Cape Fear River

— Republican state senators will hold a legislative hearing to draw out more answers about the GenX chemical discharge into the Cape Fear River, they said Tuesday.

The announcement follows a back-and-forth of questions and partial answers between a group of seven state senators and Gov. Roy Cooper's administration. The group gave the administration about three business days to answer roughly 20 questions, and in a statement released Tuesday on the senators' behalf, Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, called the three-page response "evasive, dismissive and unserious."

Administration officials had already offered to meet in person and discuss the issue in detail, an invitation expanded on in the administration's response. But Lee's statement said the senators would "exercise our legislative oversight responsibilities to move this process along.”

Among the questions GOP senators asked: When did the Cooper administration first learn a Chemours plant was discharging GenX, which is used to make Teflon and other products, into the river?

The administration answered Monday that the first reports came to the state in November 2016, during former Gov. Pat McCrory's watch.

Tracking GenX

State environmental officials began testing locations along the Cape Fear River for concentrations of GenX on June 19, 2017, and have continued to sample the water to track the contaminant. After the chemical company Chemours agreed to stop dumping GenX into the river June 20, concentrations dropped drastically, in most cases below the 140 parts per trillion public health standard set by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Find out more about how the state's ongoing tests of water for GenX in 13 locations along the Cape Fear River have changed over time. "Raw" sites were tested before water treatment, while "finished" sites were tested after treatment. Data updated Aug. 28, 2017

Below standard Above standard
Graphic by Tyler Dukes

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said there was no mention of GenX in transition documents handed over as the McCrory administration gave way to Cooper's. Efforts to reach Department of Environmental Quality spokespeople with the same question Tuesday afternoon were not successful.

Tom Reeder, who was assistant secretary at DEQ in 2016, works now as a policy adviser for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. Berger's press office declined to grant an interview with Reeder Tuesday, saying it's long-standing policy that only the senator's press office can speak with reporters.

The study state officials received in November was available to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which provides drinking water in and around Wilmington, as early as May 2016, and in fact, two of its managers contributed to the report.

The report indicated GenX levels in the water above what the state has since labeled as a safe-to-drink threshold, but at the time, this threshold didn't exist for the unregulated chemical. When the authority sought answers on whether the amounts shown in the report were good or bad, it was told more study was needed, an authority spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Among other things, this report noted that "little is known about the toxicity, pharmacokinetic behavior or environmental fate and transport" of GenX and other chemicals from the same family.

In June, officials with DHHS and DEQ met with Chemours, and the company stopped discharging the chemical into the river. Since then, tests show GenX levels below the state's best estimate for safe drinking water standards.

Cooper has asked the legislature for about $2.6 million in extra funding to monitor the water and study health effects, a request the GOP majority has met with some skepticism. It was this request that prompted the senators' letter full of questions, and Lee's statement Tuesday said the governor's "proposed response to this crisis ... does nothing to actually address the immediate problem of GenX in our drinking water."

The administration's response to Senate questions was signed by the heads of both DEQ and DHHS, and it did not go question-by-question to answer the senators' inquiries. Some went unanswered, including questions about the focus of an ongoing State Bureau of Investigation inquiry and why the state hasn't hit Chemours with a violation under the Clean Water Act.

The administration's response said a DEQ review is ongoing and that it "expects soon to be able to share" information about "any appropriate enforcement action."

Many of the questions focused on whether Cooper's $2.6 million request is really needed, given assets already on hand at the two departments. The response notes the loss of at least 70 DEQ jobs since 2013, thanks to budget cuts approved by the GOP's legislative majority. The result: A backlog in wastewater permit processing, which hurts economic development, the administration said.

The administration also said testing of poorly understood compounds like GenX takes a lot of time and outside expertise, requiring "a larger response than our departments have resources for while continuing to meet the day-to-day requirements" or regulating state industries and waters.


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