Timeline: Tracking the route of GenX in the Cape Fear River
Posted August 17
Updated 5:21 p.m. Thursday
Since the discovery of the unregulated compound GenX in the Cape Fear River, there's been a flurry of activity from state environmental and health officials in response to a form of industrial contamination with an unclear impact on human health.
GenX is the trade name of perﬂuoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid, used to make Teflon, Gore-Tex, fast food wrappers and other products. It was meant to replace older chemicals also in the "perfluorinated" family used in manufacturing. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established health advisories for these older chemicals, such as PFOA, which has been known to cause cancer in animal tests, the agency has no such recommendations for the largely unstudied GenX.
Despite the focus on GenX since June 2017, the compound has a long history in Wilmington-area water, where it has been discharged for years by the chemical company DuPont – and its spin-off Chemours – out of the Fayetteville Works facility.
Editor's note: This timeline will be updated as this story develops.
Commercial production begins at the Fayetteville Works plant, built by chemical company DuPont. The plant is located about 15 miles south of Fayetteville on the border of Cumberland and Bladen counties. It sits along the Cape Fear River, the primary source of drinking water for Brunswick, Bladen, New Hanover and Pender counties.
Based on public disclosures from plant officials, DuPont has been discharging perﬂuoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid – known now by its trade name GenX – as a byproduct of one of its manufacturing processes since at least this year.
March 7, 2002: A consent order between DuPont and the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act establishes a "temporary threshold level" of 14,000 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C-8 or PFOA, in drinking water in West Virginia and Ohio near the chemical company's Washington Works facility. If drinking water samples test higher than the threshold, the company is required to pay for alternative sources of drinking water for affected users.
PFOA was a precursor to GenX and is in the same "perfluorinated" family of chemicals.
Dec. 14, 2005: Under an agreement with the EPA, DuPont agrees to pay $10.25 million in civil penalties and another $6.25 million for "supplemental environmental projects" to settle alleged violations that the company failed to report information about the harmful effects of PFOA at its West Virginia plant between 1981 and 2004. The settlement was at the time the largest civil penalty in the EPA's history.
The North Carolina Division of Water Quality, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services, establishes a temporary limit for PFOA of 2,000 parts per trillion.
Nov. 20, 2006: A new consent order between DuPont and the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act lowers the threshold for PFOA to 500 parts per trillion for areas near the company's Washington Works facility in Washington, W.Va. Triggering this threshold would require the company to supply alternative sources of drinking water to affected residents near its plant.
DuPont informs the EPA that it will begin making GenX commercially at its Fayetteville Works plant along the Cape Fear River as a replacement for PFOA. Up to this point, the company says GenX was a manufacturing byproduct of a different chemical manufacturing process.
Jan. 8, 2009: The EPA publishes a health advisory recommending short-term exposure to PFOA of no more than 400 parts per trillion. Such advisories "reflect reasonable, health-based hazard concentrations above which action should be taken to reduce exposure to PFOA in drinking water," according to the agency.
Jan. 28, 2009: Using the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA enters a separate consent order with DuPont over two unnamed, unregulated chemical substances – compounds of GenX – that require the company to "recover and capture (destroy) or recycle" 99 percent of the substances to prevent their discharge into the air and water.
But there's a notable exemption in the order, originally obtained by The Intercept: It does not apply to substances produced as byproducts of other processes. That can happen when other chemicals are combined that unintentionally make GenX or other substances "without separate commercial intent."
March 10, 2009: A new consent order between the EPA and DuPont under the Safe Drinking Water Act lowers the PFOA threshold again for areas near the company's West Virginia plant to 400 parts per trillion. Under the order, the company must supply alternative water sources to areas where water samples test above this threshold.
Aug. 16, 2010: At the suggestion of a DuPont environmental manager, regulators with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality meet with the company to discuss a compound produced at the Fayetteville Works site that will replace PFOA by 2015. A state regulator's handwritten notes of the meeting call the new material "Gen-X (C-3 Dimer)" and add that the company will dispose of the new material "offsite by incinerator."
Feb. 6, 2012: The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality approves DuPont's wastewater discharge permit, effective March 1, 2012, to Oct. 31, 2016.
Aug. 10, 2012: The North Carolina Science Advisory Board unanimously recommends setting a maximum state limit for PFOA at 1,000 parts per trillion for groundwater – much lower than the state's initial, temporary limit. Such limits, called maximum allowable concentration, are hard lines that trigger regulatory action, as opposed to often stricter public health goals from DHHS or health advisories from the EPA. Board members based their analysis on several studies of toxicity of the compound in animal testing.
June 23, 2015: DEQ approves DuPont/Chemours' hazardous waste permit for the Fayetteville plant. It's good through Sept. 28, 2022.
June 24, 2015: A DuPont representative meets with DEQ regulators to discuss a forthcoming EPA study that identifies a new perfluorinated compound in the Cape Fear River. Handwritten notes by a state regulator show that meeting attendees were told the compound, a PFOA replacement equivalent to "C3 Dimer Acid/Salt" or "HFPO Dimer Acid Ammonium Salt" were "no longer discharged to river." Both of those compound names are technical references to GenX.
July 1, 2015: The Chemours Co. officially splits from DuPont, where it was formally the larger company's division of "performance chemicals."
Oct. 28, 2015: DEQ approves Chemours' permit, originally held by DuPont, to discharge wastewater into the Cape Fear River, effective back to July 1. The permit expires Nov. 1, 2016.
April 27, 2016: Chemours requests the renewal of its wastewater discharge permit.
May 3, 2016: North Carolina State University Professor Detlef Knappe shares initial findings of an ongoing research paper on perfluorinated compounds with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. The findings show that GenX was detected at an average concentration of 631 parts per trillion.
May 19, 2016: The EPA issues a lifetime health advisory establishing a health protective drinking water threshold of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA.
Sept. 18, 2016: Knappe sends a late-stage draft of his paper to the study's other participants, including those at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, for final comments before submitting it for publication.
Nov. 1, 2016: Chemours' wastewater permit expires, but is "administratively continued" until the state can rule on the current renewal application per the normal permitting process.
Nov. 10, 2016: Knappe, with co-authors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and several government agencies, publishes his paper showing elevated levels of GenX in sampling near a drinking water treatment plant along the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. Largely unsuccessful tests of different methods to remove GenX from drinking water also showed the compound "presents a greater drinking water challenge" than the older industrial compounds it was meant to replace because it is harder to remove from the water.
Neither Chemours nor DuPont is mentioned by name in the paper, but it does note the location of the "fluorochemical manufacturer" – Chemours – positioned along the Cape Fear River between several of the study's testing sites.
Nov. 23, 2016: Knappe shares his published research by email with a number of city and county water treatment plants and government officials in DEQ, including current Division of Water Resources Director Jay Zimmerman and then-Assistant Secretary of the Environment Tom Reeder. Knappe notes that his study shows levels of GenX "were very high in Wilmington" and that none of the newly discovered compounds being discharged by the Chemours plant was being removed by the city's Sweeney treatment plant.
Nov. 29, 2016: University of North Carolina at Wilmington Professor Michael Mallin emails the paper to personnel at several universities, Fayetteville and Wilmington water utilities, environmental groups, DEQ and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Dec. 14, 2016: DEQ approves Chemours' air quality permit, good through March 31, 2021.
Jan. 1, 2017: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper takes office, succeeding Republican Pat McCrory.
Jan. 9, 2017: An amendment to a 2009 consent decree between the EPA and DuPont lowers the threshold for PFOA from 400 parts per trillion to 70 parts per trillion for drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia. The decree applies specifically to areas around the Washington Works facility in West Virginia, but it also expands the original geographic area affected. The amendment formally adds Chemours to the consent decree, following the split with DuPont.
Feb. 13, 2017: DuPont and Chemours agree to pay $335.4 million each to settle almost 4,000 lawsuits in Ohio and West Virginia over exposure to PFOA. Neither company admitted to doing anything wrong.
April 19, 2017: A team of officials with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority meets with Knappe to discuss what to do about the compounds found in the Cape Fear River. In particular, Knappe wants to continue to study GenX and ways to remove it from the river. He tells CFPUA Chief Operating Officer Frank Styers that there's "not enough information to say that you shouldn't drink the water."
April 22, 2017: In an email to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Water Operations Supervisor Ben Kearns, Knappe shares the abstract of a Swedish study claiming GenX is more toxic than PFOA. "Concentrations in Wilm, Brunswick, & Pender greatly exceed the current health advisory level for PFOA," Knappe writes. "I think it is important that we push to dramatically reduce inputs of GenX and similar compounds into the (Cape Fear River)."
May 2, 2017: At a meeting of the Environmental Stewardship Initiative, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Environmental Management Director Beth Eckert discusses the compounds discovered in the Cape Fear River with Linda Culpepper, DEQ deputy director of the Division of Water Resources. Eckert asks how the CFPUA would get the state's help to investigate and potentially regulate GenX and its related compounds.
Staff at CFPUA draft a letter to DEQ asking for help investigating the issue.
June 7, 2017: The executive committee of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority approves a letter to DEQ asking for help evaluating GenX.
June 8, 2017: The Wilmington StarNews begins publishing its Toxic Tap Water series detailing issues with contamination in the Cape Fear River.
Based on its preliminary assessment, DHHS officials set a safety threshold for GenX at 71,000 parts per trillion.
June 14, 2017: DEQ and DHHS begin an investigation into GenX in the Cape Fear River.
June 15, 2017: DEQ Secretary Michael Regan tells the press and public at a community meeting in Wilmington that Chemours "is not breaking the law" with its discharge of GenX because it's not listed as a pollutant by the EPA. Because it's unregulated, Regan said the company is currently in compliance with its state discharge permit, which the agency is reevaluating now.
June 19, 2017: DEQ regulators in Fayetteville and Wilmington begin sampling and testing 13 locations along the Cape Fear River for the presence of GenX. Chemours agrees to pay for the tests.
June 20, 2017: Chemours announces it will "capture, remove and safely dispose of" wastewater that contains GenX, instead of discharging it into the Cape Fear River.
June 27, 2017: DEQ regulators inspect the Chemours plant in Fayetteville to verify that the company isn't discharging wastewater contaminated with GenX into the Cape Fear River. Instead, the company is storing the wastewater in tanks they plan to ship out for incineration off site.
July 10, 2017: DEQ begins receiving its first responses from the Colorado lab testing water samples for GenX.
July 12, 2017: DEQ officials announce they plan to convene a Science Advisory Board to specifically examine health and safety standards for unregulated contaminants like hexavalent chromium, which has become an issue for well owners near coal ash ponds across the state.
July 14, 2017: DEQ regulators release the first test results from water sampled for GenX between June 19 and July 6 near the Cape Fear River. On the same day, state health officials announce they've lowered the safety threshold for GenX to 140 parts per trillion after consulting with EPA scientists.
Several sites tested between these dates saw GenX concentrations higher than the new safety threshold, although sampling data show a downward trend since the company said it stopped discharging the compound into the river.
July 17, 2017: In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Cooper asks the federal agency to "move quickly" to finalize its assessment of GenX to determine limits of the chemical compound.
July 24, 2017: Cooper announces that he's directing the State Bureau of Investigation's Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit to determine whether it should conduct a criminal investigation of Chemours.
He also said the state will deny the company's permit request to release GenX and issue a new draft permit that does not allow release of the chemical.
July 21, 2017: In a phone call with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Cooper requests that the federal agency perform a public health assessment of the long-term health effects of GenX.
July 27, 2017: DEQ releases new data from water sampled along the Cape Fear River July 12 and 13 showing decreases in concentration of GenX. Although testing at the Chemours site still shows levels of GenX higher than the 140 parts per trillion threshold, testing of finished drinking water at all other sites show average concentrations below the standard.
July 28, 2017: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina issues a subpoena to DEQ for six years of records and documents, including permits, environmental compliance information, reports, emails, research and notes, related to the Chemours Co.'s Fayetteville Works facility, GenX and other fluorinated chemicals. The agency must deliver the documents to a Wilmington grand jury by Aug. 22.
Cooper formally expands the charter of the state's Science Advisory Board to help environmental and health officials determine "factors for establishing acceptable levels for contaminants," among other duties. The secretaries of DEQ and DHHS will appoint the 11-member board.
Aug. 2, 2017: Test results from sampling locations along the Cape Fear River from July 17 to 20 show levels of GenX in drinking water remain below the state's public health goal. Sampling at the Chemours site shows concentrations of the compound hover just above the health goal.
Aug. 8, 2017: Leaders with DEQ and DHHS request $2.6 million in additional funding from the legislature to monitor GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River and study its health effects. Most of the money would go to DEQ for testing and 16 new positions to handle unregulated compounds and permit backlogs. About $500,000 would go to DHHS to hire scientists to analyze contaminants and communicate risks to the public.
Aug. 9, 2017: Test results from sampling locations along the Cape Fear River from July 24 to 27 show levels of GenX in drinking water remain below the state's public health goal.
Aug. 10, 2017: A group of Republican state senators send a series of questions to Cooper in response to his request for more DEQ funding. State lawmakers say they want details on the governor's handling of GenX discoveries, his request for an SBI investigation and changing guidance on the safety of the chemical from state scientists.
The governor's press office says top officials from DEQ and DHHS planned to brief legislators in person, but legislators canceled.
Aug. 15, 2017: GOP senators who sent Cooper's administration a list of questions about GenX call its three-page response "evasive, dismissive and unserious" and say they will hold a legislative hearing to demand more detailed answers. In the response, Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen told senators that McCrory's administration was alerted to GenX in the Cape Fear River via a research paper in November 2016.
Aug. 22, 2017: Deadline for DEQ to deliver documents subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Aug. 23, 2017: After a tour of the local water treatment plant, the joint legislative Environmental Review Commission meets in Wilmington to address the discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River. Although leaders of DEQ and DHHS pressed again for more funding to address the contaminant, legislators said they may want to see additional state money funneled into local groups, like researchers at UNC-Wilmington and the local water treatment authority.
Aug. 24, 2017: DEQ officials release additional test results that show that all testing sites, including the discharge point at the Chemours facility, are below the 140 parts per trillion health standard for GenX.
Aug. 31, 2017: Regulators announce that two additional chemicals, Nafion byproducts 1 and 2, have been discovered in the wastewater Chemours dumps into the Cape Fear River. The chemicals are in the same family as GenX and are also poorly studied, so the health impacts are unclear. State officials tell the public they've asked Chemours to stop discharging these chemicals.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which supplies the Wilmington area with water, demands that the state take action to modify or revoke Chemour's wastewater permit.
Lawmakers in the General Assembly give final approval to a funding package of $435,000 to help monitor and study GenX. The measure, which largely passed along party lines, was far short of the $2.6 million Gov. Roy Cooper requested and was tied to a repeal of a coastal ban on plastic bags. Republican legislative leaders called the appropriation just a start.
Sept. 5, 2017: State officials publicly accuse Chemours of misleading environmental regulators about the fluorinated chemicals it discharges into the Cape Fear River, including GenX. State regulators also threaten to pull the company's wastewater discharge permit and take legal action unless the company stop discharging these chemicals, which include Nafion byproducts 1 and 2.
Sept. 6, 2017: Following groundwater well testing around the Chemours plant, state regulators at DEQ issue a notice of violation against the chemical manufacturer after sampling shows elevated levels of GenX and other chemical compounds. The move comes days before a deadline from lawmakers to explain why such a notice had not yet been issued.
Sept. 8, 2017: Attorneys for Chemours blast the state's response to its chemical discharges into the Cape Fear River, accusing the Department of Environmental Quality of misleading the public about what it knew and when, as well as reacting with "inexplicable secrecy" as the company tried to work with regulators.
Sept. 15, 2017: DEQ directs Chemours to supply bottled water to 11 homeowners near its Fayetteville Works plant. Private wells on those 11 properties, one-third of the 32 wells sampled so far, exceeded the state's health goal for GenX. Tests at the other wells showed either no detectable levels of GenX or levels below the goal.
Sept. 20, 2017: In a letter to Chemours, DEQ demands the company provide five years of data on any possible airborne release of GenX and related industrial chemicals also considered "emerging contaminants."
Sept. 21, 2017: Gov. Roy Cooper's office announces he will veto legislation to provide $435,000 for the cleanup and study of the chemicals in the Cape Fear River and repeal a ban on plastic grocery bags along the Outer Banks. Cooper said the bill provided only a fraction of the $2.6 million he requested, while weakening other environmental protections. Republican leaders slam Cooper's rejection of "the only proposal that will actually help clean our drinking water in the lower Cape Fear region" and vow an override.
Editor's note: In September 2015, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was renamed the Department of Environmental Quality under a legislative reorganization plan. For clarity, the agency is called the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, consistently throughout this timeline.