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Residents want answers and accountability for toxic chemicals in NC drinking water

Years after chemicals made by Chemours polluted drinking water for hundreds of thousands in North Carolina, many residents are still fighting to get access to clean water.

Posted Updated

Liz McLaughlin
, WRAL Climate Change Reporter
GODWIN, N.C. — Newlyweds Katie and Dawson Tew are expecting their first child, a son, in December. The easygoing couple, in their early 20s, thought their peaceful home here would be a safe place for their growing family, surrounded by green acres and backyard horses.

But daydreams of country life turned into a nightmare when a neighbor warned them in January that their well water may be contaminated.

"My neighbor said 'I got my water tested and we have a lot of GenX in it.' And I’m like what? What’s that?” Dawson Tew said. “Apparently it's bad for you and you shouldn't drink it, so we got our well tested, too.”

Test results showed their drinking water was full of GenX and other per and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals because of how long they can persist in the environment and the human body.

Officials say many of the compounds found in North Carolina drinking water are uniquely sourced from the Chemours Co., an offshoot of chemical giant DuPont, that produces PFAS at its Fayetteville Works chemical plant, which is more than 25 miles away from the Tews' home.

The Tews are like many families near the plant, which sits near the Cumberland-Bladen county line. In 2017, it was revealed that chemicals from the plant contaminated the Cape Fear River with the PFAS compound GenX. In 2019, Wilmington, Del.-based Chemours agreed to a consent order that resulted in a $12 million fine to address harm to private drinking water wells along the coast. As part of the order, the company agreed to take measures to curb the pollution from its plant and provide a remedy for those with contaminated wells.

A pregnant Cumberland County is one of thousands of residents with a private well that's been contaminated by Chemours.

The Tews said that Chemours delivered bottled water to their home shortly after the test results, but the supply of clean water ran dry in a few weeks. They called Chemours' contamination hotline and were promised more bottled water and a debit card in the mail to purchase water, but weeks went by and neither showed up, they said.

"All we drink is water; we're not really soda-drinkers," Dawson Tew said. "I just feel like the burden has been put on us, and I don't think this is something we should have to handle."

They called again, and an operator for the company told them for a second time that it could take up to a month for the debit card to arrive. That was six months ago now.

The Tews have since been hydrating with water from a tainted tap.

“We're not supposed to drink it, but we're out of water," Katie Tew said.

Chemours declined multiple requests for an interview. Lisa Randall, a spokesperson for the company, said in a statement that Chemours is "following the guidelines established in the Consent Order agreement” and has installed technology to significantly cut the factory’s PFAS emissions into the air, water, and soil.

The CDC warns PFAS exposure may lead to adverse health effects including immune and liver problems, low birth weight, increased risk of kidney cancer and testicular cancer, and increased risk of hypertension and pre-eclampsia — a blood-pressure condition — in pregnant women.

"Chemours has the responsibility to make this right,” said Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped to negotiate the 2019 consent order. “The Department of Environmental Quality has a responsibility to hold Chemours accountable."

According to the order, Chemours is obligated to offer well testing. If chemicals above the health advisory level are discovered, the company must initially provide bottled water and ultimately a permanent drinking water solution of city water hookup when feasible or filters that can remove PFAS from the water.

According to the latest sampling data, Chemours’ chemicals have contaminated more than 8,800 wells as far as 90 miles away from its plant.

The pollution spans nine counties and includes the Cape Fear River, a drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

In the three years since the consent order, more than 1,900 wells have enough GenX to qualify for a whole-house filter system, but less than 6% have been installed.

At a recent meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, which is suing Chemours, residents voiced their frustration.

“I beg you for your help," Fayetteville resident Debra Stewart told commissioners. "Many of us are suffering from health effects from this water.”

Stewart said she has participated in studies to measure PFAS levels in blood. "I have a dog that is positive for four different PFAS at 480 parts per trillion, and our bloodwork is in the tens of thousands."

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a lifetime drinking water health advisory for GenX, Chemours’ signature PFAS chemical, at 10 parts per trillion. That's 14 times lower than North Carolina's recommendations set in 2018.

The change meant thousands of additional wells are considered to be contaminated, increasing Chemours' bill for remediation.

Chemours is challenging the EPA’s advisory in federal court, calling the agency’s PFAS health recommendations “scientifically unsound.”

"Based on all the available evidence, these chemicals are harmful at very low levels," said Detlef Knappe, a professor at N.C. State University who led the initial discovery of the Cape Fear River contamination in 2013.

"Chemical companies always say that whenever there are regulations or health advisory levels, they claim that their chemicals aren't dangerous, no matter how much evidence there is," said Phil Brown, a professor at Northeastern University and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab, a team of researchers who have been studying the chemicals since 2015. "We call this tobacco science."

After links to health harms were found for popular PFAS chemicals produced in mass in the 70s, the chemical industry came up with "safer" alternatives including GenX. Now, there are thousands of PFAS compounds and few long-term studies on individual compounds.

"Because it can take so many years to get the research done, they can claim there's not enough research," Brown said. He likens this practice to a game of whack-a-mole and urges regulation of the chemicals as a class or family of substances.

As Chemours’ legal battles continue, municipal water treatment plants and local governments are covering the cost to filter out chemicals. Cumberland County has already allocated $21 million to expand water districts. And residents relying on the Cape Fear River say they're seeing rate increases on their water bills to compensate for technology upgrades.

Residents who are having issues with bottled water delivery or have questions about well sampling results can contact the NC Department of Environmental Quality at (919) 707-8200 or send an email to comments.chemours@ncdenr.gov. Complaint information is also available on the well sampling information webpages for residents.

To effectively assist with complaints, the DEQ says this process is focused solely on solving issues involving the delivery of replacement water under the Consent Order. Other concerns or comments will be routed appropriately within the department.

Residents living in Chemours' Fayetteville Works facility in Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties can call Chemours at 910-678-1101 to have a drinking water well sampled at no charge.

Residents living in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, or Columbus counties can call 910-678-1100 or complete Chemours' online form to request well sampling or for more information.

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