The drinking water for at least 350,000 people along the Cape Fear River is polluted with industrial chemicals that a nearby plant discharged into the river for years.
If you don’t live near the Cape Fear, you might not have heard.
But when we went to New Hanover County to hold a town hall, it was the first question we got.
And when we went to Chatham County — 150 miles away from New Hanover, but also on the Cape Fear — it was the first question again.
This is a bigger issue than many people realize and our campaign has decided to address it directly.
The issue is PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This is a group of industrial chemicals used in various consumer products, notably including Teflon, but as varied as pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, firefighting foam, cosmetics, textiles, and stain repellents.
A specific type of PFAS related to this matter is known as GenX, which is why you’ll frequently hear people who get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River refer to the “GenX problem.”
That said, we’re really talking about a large group of PFAS chemicals that have turned up in drinking water from the Cape Fear River. “GenX” has simply become the shorthand for the overall issue.
There is a lack of scientific data on the long-term health effects of GenX and related compounds. However, according to NC Department of Environmental Quality, “Laboratory studies in which animals were exposed to different levels of GenX did show adverse effects to the liver and blood, along with liver, pancreatic, testicular and uterine cancers, but there is no information about whether these or other health effects would be seen in humans.”
The concern about potential long-term effects of PFAS/GenX is magnified by the extreme durability of these chemicals. Durability is one of their key features — that’s why they’re called “forever chemicals.”
To that end, just about every American has some PFAS in our blood. North Carolina, however, has the third-highest rate of PFAS exposure in the country. Last year, of 44 sites tested across 31 states, Brunswick County had the most PFAS contamination. New Hanover County was in the top five.
Our state’s largest watershed, the Cape Fear River watershed, supplies about 1.5 million residents with drinking water.
In 1980, DuPont began production using PFAS at its plant in Fayetteville — on the Cape Fear River.
In 2016, GenX was detected in the Cape Fear River due to discharge from the plant.
The year before, DuPont had spun off the plant into a new entity, The Chemours Company, which was also assigned the vast majority of the potential liabilities associated with PFAS in a move that have been designed to mitigate the original company’s exposure to potential litigation stemming from PFAS exposure.
As a result of PFAS discharge from this plant, the drinking water for at least 200,000 North Carolinians is now polluted.
In counties like New Hanover and Brunswick, it’s very common to own reverse osmosis filtration devices to clean the water in their homes. These devices usually go under your sink and cost about $250.
This problem is so serious that Brunswick is installing a reverse osmosis treatment system at its Northwest Water Treatment Plant.
For the last two years, the Chemours plant has been under a consent order to clean up and has made investments to do so. The challenge is that this comes after years of discharging PFAS into our state’s largest watershed.
“We are in a far better position than we were three years ago,” said Larry Cahoon, a University of North Carolina Wilmington biologist. “But we don’t know how much damage has been done by the decades of exposure.”
Here’s what we need to do:
In short, we set a standard for maximum safe exposure to PFAS, test to find elevated PFAS levels, provide water filtration capacity for the affected treatment plants, determine the extent of any ongoing discharge, and hold polluters accountable.
First, we need to develop maximum contaminant levels for PFAS. That means there should be an established level beyond which the presence of PFAS in your water is considered unsafe. That would allow us to determine when remediation needs to occur, and, within those cases, when it needs to be a high priority.
You would think this would already exist, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate PFAS. Its only standard is an unenforceable health advisory for two types of the compounds — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) — at 70 parts per trillion in drinking water.
In the absence of EPA action, Michigan and at least 12 other states have either approved their own maximum contaminant levels for PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS, or are in the process of doing so.
Several PFAS bills have been filed in NC — and all have been sidelined by the majority party.
That means we need a federal solution. This is an area where it makes sense to have a uniform standard, and in the absence of a state legislature that is willing to take action, there’s simply no other choice. Notably, the Biden administration has started to move in this direction.
Second, once we have maximum contaminant levels we can determine where we need to invest in upgrading filtration systems for entire water systems — not just tell everyone who might be affected to go to Lowe’s and figure it out. Clean water is an indisputable government function. This is something we should all be able to agree on.
Third, we must ensure that financial responsibility rests with the polluters. The North Carolina Department of Justice is currently leading an investigation into the breadth and impact of the use of PFAS by the DuPont/Chemours plant. Pending the outcome of that investigation, it should be made clear that findings of liability will follow the evidence and that the people of our state deserve accountability for decades of exposure to harmful chemicals.
Fourth, regulators must ensure that no additional PFAS chemicals are being discharged. Chemours has operated under a consent order since 2009 which requires it to keep 99.9 percent of emissions from discharging into the environment.
However, there is an ongoing debate about an exception that exempts the company when PFAS is created as a byproduct, which is an issue particularly in the manufacturing of vinyl ether.
Regulators should determine the extent to which PFAS discharge is still occurring and use its statutory authorities to ensure that all such discharge is halted.