Since the revelation a few months ago that the Cape Fear River has GenX in it, there’s been a lot of activity from state environmental and health officials to determine whether the chemical byproduct is a threat to human health. GenX is the trade name of a chemical ingredient used in recent years to make Teflon, which DuPont invented for nonstick cookware 45 years ago. Before GenX, Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, including PFOA, also known as C-8, was a large group of synthetic chemicals known as PFAS that were widely used in industry since the 1950s.
C-8 was used for more than 60 years, which has some wondering why it’s an issue now. There were no public complaints in all that time. DuPont discontinued its use and introduced GenX in 2009. It is believed to be significantly safer. GenX is described by the company as a patented, more sustainable technology that enables Chemours to manufacture high-performance fluoropolymers without the use of PFOA.
C-8 has, however, has been in the news for years elsewhere. It seeped into local drinking water at the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The contamination – and the fact that DuPont executives knew about it and concealed it – set off a class-action lawsuit that DuPont settled for $671 million.
C-8 was never detected in North Carolina drinking water. But, in 2016, GenX was found in the Cape Fear River below Cumberland County. New Hanover County health officials wondered if the river water might be contaminated. Below Elizabethtown, the Lower Cape Fear River is joined by the Black River approximately 10 miles northwest of Wilmington, where it receives the Northeast Cape Fear River and Brunswick River. Cape Fear River water provides the water supply for Brunswick County Public Utilities, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in Wilmington and Pender County Utilities. Combined they serve 250,000 people.
There is no known process for filtering GenX out of the water, whichs explains why Chemours announced last year in a news release that it “would capture, remove and safely dispose of wastewater that contains the byproduct GenX” generated at its manufacturing plant near Fayetteville.
GenX is not regulated by state or federal environmental or health agencies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had established health advisories for the older C-8 chemicals. The EPA has no such recommendations for GenX.
Chemours maintains that emissions from its Fayetteville facility have not affected the safety of drinking water, and there is no substantive evidence that it has. Trace amounts in the Cape Fear River since mid-June of last year have been well below the health screening level announced by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services at that time. That has done little to relieve the fears of Cape Fear River water users in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender Counties.
Last month, the North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would have provided $2.3 million in state funds, largely for equipment and personnel, to address emerging contaminants such as GenX.
“The state Legislature should play a decisive leadership role in controlling any chemical spills into the Cape Fear River,” Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, said. “Our drinking water should never be exposed to dangerous spills.”
The state Senate declined to take up the funding. The bill “leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution,” said state Sen. President pro tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
“Regardless of party affiliation, as legislators, we all have one primary job: to develop policies and pass laws that protect our community,” said Sen. Ben Brown, DHoke, Cumberland. “To date, Republicans have failed to do their jobs. The discovery of GenX in drinking water in Cumberland County, Bladen County, and as far west as Wake County is not an isolated incident.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not gotten involved in Cape Fear River contamination allegations.