North Carolina just took its toughest action yet against the company behind the GenX pollution

Billy Locklear, from Robeson County, brings his tackle box down to the shores of the Cape Fear River at the William O. Huske Lock and Dam off NC 87 in Bladen County Thursday morning July 22, 2004.
Billy Locklear, from Robeson County, brings his tackle box down to the shores of the Cape Fear River at the William O. Huske Lock and Dam off NC 87 in Bladen County Thursday morning July 22, 2004. AP

The state revoked permits Thursday for the factory accused of dumping pollutants into the main source of drinking water for southeastern North Carolina.

State regulators in the Department of Environmental Quality had been criticized by several legislators earlier this year – both Democrats and Republicans – who accused them of not acting swiftly enough to address the release of a chemical called GenX.

They took their harshest action yet on Thursday, stripping the factory’s permission to put any of its wastewater into the river from here on out.

Michael Regan, who leads DEQ under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, sued the company in September on behalf of the state. He alleged then that the company, Chemours (previously operating as Dupont), has been dumping GenX into the river “for decades” and not only didn’t tell the state about it, but also “misled” his office’s regulators about its actions.

Despite those strong allegations, though, Chemours had been allowed to continue discharging its factory wastewater into the river.

But that changed Thursday. The company’s permit will officially be suspended at the end of this month.

Environmental groups reacted swiftly and happily to the news.

“People who are personally affected by the GenX crisis will be relieved to know that North Carolina’s environmental regulators will hold polluters accountable for their actions,” said Erin Carey, the NC Sierra Club’s Coastal Programs Coordinator, in a press release. “We are pleased that Governor Cooper and Secretary Regan have taken strong action today to protect public health and the environment.”

GenX is an ingredient in Teflon coverings for cookware and other items, which Chemours makes at its factory near Fayetteville. The manufacturing process creates wastewater, which the factory was permitted to discharge into the Cape Fear River. But the state says the permit was based on the company’s promise that it wouldn’t be discharging any GenX into the river.

The Cape Fear is the source of drinking water for cities like Fayetteville, Wilmington and others in that corner of the state.

Earlier this summer, the state said Chemours was cooperating with its investigation. But the state found additional instances of chemicals being dumped into the river that Chemours had kept secret. On Nov. 1, under questioning from the state, Chemours admitted it had failed to report a spill on Oct. 6 that “caused a nearly 100-fold increase in the concentration of GenX” in the river, DEQ said in its notice Thursday.

Brian Powell, spokesman for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said Cooper and Regan deserve credit for coming down hard on the company now.

“The action comes after multiple attempts to work with the polluter, and sends an important signal: the state won’t tolerate dischargers violating the law and then trying to hide it,” Powell said in an email. “This is the right approach: no polluter is above the law, and dischargers have an obligation not to abuse the waters that support all of us.”

The legislature has already voted to give about $500,000 to begin investigating the GenX spill and what it means for people who have been drinking the chemical. Powell said the General Assembly should’t stop there, though.

“GenX isn’t the only chemical in the Cape Fear, and the Cape Fear isn’t the only river afflicted with the presence of industrial chemicals,” he said. “It’s well past time for state lawmakers to provide adequate funding for the agencies charged with monitoring, managing, and protecting our public waterways.”