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Former Wilmington mayor: ‘I think we shouldn’t be drinking the water.’

An aerial view of downtown Wilmington in June 2004 along the Cape Fear River.
An aerial view of downtown Wilmington in June 2004 along the Cape Fear River. Wilmington Star News

State lawmakers tackling pollution issues heard a shocking claim Thursday from the man who used to lead one of North Carolina’s largest cities.

“People ask me constantly, ‘Is the water safe to drink?’” former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson told lawmakers during a hearing on water pollution. “And I can’t answer that. I take a precautionary approach, and I think we all should. I think we shouldn’t be drinking the water.”

Wilmington is downstream of the Fayetteville Works plant run by Chemours (formerly by DuPont), which has for years been discharging a chemical called GenX into the Cape Fear River that serves as the main source of drinking water for southeastern North Carolina.

Chemours and DuPont split a $670 million settlement earlier this year over health complaints from people exposed to a chemical similar in makeup to GenX, called C8. The companies have said GenX is safer; no public studies have so far linked it to serious health risks in humans, although it is largely untested aside from some experiments on lab animals that have linked it to health problems.

Peterson’s view is far from the consensus among Wilmington’s civic leaders.

Charlie Rivenbark, a city councilman there, is heavily involved in local water issues. He sits on the Cape Fear Public Authority Board as well as the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority, and he said they have no evidence to back up Peterson’s fears.

“I've been drinking that water all my life, and I don’t have a problem drinking it,” said Rivenbark, a Wilmington native. “And I have children here, grandchildren here.”

The state’s safety target for GenX concentration in water is no more than 140 parts per trillion, and Rivenbark said routine tests of Wilmington’s drinking water show the GenX concentration is well below that, typically between 25 and 50 parts per trillion.

He said that’s enough evidence for him to state that Peterson shouldn’t be telling people not to drink the water, “unless there’s something he knows that we don't know.”

Peterson acknowledged after the meeting that he didn’t have hard evidence to back up his worries.

“We’ve always had great confidence in our water and our public utilities,” he said. “But there are chemicals in the water that we can't filter out.”

There’s also an element of personal tragedy that he believes is connected to the water supply predating GenX, which was invented only about a decade ago.

Peterson said his wife has had three miscarriages, and he has an educated guess that the chemical C8 might be to blame.

“I can’t connect it to water quality, but there are a lot of other families in Wilmington that have had that problem,” Peterson said after the meeting Thursday.

C8 and GenX are very similar chemicals; GenX replaced it in manufacturing use following legal challenges about the health risks of C8. And the Wilmington Star News reported in August that C8 can still be found in local groundwater. It has been linked to serious health problems in humans including cancers, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension, which can cause birth defects or miscarriages.

Peterson, a Democrat who plans to run for office this year for the state Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Mike Lee, said he was speaking Thursday on behalf of many people from the area who wanted to come but couldn’t make the trip due to the snowstorm overnight.

He said he thinks Chemours and DuPont should be buying bottled water for everyone downstream of the plant, and not just the small number of of families who live closest to it.

He also said the state legislature should’ve given the roughly $2 million extra for the Department of Environmental Quality that Gov. Roy Cooper requested several months ago, and that while he appreciates the legislature’s work Thursday moving forward a bill that will call for more studies into pollution and regulations, he believes it also should have come with more funding to accomplish those goals.

Peterson also said he’s upset with the pace at which the legislature and state agencies are moving.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, said that in hindsight, environmental activists were right in the early and mid-2000s when they asked the state to do more about pollution. He blamed the state regulators at the time – who were led by a Democratic governor, Mike Easley – for not taking them seriously.

“Nothing was done,” Dixon said. “Those objections by environmental groups, all of whom are represented here today … all of those efforts fell on deaf ears at that time. So we’re here today.”

While none of the lawmakers on the committee went as far as Peterson did in casting doubt on the safety of the state’s drinking water, the bill approved by the committee asks for a study of whether people can sue their local water utilities over pollution issues. And several of the lawmakers also questioned how the state decides safety targets like the one Rivenbark said Wilmington consistently beats.

Betsey Tilson, the state’s health director, said safety levels could change in the future.

“When we establish health goals we are mindful to say they are provisional,” she said. “… Especially as we enter into this world of emerging contaminants, where there is little to no data.”

Rivenbark, for his part, said that the local utilities in Wilmington appreciate the money the legislature gave them late last year, after the extent of GenX became publicly known, to put in new equipment and do more testing.

“Now that we know it’s there, we’re doing everything we can to rectify the situation,” he said.

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