Politics & Government

During shutdown, water samples to check for GenX are sitting in the fridge untested

This 2017 photo shows the Fayetteville Works plant near Fayetteville. Delaware-based Chemours Co. has been sued over an unregulated chemical with unknown health risks that flowed from the company’s plant near Fayetteville into the Cape Fear River.
This 2017 photo shows the Fayetteville Works plant near Fayetteville. Delaware-based Chemours Co. has been sued over an unregulated chemical with unknown health risks that flowed from the company’s plant near Fayetteville into the Cape Fear River. AP

Some of the surface-water tests to make sure potentially toxic chemicals are no longer discharging into the Lower Cape Fear River are on hold because of the federal government shutdown.

But for now, a spokeswoman for state regulators said Friday, the agency is confident the water still meets safety standards.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has been testing the water and sending samples to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lab in Athens, Ga. But the budget impasse has closed the EPA — among other federal departments — including that lab, which can no longer process the samples.

State regulators are continuing to take samples, but instead of sending them to Georgia it is storing them in a state facility in Fayetteville, where they are kept in refrigerators. How long the samples can be saved without degrading will be up to the EPA.

The state environmental agency samples the surface water twice a week at a point where in 2017 the unregulated chemical GenX was discovered discharging into the Lower Cape Fear River by the Chemours chemical company factory south of Fayetteville. That discharge point has been disconnected, and state regulators issued notices of violations. Water there is within state standards, the agency said.

The state also conducts samples at five drinking water treatment facilities in the Lower Cape Fear region once a week. That water meets federal standards for safe drinking water.

In addition to those samples taken by hand and sent to the EPA, DEQ uses computerized equipment that samples water at the Chemours site at different hours of the day. That provides regulators a more frequent check on the water quality around the clock. To date, the tested water is within standards, DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger said.

GenX is a chemical used to make nonstick cookware and other products.

Independent of state regulators, a team comprised of North Carolina’s leading university science researchers have begun an ambitious project to test water throughout the state. Their work will lay the groundwork for long-term monitoring of changes in the state’s water quality.

Each municipality in the state will have water tested at the point where the water enters the public system. Each municipality will also pick one well that supplies public drinking water to test.

Researchers are looking for chemicals that are classified as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and include GenX.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Jason Surratt, the lead investigator on the project, said in an email Friday that the team’s work won’t be affected by the government shutdown. His investigators have their own instruments to measure water quality and don’t have to rely on EPA equipment.

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.
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