Under the Dome

NC sues company accused of polluting Cape Fear River

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

Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration is suing a manufacturer accused of dumping pollutants into the river that serves as the main source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

The state initiated the lawsuit Tuesday, just a few days after the N.C. General Assembly voted to spend $435,000 to start looking into the alleged pollution. It came to light in June but has allegedly been going on for decades.

The plant in question is now owned by Chemours, a spin-off of DuPont, which previously owned the plant. State lawmakers and others have accused both companies of secretly dumping pollutants into the Cape Fear River from the plant, located south of Fayetteville, for nearly 40 years.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday against Chemours by Cooper’s environmental department seeks “to address environmental contamination caused by Chemours’ release of certain chemical manufacturing byproducts” into the Cape Fear River from its Fayetteville Works plant, the state’s lawyers wrote.

The Cape Fear River runs for 202 miles from Chatham County to the Atlantic Ocean near Wilmington. Many of the cities near its path in southeastern North Carolina get their drinking water from the river, including Fayetteville and Wilmington.

Several chemicals are being investigated in the river, including something called GenX.

Those chemicals are used in the production of Teflon, the non-stick substance that Chemours makes at the Fayetteville Works plant in question.

The state claims DuPont told regulators in 2010 they had a system in place to ensure that no trace of GenX would ever make it to the river. The state also claims that neither DuPont nor Chemours ever informed regulators that they were, in fact, dumping GenX into the river.

“Dupont and Chemours’ ongoing misrepresentations and inadequate disclosures, which have only recently come to light, shielded important information from DEQ and the public,” the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality wrote in a letter to Chemours on Tuesday.

That letter announced that regulators planned to pull the plant’s permit in 60 days, unless the company fixes its problems in that time.

In its lawsuit, the state hasn’t yet filed a detailed complaint outlining allegations but said the company is violating laws related to permitting and water pollution.

State officials still aren’t entirely sure the extent of any potential health problems, but there’s growing urgency in both the legislature and the executive branch to act.

“For 37 years there has been a problem in the Cape Fear River, as far as contaminants,” said Democratic state Rep. Rodney Moore, who represents Charlotte but grew up in southeastern North Carolina. “We don’t know what the environmental impact – the health impact – is on the people along that basin.”

GenX has been used at the plant only since 2010, although it replaced a different chemical that DuPont phased out due to other public health concerns. DuPont officials knew as early as 2013 that GenX caused cancer and other health problems in lab animals, according to a 2016 article in The Intercept.

“Fayetteville Works and the entire Chemours Company place a high importance on environmental stewardship and meeting or exceeding public expectations,” Chemours says on its website. “Protecting our employees and the environment is the responsibility of the entire team of Fayetteville employees. It is an integral part of how we do business. We invest millions of dollars in advanced environmental facilities. Process water from the plant’s manufacturing areas is treated in a biological wastewater treatment plant prior to discharge into the Cape Fear River.”

Legislators get involved

State Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican from Wilmington, said Thursday that people in southeastern North Carolina need help immediately.

“They are afraid,” she said. “They are afraid for themselves, for their family, for their pets.”

Soon after, the General Assembly voted to set aside the money to jumpstart investigations.

Many Democrats, however, questioned that funding.

Some complained that it was included in a deregulation bill that they said would only hurt the environment in the future. Others said the $435,000 isn’t nearly enough, and that the state was sending the money to organizations unequipped for the job.

Another Wilmington lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Deb Butler, derisively compared the plan to “a BandAid on a gaping wound.”

But Republican Rep. Frank Iler, from Brunswick County, said the legislature should do something now, then come back later and do more.

“This is just a first step,” he said. “And we’ll see what is going on with this in the next month or so and be able to come back and address other issues.”

However, it remains to be seen if that first step will go into effect. Cooper has weeks left to either sign or veto the bill with the funding and the unrelated deregulation language. If he does veto it, the legislature could cancel his veto, but lawmakers won’t be back in session until Oct. 4.

Previously, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had praised Chemours for helping with the problem after it was identified earlier this summer.

“Chemours responded to requests from state and local officials and residents by announcing that the company will capture, remove and safely dispose of wastewater that contains the byproduct GenX,” DEQ wrote in an undated post on its webpage dedicated to the pollution investigation. “This is a good step, but DEQ and DHHS are continuing to investigate the levels of GenX in the lower Cape Fear region and develop the best available information on potential health risks associated with the chemical.”