State Politics

First up for NC lawmakers in 2018? Dealing with GenX pollution

This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested.
This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested. The Environmental Work Group

The more scientists look for GenX and other similar, potentially hazardous chemicals in North Carolina, the more they find. And next spring they could ramp up their efforts.

The state’s environmental regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality took several actions in late 2017 against the company that has been accused of being behind much of the water pollution. And as 2018 rolls around, the legislature appears ready to give DEQ more direction on addressing GenX.

State lawmakers have squabbled over some of the details on how to address GenX, a chemical used in Teflon whose health effects are largely untested. But disagreements aside, addressing water pollution is high on the list for lawmakers when they return briefly to Raleigh in January. There’s a bipartisan consensus in the General Assembly that more action is needed.

The chemical was originally found in the Cape Fear River, which provides the drinking water for people from Fayetteville down to Wilmington. And a more recent study found that relatives of GenX are in Jordan Lake – which provides the drinking water for much of the Triangle.

The full legislature will convene Jan. 10, but the committee that has so far taken the lead on GenX issues – the House Select Committee on North Carolina Water Quality – is getting a head start and will meet Thursday, Jan. 4.

There’s no public agenda yet. But the committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington, has said he intends to introduce a bill for the rest of the General Assembly to take up during the January session.

A leaked draft of that bill shows that it would require DEQ to start working with the state environmental agencies in South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia to see what types of pollution might be flowing into North Carolina from across its borders. DEQ would also be required to deliver several reports on GenX issues to the legislature by April 1, or earlier.

However, the draft bill doesn’t include any additional funding for DEQ, which has already seen its budget slashed by millions of dollars in the last decade.

“We do not think this legislation is even a short term solution without increased funding,” said Jill Lucas, a DEQ spokeswoman. However, she added that DEQ helped with the drafting of the bill and that the agency plans to continue giving feedback to the legislature about efforts to deal with GenX.

Extra money might come later, Davis wrote in an email to the members of the committee. He said the direction in his bill is just a first step, and that once it’s done they can start “addressing more long-term permanent solutions for consideration during the 2018 Short Session, as well as a possible appropriation.” The short session starts in May.

Investors in Chemours, the Dupont spinoff whose Fayetteville Works plant has been blamed for GenX pollution, so far don’t appear too concerned about the company’s future. Chemours made a $518 million profit in the first nine months of 2017, and its stock price has more than doubled this year.

Why people are concerned

GenX, a relatively new invention, belongs to a family of chemicals that often go by acronyms like PFA, PFC, PFOA or PFOS.

The government has little information on what types of adverse health effects GenX might cause, or what level of contamination is safe for humans to ingest. Studies have shown numerous adverse effects on lab animals.

“Data from some human studies suggests that PFCs may also have effects on human health, while other studies have failed to find conclusive links,” a 2016 study conducted by National Institutes of Health scientists based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park found. “Additional research in animals and in humans is needed to better understand the potential adverse effects of PFCs for human health.”

And GenX in particular is the replacement – and close cousin – of a different chemical called C8 that DuPont used to use, before losing numerous lawsuits related to its health dangers. In March, Chemours and Dupont paid a $670 million settlement related to the cases.

The Environmental Work Group, a nonprofit that has studied these type of chemicals, has identified at least 11 North Carolina counties where the water has tested positive for GenX or other similar substances. More than two dozen other counties around the state were never tested.

Counties with the chemicals in the water include some of the most populous in the state: Wake, Guilford, Cumberland, Orange, Harnett and New Hanover counties were some of those with possibly contaminated water. Counties in South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia on or near the North Carolina border also had positive tests.

So far, according to Chemours’ own testing as ordered by DEQ, more than two-thirds of the wells tested for GenX near the plant turned up positive – and one in every three wells had levels of GenX above what the state considers safe.

Recent GenX developments

Although the pollution first came to the public’s attention this summer, developments in the GenX investigation have sped up in the last couple months.

▪ On Nov. 16, the state alleged that Chemours had dumped such a large amount of GenX into the Cape Fear River on one October day that the river’s GenX levels spiked 100-fold. DEQ asked the SBI to investigate if that spill should lead to criminal charges. DEQ also began its own investigation that could eventually result in a fine of up to $25,000.

▪ At the end of November, DEQ revoked Chemours’ permit to discharge wastewater into the Cape Fear River.

▪ On Dec. 4, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would increase its efforts to find new ways of measuring chemicals like GenX, and would roll out new tools to help states and the federal government more easily communicate with each other about those chemicals.

▪ On Dec. 13, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Michael Dourson, withdrew from consideration. His nomination fell apart after North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, said they would vote against him. Dourson had previously worked as a consultant for DuPont and other chemical companies. Burr said that, “With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current GenX water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country.”

▪ On Dec. 18, North Carolina officials announced they had found GenX in food for the first time. According to the Wilmington Star News, a Robeson County beekeeper’s honey contained more than 15 times the amount of GenX considered safe by the state.

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