NC’s environmental disaster: weaker laws, reduced enforcement

The Cape Fear River supplies drinking water to Wilmington.
The Cape Fear River supplies drinking water to Wilmington. WSN

I send my kids to school not really knowing what is flowing from their water fountains.

Five months ago, we learned that our Cape Fear River, which supplies Wilmington-area drinking water, has been the depository for a slew of likely toxic compounds – including a chemical coined GenX and others that the EPA is calling Nafion byproducts 1 and 2 – that were dumped into the river by a Chemours plant in Fayetteville for nearly 40 years. And now we are left asking: How did this happen? How do we make it stop?

We have started pointing fingers.

We know that Chemours and its parent company, DuPont, settled a massive $671 million lawsuit in February for contaminating the Ohio River Valley with GenX’s predecessor, C8. They’ve covered up the known health risks since 1954.

We know that Chemours, a Fortune-500 company, can afford lawsuits, and their corporate culture prefers to profit until they’re caught (“Do the study after we are sued” was the response from a DuPont executive when company researchers requested funds to study the effects of C8 on employees).

We know that C8 was manufactured in Fayetteville from 2002 until at least 2011, though we don’t know when the company transitioned from C8 to GenX because that is propriety to the company.

But blaming a corporate villain seems too simple. Why do our laws allow corporate privacy to trump public health? Thankfully, there’s a paper trail. And it suggests some combination of incompetence, bureaucratic indifference, political interference and corporate strong-arming.

In 2002, in accordance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) under the Clean Water Act, DuPont wrote the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for guidance on the wastewater discharge of fluorocarbon byproducts, saying most were unregulated compounds that had no standards for testing. There is no record of a DEQ response.

In June of 2015, DuPont met with DEQ to discuss a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report indicating GenX and other perfluorinated compounds had been found in the Cape Fear River. According to DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, he found no record of this conversation when he took office in January 2017.

The Toxic Substances Control Act requires that companies file reports to the EPA if they find their processes pose an “unreasonable risk to health or to the environment.” From 2006 through 2013, DuPont and Chemours filed dozens of such reports about GenX. There is no known response from the EPA.

At some point, one has to wonder whether the absence of records is deliberate. Equally plausible, however, is that there is a political agenda at work: Our state and federal agencies have been gutted, and laws meant to protect public health and the environment have been methodically weakened by coddling legislators at the behest of big corporations.

As stated by a previous DEQ staffer in The Atlantic: “Beginning in 2013, staffers were instructed to focus on customer service, the ‘customers’ being permit-seeking businesses ... there was a new push to work with and handhold corporations rather than hold them accountable to the level that we always had before.”

The Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act are now being further dismantled by the Trump administration’s EPA. Our state legislature, in turn, has refused the state’s modest funding request to increase staff to the state’s underfunded and undermanned DEQ.

In the end, if the Ohio River Valley case is any precedent, Chemours will pay in court. It is already paying in the court of public opinion.

But blaming Chemours seems too pat. It does nothing to address the underlying problems, and it won’t give our kids clean water in their school drinking fountains. It hasn’t stopped spills – there was a new GenX spill just two months ago that Chemours didn’t even bother to report. It won’t fix weak regulations and enforcement. It won’t stop the problems caused by other powerful industries when hog waste from CAFOs pollutes low-income neighborhoods and runs off in our waterways, contaminating our fish and oyster populations and beaches and recreation areas. It won’t block the appointment of a so-called “industry hired-gun” to head-up EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Chemical.

Cape Fear River Watch has been working with partners such as The Orton Foundation to restore and preserve our waterways, to protect our habitats, and to educate policymakers and the public about the threats to public health from all types of man-made wastes. Too often our pleas fall on deaf ears.

Our elected officials have weakened public health and environmental protection laws and reduced funds for the agencies meant to enforce them. We the citizens may not be to blame for this crisis, but we share responsibility for fixing it. History shows that improvements to environmental policy come only after an immense public outcry. We need more outcry.

Dana Sargent is a member of the Cape Fear River Watch board of directors and a founding member of Clean Cape Fear.

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