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Companies illegally dumped pollution knowing the health risks, NC lawsuit charges

In this 2004 file photo, 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.
In this 2004 file photo, 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. AP

The company behind the spills of the chemical called GenX into North Carolina drinking water knew the chemical was dangerous but ignored its internal studies and dumped it into the water anyway, a new legal complaint alleges.

The complaint was filed Wednesday as part of a federal class-action lawsuit started in October against chemical companies Chemours and DuPont, by attorneys for residents of southeastern North Carolina. It also contends the company lied to government regulators about what it was doing at its plant near Fayetteville.

The complaint alleges the companies “knew that these chemicals were extremely dangerous” but nevertheless “dumped these chemicals into the air and water surrounding the Fayetteville Works plant, simply to avoid the expense of taking safety precautions.”

“It seems that every day we learn more about the danger these substances pose and the extent of DuPont’s and Chemours’ callous disregard for the lives of thousands of North Carolinians,” Ted Leopold, one of the attorneys leading the class action, said in a news release from the Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll law firm and the Susman Godfrey law firm.

In December, attorneys for the companies wrote in a court filing that their accusers “have not shown (and cannot show) any urgency or irreparable harm.” The companies have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

It’s not only outside lawyers launching serious allegations against Chemours and DuPont. The state Department of Environmental Quality has made similar claims about corporate deception.

Last year DEQ officials said representatives of the Fayetteville plant – which was originally run by DuPont and now by Chemours, a DuPont spinoff – had told the state they weren’t releasing any GenX into the Cape Fear River. But in reality, the state claims, the companies had been secretly dumping GenX into the river for years.

The state later revoked Chemours’ permit to discharge anything into the river, and scientists in state government and at UNC-Wilmington are starting to look into the pollution. However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Raleigh have questioned why it took state regulators so long to discover the problem.

While the effects of GenX on humans are still relatively untested, GenX is closely related to a chemical it replaced, called C8 – which DuPont used for years even after discovering it caused cancer, birth defects and other serious health concerns. DuPont and Chemours paid more than $670 million last year to end a class-action lawsuit related to C8 in West Virginia.

C8 was also used in North Carolina before the companies phased it out in favor of GenX, and traces of it still exist in some waterways, including the Cape Fear River.

The river provides the drinking water for most of southeastern North Carolina between Fayetteville and Wilmington.

The lawsuit alleges that the chemicals dumped into the Cape Fear River by the companies have been linked to a number of cancers and diseases, including liver disease, and that “Bladen, Brunswick, Pender, and New Hanover Counties have among the highest concentrations of liver disease in the United States.”

The lawsuit also identifies Bladen, Brunswick, Cumberland and New Hanover counties as having above-average rates of various types of cancers.

Because Du Pont and Chemours kept the state in the dark about what was being put into the water, the lawsuit says, the state “could not and did not design water filters to keep families from drinking that poison.”

Since concerns over pollution came to light last summer, a former Wilmington mayor has been controversially warning people not to drink the water there.

In the NC General Assembly, some Republican lawmakers have called for an audit into DEQ. Meanwhile, DEQ has seen its budget slashed by millions of dollars since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011.

A bipartisan push in the state House of Representatives would have added more than $1 million to the agency’s budget in funding tied to the GenX problem, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. Republican Senate leader Phil Berger criticized the bill and suggested any further action would wait until lawmakers’ regularly scheduled business in May.