Gov. Roy Cooper and state health and environmental officials today tried to assure Wilmington residents that their drinking water is safe, even if it contains low levels of GenX, an unregulated chemical found in the Lower Cape Fear River.
Meanwhile, Cooper unveiled a plan at the press conference to investigate not only GenX, but other unregulated contaminants in the state’s public water systems. This includes an assessment by the State Bureau of Investigation as to whether a criminal probe is warranted and $3 million in emergency funding for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Seven weeks ago, the Wilmington Star-News first published scientific findings about GenX in the Cape Fear. At that point, DHHS set an original goal of 70,000 parts trillion for the chemical. This is a lifetime exposure of drinking roughly 2 liters of water a day, and is based on one animal study provided by the EPA — the only science the federal agency said was available. DHHS later reduced that goal when federal officials produced a second “proprietary” study. “We wish we would have had that initially,” Cohen said. “We’re looking at every bit of available evidence.”
Cooper said he has also requested a public health assessment review of GenX from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cooper and DEQ are asking state lawmakers for $3 million in emergency resource funding to review not only GenX but also other unregulated chemicals, such as 1-4 dioxane and Chromium 6, in drinking water. NCPW reported on Thursday about the scientific and regulatory inertia in addressing the health risks of these chemicals.
Ten years’ worth of cuts, which have become especially acute since Republican lawmakers have held the majority, have decimated DEQ. Funding for water quality staff has decreased by 41 percent over the past decade, and the most recent state budget cut $1 million in salaries and eliminated a minimum of 16 positions throughout the agency.
The $3 million figure for inspectors, environmental specialists and engineers, said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, “is conservative, but gets us in fighting shape.”
Regan said the department is already “combing through our permits” to ensure no other releases of GenX are happening.
DHHS is also requesting money for water health safety unit, which would include a toxicologist, epidemiologist and a health educator. Lawmakers are scheduled to hold a special session on Thursday, Aug. 3. However, until this funding request, it appeared that it would merely perfunctory until the next special session in September.
Although Chemours has since stopped releasing GenX into the river from its Fayetteville plant, state environmental officials plan to deny the company’s ability to discharge GenX as part of its wastewater discharge permit. The permit has expired and is up for renewal. DEQ officials had administratively continued the permit until the state investigation into the company’s discharge of GenX is complete.
“I have directed my administration to perform their work as if they and their families would be drinking this water,” Cooper said.
Cooper also is asking the State Bureau of Investigation, DEQ and the EPA to determine if a criminal probe is warranted into Chemours’s discharge of the chemical into the Lower Cape Fear River. That chemical, which is unregulated by the EPA, wound up in the public drinking water of 250,000 people living in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.
A federal consent order related to a case in West Virginia prohibits Chemours from discharging GenX into waterways unless it is a byproduct of manufacturing. Chemours has contended that the Cooper said he also spoke with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to “see if that consent order needs to be updated and tightened.
On Friday, the state attorney general’s office launched a civil investigation, demanding extensive documentation and information from Chemours.
GenX is one of hundreds of unregulated contaminants classified as “emerging” by the EPA. The health effects of these contaminants have not been fully studied. “I’m concerned about other compounds,” Cooper said. As a result, DEQ will required “enhanced disclosure” of companies seeking discharge permits. The governor is also expanding the scope of DEQ’s Science Advisory Board to examine unregulated compounds and their potential threat to public health.
Regan is expected to announce his appointments to the advisory board by the end of July.
The press conference occurred after Cooper, Regan and Cohen met with state and New Hanover County elected officials this morning. In what is becoming a common practice, that meeting included a pool reporter from the Wilmington Star-News, but no other journalists were allowed to attend.