Pleading fear and ignorance, House lawmakers get schooled on GenX

Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Brunswick County: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance.” (Photo: NC General Assembly)

(The Senate Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality meets today at 2 p.m. in Room 1027/1128 of the Legislative Building.)

The neighborhood immediately north of the Chemours plant, which straddles the Cumberland-Bladen county line, is a mix of mobile homes, concrete-block houses painted white or gray, and upscale brick manses, some still under construction.

But what all of these households have in common is a small wellhouse in the yard. Too far from Fayetteville to connect to that city’s utility, the homes are on private drinking water wells. And here on the brim of the Chemours plant, 19 wells — their exact locations kept confidential for privacy reasons — are tainted with GenX, an unregulated contaminant produced by the facility’s vinyl ether manufacturing line.

From southern Cumberland County and areas downstream, including Brunswick County and Wilmington, GenX has been detected in the Cape Fear River and in private and public drinking water supplies. And for the last four months, lawmakers and state environmental and health officials have been trying to calm the public while attempting to get a handle on a contaminant that they know little about, and can neither taste, smell, nor see.

We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance Click To Tweet

Last Thursday, at the first meeting of the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican provided overdue guidance to his colleagues: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance. We need true information.”

Iler’s candor notwithstanding, lawmakers have spent the summer accusing state environmental and health officials of carelessness — and the media of recklessness — in their handling of the GenX crisis.

The legislature rebuffed Gov. Cooper’s request for $2.6 million to help those agencies address drinking water contaminants statewide. Then, signaling their discontent, lawamkers passed legislation that at the last-minute, appropriated $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington to study the contaminant.

(Read a related post from the Port City Daily about how the utility’s PR firm tweaked a press release to insinuate the governor had a lackadaisical attitude toward the crisis.)

Gov. Cooper vetoed that measure, House Bill 56, but it’s expected to come up for an override vote on Wednesday.

For six hours, the committee heard from state environmental and health officials, Duke University scientists, UNC Wilmington’s legislative liaison and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. There were several points of near-consensus:

  • It will require a lot of money — tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars — for sampling, monitoring and cleanup.
  • Federal and state regulations are too weak to rein in companies like Chemours, which have found legal loopholes allowing them to pollute. They also can keep much of the information about GenX secret, under federal rules governing Confidential Business Information.
  • State government and universities should work cooperatively, using their technical abilities and expertise, to attack the problem.

The problem of emerging contaminants — unregulated, secret and hard to detect with standard laboratory equipment — is plaguing environmental regulators nationwide.

“This is like industrial whack-a-mole,” Tracy Skrabal, coastal scientist and manager of the Southeast Regional Office of the NC Coastal Federation, told the select committee. “If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have a national problem.”

From the get-go, the committee meeting felt contentious and at times, contradictory. Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, declared there would be no discussion of the Department of Environmental Quality’s financial straits, noting that “the media and other people for political purposes have made funding part of this issue.”

But there’s no getting around the expense and future financial commitment that would be required to monitor and fix the state’s surface water and drinking water pollutions. The budget cuts inflicted upon DEQ are now legendary, although Dixon seemed unfazed by that fact.

“There is a 41 percent backlog in permit reviews,” Dixon said, addressing Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman. “Does the department have an ongoing internal efficiency analysis?”

“We’re looking at permitting for efficiencies across all departments,” Holman replied.

I’m a farmer and know efficiencies. Click To Tweet

Dixon: “I’m a farmer and know efficiencies.”

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority told the committee it estimated its costs to monitor, test and install advanced treatment technology at a barebones minimum of $2 million to $32 million for a midrange system, to $113 million for a top-of-the-line technology. Annual operation and maintenance costs would run upward of $3 million.

UNC Wilmington, to study and evaluate emerging compounds in the river and drinking water, would spend at least $300,000.

The reason more of these contaminants are being found, said Linda Culpepper, deputy director of DEQ’s Division of Water Resources. is that technology has allowed scientists and regulators to detect them at minute concentrations — parts per trillion as opposed to millions or billions. “Before, we didn’t have the analytical tools to see them at these low levels,” she told the committee.

But this equipment isn’t cheap. To be proactive and detect “non-targeted” contaminants — those we don’t know about (and don’t know that we don’t know about) — would require a high resolution mass spectrometer. Price tag: $1 million.

The only way to avoid being taken by surprise by “non-targeted” contaminants is by extensively monitoring for them, said Lee Ferguson, a Duke University associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“And most state laboratories don’t have this capability,” Ferguson said. “This is not routine.”


Federal law allows companies to keep confidential certain chemical information and the volume of chemicals they produce. GenX is one of those chemicals. “There’s no publicly available information on the volume,” Ferguson said. “This would have slipped past our radar.”

In other words, unless Chemours was very specific in its permit about discharging GenX into the Cape Fear,  the utility and DEQ couldn’t have independently known it was in the water without this “non-targeted” monitoring. (Whether Chemours adequately disclosed this information a question that is part of the state’s litigation against the company.)

“We’re talking about unknown unknowns,” Ferguson said.

Back in the Chemours neighborhood, it is quiet. The adults are still at work and the kids aren’t home from school. Although it’s officially fall, the temperature feels like a mid-summer day. It’s easy to imagine kids, sweaty from a soccer game, drinking from the water fountains at Hall Park, just north of the plant. In front of one mobile home sits another remnant of summer: an above-ground swimming pool.

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