Earlier this summer, it appeared that GenX contamination,  while a crisis, could at least be contained. And once the pollutant was contained, state environmental officials believed, they could then begin the arduous process of removing it.
But as the NC Department of Environmental Quality has continued its investigation, now in its sixth month, officials have detected high levels of the chemical not only in groundwater, but also surface water, private drinking water wells — and now, even honey from a farm near the plant near the Cumberland/Bladen county line.
In June, GenX was detected at high levels in the Cape Fear River and drinking water downstream of the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. But by July, levels of the contaminant sharply dropped after Chemours said it had stopped discharging the chemical — not to zero, but a significant decline.
“I was thinking, ‘We have a success story,” Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sheila Holman told members of the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board  yesterday. “But now, not so much.”
The SAB, which met in Wilmington, one of the affected communities, underscored the uncertainty about health risks, the dearth of independent scientific data about GenX, and the daily unease that has saddled the people who have been exposed to the chemical in their drinking water.
“Our charge is to use the best available science to assist decision makers,” said SAB Chairman Jamie Bartram. “That’s quite a charge, because there’s very little science to help us.”
“At the end of the day have very little experimental data and we don’t even have it in front of us,” added SAB member David Dorman. “There are a lot of unknowns. I’d err on the side of uncertainty to be protective.”
One of those unknowns is how GenX found its way into honey produced at a farm near the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. The honey, which is not sold commercially but offered to the farmers’ family and friends, tested positive for GenX at a concentration of 2,000 parts per trillion.
It’s unclear how the honey was tainted: Via air or water from the Chemours plant, or if the collection container, for example, was made from plastic containing GenX or similar compounds.
The state health department’s provisional health goal is 140 parts per trillion in drinking water. There is no established health goal for food. State environmental officials will meet this week with NC Department of Agriculture’s apiary services to discuss the sampling results and potential follow-up testing.
Also mysterious is how GenX is apparently persisting in a lake at Camp Dixie, which lies three miles southwest of the Chemours plant. One sample showed a level of 600 ppt, even though the waterbody is drained about once a year and then refills.
“It’s not like the water is sitting there for 15 years,” said SAB member Phillip Tarte.
The lake is spring-fed and receives some surface water, said Division of Waste Management Director Michael Scott. DEQ will conduct additional sampling at the lake. DHHS has said the water is safe for recreational use based on that one sample.
DEQ officials speculate that GenX is entering some of the groundwater, lakes and soil through the air. This process is known as atmospheric deposition, a process in which the contaminants leave the plant’s stacks, are dispersed and then fall on the ground.
According to computer modeling provided to the state by Chemours, the plant emitted from its stacks an estimated 1 to 4 pounds of GenX annually from 2012–2016. More important, though, are Chemours’ emissions of a similar compound — C3 dimer acid fluoride. Chemours emitted 500 to 669 pounds of that compound each year over the same time period.
When C3 dimer acid fluoride comes into contact with enough water, explained Holman, a chemical reaction occurs. The fluoride is shed, leaving C3 dimer acid — aka GenX.
Three weeks ago, on Nov. 14 and 15, Chemours reported that over 13 hours it emitted 70 pounds of C3 dimer acid fluoride into the air. According to meteorological data, Holman said, the plume dispersed south and west “toward South Carolina.” According to Weather Underground’s historical data , it was breezy in Fayetteville those days, with winds gusting to 18-20 miles per hour from the north and northeast.
SAB members also questioned the data behind the state health department’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX. The goal was set based on animal study data provided to DHHS by the EPA. This level is calculated to provide some margin of safety for illnesses that could result from chronic exposure to the GenX, but there are no known studies on any link between GenX and cancer. Nor has there been research on the many ways people may be exposed to perfluorinated compounds or health effects from short-term high doses, known as acute toxicity.
“There’s a huge limitation on how health goals are set,” said SAB member Jaqueline MacDonald Gibson, of the information gaps. “You’re following the limitations set by EPA.”
“There is an absence of data,” acknowledged Zack Moore, state epidemiologist, on these chemicals not only for drinking water, but “food, aerosolization and air.” (Aerosolization occurs when a contaminant is converted into tiny particles in a mist or fog. The process is also used in medicine, such as in a nebulizer.)
At a public forum held after the regular SAB meeting, about a dozen people urged the members to recommend that the state conduct health studies on people who’ve been exposed to GenX, addition to soil and fish tissue testing. They also told the SAB that it should use the precautionary principle when issuing its recommendations to state officials. Under the precautionary principle, policymakers and regulators set stringent standards to protect human health and the environment even if the effects of a contaminant are scientifically uncertain.
“I urge you to use the precautionary principle to the maximum amount possible,” said John Wagner, who lives in Chatham County. “If you are too lenient, Chemours will continue its history of mistreatment.”
“Chemours has a terrifying track record on public safety,” said Jessica Cannon, a retired ob/gyn and environmental activist from Wilmington. Chemours’ parent company, DuPont, lost a $670 million class-action lawsuit over its releases of C8, a precursor to GenX, in West Virginia and Ohio. The company knew C8 was toxic when it discharged the chemical into the Ohio River, exposing thousands of people and sickening hundreds of them.
She also asked the SAB to err on the side of caution in assessing the state’s health goal for GenX. “There are no human studies showing GenX is safe,” Cannon said, adding that her family, including her two children, drank GenX contaminated water for several years. “I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but my kids’ life may depend on it.”
DEQ is expected to release more sampling data this month. This includes results of wastewater samples from the DuPont and Kuraway facilities, which are adjacent to Chemours and discharge under that company’s federal permit. Data from stack emissions tests is also expected to be announced, as well as levels of Nafion byproducts — a chemical cousin to GenX — from the EPA.
UNC Wilmington is testing sediment in the Cape Fear; the state plans to sample soils and fish tissue, plus test the aquifer, Willis Creek and more drinking water wells.
And on Dec. 14, DEQ and DHHS will co-host an information session in Hope Mills about the state’s sampling results, its plans to continue well sampling and alternative water solutions. The event will be held at the Gray’s Creek High School Auditorium, 5301 Celebration Drive, from 6–7:30 p.m.