Waccamaw Siouan tribal members are sick, and they want to know why

The Waccamaw Siouan, one of eight state-recognized Native American tribes in North Carolina, are known as  “The People of the Falling Star.”

Tribal history says their homeland was formed when a meteor struck the earth thousands of years ago. Water from nearby lakes and rivers then flowed toward the crater, forming Lake Waccamaw, now a state park in southeastern N.C.

Members of the community pass down this story as one way to preserve a culture and identity that colonizers and the U.S. government systematically erased throughout history.

The Chief of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, Michael Jacobs, retells this history in a voice both deep and captivating, a quality that aids in his success as both a preacher and activist.

“I’m not afraid to make some noise,” Jacobs said. “God gave me a big mouth, and I’m going to use it.”

But Jacobs’s voice begins to falter as he recalls moments in life when his mouth wasn’t big enough— when his two uncles died from a rare form of cancer when he was 16; when his father died from prostate cancer five years ago; when two young children in his tribe died just as they were beginning to read; when several Waccamaw Siouan women died of breast cancer.

Everyone knows someone who is sick, but nobody knows why.

The biggest threat to the tribe today is also what has sustained them— the local water. An estimated 1,200 members of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe live just 10 minutes from the Cape Fear River, one of the most PFAS-contaminated rivers in the country.

PFAS chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are associated with birth defects, cancer, high cholesterol, obesity and an array of adverse health concerns. They are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily, with the ability to survive for thousands of years. GenX is one of 5,000-plus types of PFAS.

The main source of the river’s GenX pollution is identified as DuPont de Nemours, Inc., owner of the Fayetteville Chemours plant. The massive chemical company is located about 42 miles upstream of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe.

In the 1950s, DuPont grew to be the world’s largest chemical company because of a product called Teflon, found in many consumer products, such as non-stick pans and popcorn bags. In 2016, scientists discovered a type of PFAS known as GenX in the Cape Fear River, which runs southeast from Fayetteville to Wilmington.

Four years later, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality measured water samples throughout the river basin and found PFAS concentrations up to 14 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory.

In January 2018, the Division of Air Quality began rainwater testing, discovering GenX in rainfall downwind of the Cape Fear River. Not enough data is available to determine if the amount of Gen X in rainfall is enough to impact groundwater, which supplies drinking water for the Waccamaw Siouan tribe’s private wells.

For over four years, representatives of the tribe have asked state officials to test their private wells for GenX chemicals, to no avail. The tribe does not have sufficient money nor resources to conduct testing on their own.

Laura Leonard, DEQ spokeswoman, stated that Chemours is responsible for the testing of private well water. The testing process is detailed in the Chemours Drinking Water Compliance Plan. According to the sampling program, the Waccamaw Siouan community is too far from the Fayetteville Chemours plant to qualify for water testing.

Currently, the only areas that qualify for private well testing are approximately 8 miles south or 16 miles north of the Chemours plant. Each time a well tests above 10 parts per trillion for any PFAS compounds, the sampling area extends by a quarter of a mile.

The inability of the Waccamaw Siouan to get their drinking water tested for GenX taps into the root of institutional injustices perpetrated against native people. Ryan E. Emanuel, a professor and scholar in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University, has written extensively about the fight for indigenous participation in water governance. As a member of the Lumbee tribe, the largest Native American tribe in North Carolina, Emanuel witnessed the barriers native people face in environmental governance.

His study, Breaching Barriers: The Fight for Indigenous Participation in Water Governance, highlights how non-federally recognized tribes in the southeastern U.S. continue to occupy their homelands along freshwater sources. However, tribal governments are rarely involved in environmental decision-making.

Shirley Freeman, former Vice Chairwoman of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, brought these health concerns to the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs in 2017. For her, the issue was personal: several women in the tribe had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, many of them her close friends.

A year later, Michael Scott, director of NC’s Division of Waste Management, told the commission that GenX has most likely been present in the environment for over 10 years.

Beyond drinking water, GenX chemicals have also been found in the region’s fish. According to a recent study, stripers in the Cape Fear River have the highest rates of PFAS documented in any North American fish.

Due to job loss as a result of COVID-19, members of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe depend on local fish for food now more than ever. Hill Food Stores is the only grocery store within a 20-minute drive of the community, with the majority of nearby food sold in general stores or mini-marts.

Jacobs said that the threat of GenX chemicals prevents tribal members from spending time on the river and in the natural environment, despite the fact that the Waccamaw Siouan were the original inhabitants of the land. As a result, Jacobs said that the youth are becoming disconnected from their history and culture.

“We’ve always been predominantly freshwater fish-eating people. We’ve been hunter-gatherers from day one,” said Jacobs. “The Cape Fear River and surrounding area have been a real source of food and income for our people for a long time.”

Hannah Towery is an UNC student. This story was written as part of a journalism class with a focus on environmental reporting.

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