In Bladen County, sorrow and outrage over GenX contamination in drinking water

Kellie Hair: “This is bullshit! We should tell Chemours to drink our water.” The deputy escorted her from the auditorium, but she later returned. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

DuPont had yet to break ground on its chemical plant when Elsie Dew’s father dug Marshwood Lake in 1964, in a hushed forest off Tranquility Road near the Cumberland-Bladen County line. The Dew family used to be the only folks out here, but now Marshwood Lake is stocked with fish, has its own road, and is ringed by modern homes tucked in the woods with a waterfront view.

A half-mile southwest and downstream, DuPont built its factory in 1968 along the bank of the Cape Fear River. The 2,100-acre chemical complex, which includes Chemours, a spinoff company designed to shield DuPont from further legal action, has been a neighbor of Marshwood Lake for nearly 50 years.

Now the drinking water wells of Dew family, including their son, daughter-in-law and grandchild, have tested from 530 to 730 parts per trillion for GenX. That level is three to four times the state’s provisional health goal of 140 ppt. Water samples taken from Marshwood Lake tested at 915 ppt. Since September, the Dews have depended on bottled water, provided by Chemours, for drinking, brushing their teeth, cooking and preparing food.

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“This was our retirement,” said Elsie Dew, at an information session Thursday night in Bladen County about GenX. “It’s breaking my heart.”

The information session was the fourth sponsored by the state’s environmental quality and health departments. And with each session, the list of questions grows longer and the tempers of the residents grow shorter.

“This is bullshit!” yelled Kellie Hair, as a Bladen County sheriff’s deputy quietly approached her and asked her to calm down. “We shouldn’t have to be here.”

Not only are the extent and effects of the chemical contamination unknown — there are no human health studies on GenX — but data collection and analysis is a protracted process. It requires state samples to be shipped to the EPA and state scientists to verify Chemours’ own testing protocols.

And with each test result, state environmental officials are learning that GenX and other emerging compounds have been released into the air, surface water and groundwater. Even though state inspectors have confirmed Chemours is no longer discharging wastewater from the plant — the pipes have been severed and capped — there continue to be spikes of contamination at the Chemour outfall, at 2,300 ppt in mid-December.

“We have not found the edge of the contamination,” said Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management, which oversees groundwater. Consequently, the state has begun Phase 4 of  sampling farther and farther from the plant. They are following the local wind patterns, to the southwest, north and northeast for new rounds of testing, including the fish in Marshwood Lake.

The latest sampling results show drinking water wells with levels of
GenX above the health goal of 140 ppt shaded in red. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Although the state is testing, conferring with independent scientists, and consulting with the EPA, for neighbors of Chemours, these efforts are invisible and do little to ease the anxiety. “Nobody will do anything,” said Jimmy Dew, Elsie’s husband.

Judging from the grumbling in the front of the auditorium, residents found little solace in comments by Bladen County Commissioner Ray Britt. He told the crowd of 200 that he had met with Chemours officials for three hours. “I have to say I feel real good. I’m an optimist. I pray hard and I’m praying for this situation.”

Democrat State Rep. Billy Richardson, whose district includes Cumberland County, was less sanguine. “I’m a cautious optimist,” said Richardson, an attorney. He has met with Rob Billot, the lawyer who took on DuPont in West Virginia and won — after 18 years.

“Past behavior predicts future behavior,” Richardson said of DuPont. “This is going to be a long, long, long process and you” — the crowd — “should avail yourselves of the court system.”

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, who sits on the House River Quality Committee, had joined Richardson in unanimously voting for House Bill 189. That legislation not only required further studies by DEQ, but also appropriated $2.3 million to the department to help expedite their work on the GenX and emerging contaminant problem. However, the Senate adjourned without even hearing the bill.

(Two senators, Republican Wesley Meredith and Democrat Ben Clark, also attended the session, but did not speak.)

Szoka seemed to provide political cover for the Senate. “It’s not a criticism of the Senate that they didn’t vote on it,” Szoka said. The Senate Select Committee on River Quality “is looking at the bill. They’re giving it due diligence.”

However, the Senate had been clued in on the bill well before the vote. Since then, the only public activity by the Senate River Quality Committee members has been to ask the EPA to audit DEQ.

None of the political maneuvering, though, helps the residents. The area near the plant is a mix  — some comfortably middle class, others living paycheck to paycheck or on Social Security. Even if they eventually could connect to a public water system, a $20 monthly bill would cut into their meager income.

“I apologize for being overwhelmed earlier,” said Hair, who had returned to the auditorium after being escorted out by the deputy. “When is this going to stop? This problem needs solved. Chemours has more money in the world and we don’t have anything.”

Most of the residents do not trust Chemours not only because of DuPont’s history, but the company’s lack of transparency in what chemicals they’re discharging, their unreported spills, and their insularity. Chemours has not attended a public meeting, including those held at the legislature.

“They have proved themselves to be loathsome corporate citizens,” said Mark Valentine. “We can get along without Teflon in my frying pan.”

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The state is scheduled to shock Marshwood Lake — electrifying it — in order to kill some fish for testing. It could be several weeks before the results are available. “Everywhere my daughter goes is contaminated,” said Amanda Dew, carrying a large binder of research. “This is Third World country type of living.”

Jimmy Dew lives within a half-mile of Chemours. His family’s well tested
at 900 parts per trillion. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Jimmy Dew is Elsie’s husband and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He fought in 1970 and 1971, when he was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant now linked to cancers and other health problems. “I remember getting off a chopper soaked inn Agent Orange,” he said, his voice cracking. “They told me not to worry. But they burned my clothes.”

Dew’s life has come full circle. Dow Chemical was among the companies that manufactured Agent Orange; Dow has since merged with DuPont, the mothership of Chemours.

“Dow tried to kill me with Agent Orange,” Dew said before the session. “And now DuPont wants to kill me with GenX.”

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

DEQ approves two more permits for Atlantic Coast Pipeline; protests scheduled for tomorrow

Tree-cutting can begin along the northern part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route in North Carolina now that state officials have approved a permit for that segment. The NC Department of Environmental Quality today approved the erosion and sedimentation permit for Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson and Johnston counties. The agency also green-lighted a general construction stormwater permit.

The Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources issued two post-construction stormwater permits for areas of Nash and Cumberland counties, as well.

Earlier this week, DEQ okayed a key water quality permit, setting the stage for the final approvals. There is one permit yet to be cleared: an individual stormwater permit for a contractors’ work yard in Cumberland County.

Opponents continue to protest DEQ’s approval of the $5.5 billion project, co-owned by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. “The acknowledged political pressure by Duke and Dominion Energy to gain approval for the ACP has been unrelenting and our governor and other officials finally yielded under their weight.”

Tomorrow, landowners and citizens from impacted communities along North Carolina’s route will protest and hold a people’s hearing beginning at 9:30 a.m., at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 125 Hillsborough St., Raleigh.

Environment, Legislature

Four GOP senators send puzzling letter to EPA asking for audit of DEQ

Sen. Trudy Wade, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on NC River Water Quality,
attended a GenX presentation at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant
in Wilmington last summer. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

While its House counterpart was holding hearings and hammering out legislation, the Senate Select Committee on River Quality has met one time. It has proposed not a single bill. Since Oct. 3, the committee has essentially disappeared.

Senate River Quality members, along with the rest of their Senate colleagues, then bailed on a vote to study the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants and to fund DEQ to do the work.

Now, four of the Senate committee members  — Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Bill Rabon and Michael Lee — have sent a letter to the EPA Region 4 administrator asking that the federal government audit DEQ.

The Star-News of Wilmington first reported the contents of the letter, sent on Jan. 23.

The senators requested that the EPA review environmental officials’ handling of the NPDES program — federal wastewater discharge permits whose authority are delegated to the states. Under the guise of “assistance to North Carolina” the subtext of the two-page letter is that DEQ has independently decided, through rules and procedures, not to protect human health and the environment.

The senators posed several questions, some asking for federal guidance about emerging contaminants — guidance DEQ says the EPA is already providing. (DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman has debriefed the House River Quality Committee and the Environmental Review Commission on these discussions with the EPA. Wade chairs the Environmental Review Commission; Wells is a member.)

Other questions could be answered through a simple Google search:

  • “Is there adequate public notice of the permitting process and access under federal law?”
    DEQ lays out the permitting process on its website, including the required 30-day public notice for new, renewed and major modifications. (Ironically, the 30-day notice is published in a local newspaper and online; Wade sponsored a bill last year to remove the local newspaper requirement for public notices.)
    Consult the EPA website or head over to the Cornell Law School, which lays out the notice requirements.
    Answer: DEQ complies.
  • “Are there improvements needed in DEQ’s internal review process of  permit applications that would lead to a more through and timely review of these applications?”
    Answer: Yes, but with context. DEQ has widely publicized its staff cuts — 70 positions in water quality lost over the past decade because of legislative budget slashing — that the agency says has led to a backlog of NPDES permits.
    EPA defines backlog as “permits administratively continued beyond their expiration date for 180 days or more” or facilities awaiting their “first NPDES permits for longer than 365 days after submitting an application.”  Chemours’s permit is among those that had expired and then been administratively continued.
    EPA has set a goal for all its regions and the states to be 90 percent current on their permits. For major permits, only nine states have hit that benchmark. North Carolina’s backlog is 66.8 percent, according to 2017 EPA figures. Eighteen states have a higher percentage of delinquent permit reviews; 31 are performing better than North Carolina.

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Duke, coal ash neighbors reach settlement over language in water agreements

Duke Energy and several plaintiffs have reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit over allegedly predatory contracts for permanent water supplies. The court dismissed the case, filed in Wake County Superior Court, yesterday.

As Policy Watch reported last August, Salisbury-based attorney Mona Lisa Wallace filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of neighbors of coal ash basins against Duke Energy over the contract language. Under the terms, Duke would cover the households’ water-related expenses for 25 years, plus a $5,000 payout;  but in return, the households had to absolve the company from past, present or future liability related to the nearby coal ash ponds.

By accepting the money, the residents were agreeing that Duke had fully compensated them for their past or future harm or loss.

In other words, residents who sign the contract couldn’t sue Duke if they or family members are later diagnosed with cancer or other diseases caused by exposure to coal ash. If a basin spill occurred and their homes were destroyed, the residents could not sue the utility for damages. Those restrictions also applied to the families’ future heirs.

Many of the settlement terms are confidential. In a short statement, Amy Brown, who lives in Belmont near the Allen plant, said the new contracts do not apply to future heirs. The contracts no longer contain provisions that would have forced neighbors to agree Duke had fully compensated them for harm or loss.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act and its 2016 amendment, Duke Energy is required to pay for a “permanent water supply” for households whose wells contain the same contaminants found in coal ash: hexavalent chromium, vanadium and arsenic, for example. But there was no requirement, Duke said, that it cover the monthly water bills or maintenance for full-house filtration systems..

Eligible households didn’t have to sign in order to get a permanent water supply. However, they would have to pay their own monthly water bills or for maintenance of the filtration system.

Paige Sheehan, Duke spokeswoman, said that as the utility representatives spoke with residents, “we realized there was misinformation and confusion, so we educated them and clarified what is and is not included in the release. We did not change the offering made to them or all eligible neighbors, but we are  pleased that through education a lawsuit without merit was dismissed. Now we can continue to focus on providing permanent water solutions to our plant neighbors.”

Duke updated information on its website about the voluntary financial packages. Children and tenants of the affected properties can still seek damages if they develop health problems related to contaminated groundwater; the property owners themselves, though, are prohibited from suing. Well owners can still sue the utility over damages related to air quality and future spills or breaches.


Over widespread opposition, DEQ approves key water quality permit for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Kathleen Lance, assistant to NC DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, met with opponents of the Atlantic
Coast Pipeline this morning. They had requested to speak with Regan, but were advised
that he was in a meeting. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This post has been updated with an announcement from Gov. Roy Cooper.

For more than a  year, environmental and citizens’ groups have battled against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. But today, the NC Department of Environmental Quality granted a key permit that will allow the project to begin its 160-mile route through the state.

DEQ’s Division of Water Resources announced today that it is approving the 401 water quality permit after eight months’ of review. DWR had asked for additional information five times before finalizing the permit.

Duke Energy co-owns the Atlantic Coast Pipeline with Dominion Energy. The pipeline will begin at a fracking operation in West Virginia, continue through Virginia and North Carolina, and possibly extend through South Carolina.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in a prepared statement that the agency “left no stone unturned in our exhaustive eight-month review of every aspect of the 401 application. Our job doesn’t end with the granting of the permit but continues as we hold the company accountable to live up to its commitments.”

The backlash against the pipeline was instantaneous. Appalachian Voices, Clean Water for North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League issued a statement calling for another round of public comment on the latest information released by the utilities.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina called the approval a “moral outrage.” Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said the ACP is “an environmental atrocity.”

Amy Adams, a former state water quality regulator now working with advocacy group Appalachian Voices, pointed out, “It will be impossible for the agency to do all of the monitoring and enforcement to prevent widespread damage, and they know it. The pressure must have been very intense to make senior DEQ staff and the Governor cave in and accept a deal ahead of permit deadlines.”

Policy Watch reported yesterday that Duke Energy was becoming impatient with the permitting process. The utility had approached Gov. Cooper’s office about the permitting process; although there were rumors that Duke had implied it would sue if the permits weren’t granted, the governor’s office said there was no threat of litigation. Asked by Policy Watch if it planned to sue unless the project was green-lighted, Duke dodged the question.

Over the past week, there were rumors that Duke Energy was cutting a deal with the Cooper administration for a permit approval. Under the terms, Duke would establish a environmental mitigation fund, which included money for renewable energy. That rumor proved to be true, as within minutes of DEQ publicizing its approval of the ACP permit, Cooper’s office announced that Dominion Power and Duke Energy will put $57.8 million into the fund to be used for environmental mitigation initiatives. These include efforts to “reduce the carbon footprint and expansion of renewable energy sources.”

Natural gas, it should be noted, while cleaner than coal, emits methane. And methane contributes to climate change even more than carbon dioxide.

Funds can also be used to ensure that local communities benefit economically from the pipeline by having have access to natural gas from the pipeline, Cooper’s office said. But having access does not mean that local communities can afford to connect to the the main line or offshoots; connections can run thousands of dollars and even more for commercial and industrial customers.

In fact, Cooper’s office said, Duke and Dominion did not guarantee affordable access to natural gas for communities through which the pipeline will run, adding that “details on how the fund will operate are underway.”

Adams of Appalachian Voices lambasted Cooper for what appears to be a quid pro quo.

“Gov. Cooper cannot dress up this pipeline approval by throwing a few million dollars for environmental mitigation, which in itself acknowledges there will indeed be severe impacts to communities and our natural resources,” Adams said. “And while his support for renewable energy and cutting climate pollution is commendable, his action today allowing this pipeline utterly undermines those very goals.”

“After the fiasco of the previous administration’s handling of Duke Energy’s coal ash crisis,” she added, “citizens had hope that Gov. Cooper would unyoke our state from the company’s profit-driven agenda. We were apparently wrong. It’s a shameful day for North Carolina.”

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