First sampling results of GenX in Cape Fear River are in; health officials revise risk levels

This map shows where DEQ is sampling for the presence of GenX, an unregulated chemical, which Chemours has discharged into the Cape Fear River. GenX has been detected in public drinking water in Wilmington. (Map: NC DEQ)

Initial sampling results of GenX in drinking water are in. They show that levels of the chemical far exceeded new — and drastically reduced — health department goals before Chemours stopped discharging most of its contaminated wastewater into the Cape Fear River.

After water from the Cape Fear had been treated by public utilities, levels ranged from a high of 1,100 parts per trillion to as low as 269 ppt, but all above the NC Department of Health and Human Services’ new health goal. State health officials announced late this afternoon that it had revised its recommendation for GenX in drinking water to no more than 140 parts per trillion, particularly for vulnerable people such as bottle-fed infants.

Originally, DHHS had said levels of GenX at 70,000 parts per trillion presented a “low risk” of health effects, based on Chemours data from 2013-2014. Although a safe level has not been established, the international threshold is 90 ppt; the EPA has set a “health advisory” for combined levels of PFOAs above 70 ppt.

A cancer risk is not factored into the 140 ppt threshold. DHHS said there are no studies in humans on cancer related to GenX. Only one animal study is available. While it did show increases in some cancers of the pancreas, liver and testicles, the EPA has not identified a specific level of GenX that could be associated with an increased risk for cancer.

The state health department has set a limit of 140 parts per trillion as its health goal. Since Chemours stopped discharging most of its contaminated wastewater into the Cape Fear, only the Pender County utility has levels above that threshold in drinking water. (Source: DHHS)

Although there is no standard for GenX exposure in recreational use, the department also advised people not to swim in the area of the Cape Fear River near the Chemours plant in Fayetteville.

DHHS said in a press release that after it consulted with the EPA, a different set of animal studies and an uncertainty factor lowered the level from 70,000 parts per trillion to 140 ppt. The department emphasized that this updated risk assessment “is not final” and is likely to be updated when new information becomes available or the EPA sets standards.

When Chemours stopped discharging most of its wastewater into the Cape Fear, the levels dropped at the five public utilities: International Paper, Northwest Brunswick, Pender County No. 421, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, Sweeney plant and Bladen Bluffs.

At that point, only the Pender wastewater treatment plant reported levels in drinking water above 140 ppt. A well at Wrightsville Beach recorded levels of just 24–26 ppt.

DEQ collected water from 13 sites, including areas in the river and at downstream wastewater treatment plants, on June 19 and July 6. The EPA office in Research Triangle Park and Test America, a Colorado-based lab, analyzed the samples. The higher levels occurred before Chemours stopped discharging most of its GenX-contaminated wastewater into the Cape Fear. (The plant still discharged smaller amounts until this week.)

June 19 sampling results indicated that at the Chemours outfall — basically where the discharge leaves the facility — levels ranged from 21,760 ppt to 39,000 ppt. By June 26, those levels had dropped to 15,250 to 19,000. Those were still higher than expected. A subsequent DEQ inspection showed areas in the plant that were still discharging GenX. Those parts of the facility have since been shut down.

Additional sampling occurred Wednesday and Thursday, although the results aren’t in. DEQ will also sample on July 17 and 24.

GenX, used in the manufacture of Teflon and other non-stick coatings, is an emerging contaminant. That means it has not been independently tested for safety; nor is it regulated.


Environment, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. State School Superintendent muzzles communication from DPI

A directive from Superintendent Mark Johnson to temporarily halt key listserv communications from the Department of Public Instruction has some concerned the order will chill the flow of information from North Carolina’s top public school agency.

Policy Watch learned last week of Johnson’s command, which comes at a particularly busy time for central office personnel as they prep for the coming school year. This would include sorting through myriad legislative changes including 24 new reporting requirements for DPI.

In Johnson’s message, recently obtained by Policy Watch, the superintendent wrote the department would “take a break in the distribution of information to the field and to other lists for stakeholders” following last month’s retirement of the agency’s longtime communications chief. [Read more…]

2. Opioid crisis hits Wilmington area hard; lack of public resources hinders response

Wilmington is bustling this summer.

Downtown, horse-drawn carriages take tourists along the riverfront the city advertises as “America’s best” where they drink at local pubs, eat seafood, sip cold brew coffee in cafes that also sell designer shoes and limited-edition t-shirts.

But a five minute drive from thriving Princess Street – down 3rd street along the Cape Fear Historic By-Way past monuments to Confederate soldiers and meticulously restored historic homes – you turn onto Dawson Street.

Here dusty curb markets with barred windows begin to replace the hip eateries with seasonal menus, public housing projects the bed and breakfast inns. You’ll find few historical markers here – but walk a few blocks and you’ll be stepping over discarded hypodermic needles. North Carolina’s place in the national opioid crisis is nothing new here – and the news that Wilmington is the top city in the nation for opioid abuse doesn’t surprise people. [Read more…]

3. A nonpartisan confirmation of the dangerous new normal in North Carolina
State legislative leaders this week dismissed a report by their own nonpartisan legislative staff showing the latest round of tax changes will create a budget shortfall of more than a billion dollars in two years, growing to $1.4 billion two years after that.

The projections came in response to a request made by Democratic leaders in the Senate during the budget debate warning about the impact of the tax cuts, the bulk of which will go to corporations and wealthy families.

The analysis prompted headlines about a looming budget gap and revenue problems and Democratic leaders said it confirmed Governor Roy Cooper’s characterization of the Republican budget as irresponsible. [Read more…]

*** Bonus Video: NC Justice Center director Rick Glazier on education funding and  missed opportunities in the state budget  (Click to watch)

4. Judging by today’s event, protesters are starting to get to Tillis

It’s dumb mistake that almost all elected officials succumb to at one time or another, but with a relatively experienced politician like Thom Tillis, you think he’d already know better. Unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina’s junior senator will have to learn his lesson the hard way.

And that lesson?

Don’t disrespect your constituents.

Oh, there’s no doubt it’s got to be tempting — especially when the constituents in question are protesters who disagree with your actions on their behalf. But, make no mistake, today’s unfortunate action by Senator Tillis and his staff to refuse access to his Raleigh office — even to folks that merely wanted to deliver a letter on the Senate healthcare bill on behalf of the 100+ protesters outside — was a major blunder. (Note: A Facebook report from High Point indicates Tillis has called in the police to keep wild and crazy protesters away there as well.) [Read more…]

5. DEQ, DHHS at loggerheads again, still bickering over drinking water risks of hexavalent chromium

People living near Duke Energy coal plants — Roxboro, Mayo and Belew’s Creek, in particular — don’t know whom or what to believe.

In 2015, state health officials said their drinking water was unsafe because of contamination from hexavalent chromium in their wells. Months later, top state health and environmental officials, even Gov. McCrory, assured them it was safe. Then in 2016, in a series of depositions, state health department scientists said that it wasn’t.

And now, well, the health and environmental departments are at loggerheads again. [Read more…]

***Bonus feature:  Trial judges gain new, valuable resources in Judicial Fellowship program

*** Upcoming event on Wednesday July 26: Crucial Conversation Luncheon – Prof. Nancy MacLean on her provocative new book, “Democracy in Chains”

Nancy MacLean is an award-winning scholar of the twentieth-century U.S., whose new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, has been described by Publishers Weekly as “a thoroughly researched and gripping narrative… [and] a feat of American intellectual and political history.” Booklist called it “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.”

Learn more and register today.


DEQ inspectors: Chemours failed to stop all discharges of GenX into Cape Fear

More than 300 Wilmington-area residents attended a panel discussion on GenX in June. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Three weeks after Chemours reportedly stopped discharging contaminated wastewater into the Cape Fear River, state environmental inspectors found GenX was still entering the water.

On June 27, the NC Department of Environmental Quality verified that Chemours had halted the discharge of contaminated wastewater, based on an onsite inspection of the Fayetteville facility. But this week, DEQ  sent inspectors to the plant after Chemours reported its water testing still showed levels of GenX in its discharge.

In a subsequent inspection this week, DEQ found contaminated wastewater coming from several areas at the plant. Since then, according to a DEQ press release, Chemours has shut down those areas of the facility until the wastewater can be collected and shipped offsite.

GenX is used in the manufacturing of Teflon and similar non-stick surfaces. It is in the family of PFOA chemicals (perfluoroctanoic acides), which are known to be endocrine disruptors and affect hormonal function. GenX is classified as an emerging contaminant by the EPA. These contaminants have not been independently tested for safety or toxicity; nor are they regulated.

In mid-June, Chemours, a spinoff company of DuPont, told state environmental regulators that it could not eliminate GenX-tainted discharge from the plant. But on June 21, after intense scrutiny from Wilmington residents and state environmental officials, the company suddenly reversed course and reportedly stopped discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River. Instead, the company sent the wastewater to its onsite treatment plant, then collected it in tanks and sent the material to an incinerator in Arkansas.

DEQ Communications Director Jamie Kritzer told NCPW that when state environmental officials visited the plant on June 21, they inspected the system where the company had told them it was redirecting the wastewater. When Chemours analyzed its sampling data, the levels of GenX “looked higher than what was expected,” Kritzer said, and contacted DEQ.

Kritzer said DEQ has no evidence that Chemours was trying to hide the existence of the additional discharge points.

Whether all of the discharge finally has been stemmed will be determined in future sampling. “The telling data is what we see in those results in coming weeks,” Kritzer said.

State environmental officials also announced this week that it had received the first round of sampling results from several independent labs. DEQ has conducted its own analysis and has sent the results to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is determining a health risk assessment. Those results could be posted on the DEQ website as early as today.

There is no federal standard for GenX in drinking water. The EPA has set a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for combined levels of GenX and similar substances. The international threshold is 90 parts per trillion.



DEQ, DHHS at loggerheads again, still bickering over drinking water risks of hexavalent chromium


P eople living near Duke Energy coal plants — Roxboro, Mayo and Belew’s Creek, in particular — don’t know whom or what to believe.

In 2015, state health officials said their drinking water was unsafe because of contamination from hexavalent chromium in their wells. Months later, top state health and environmental officials, even Gov. McCrory, assured them it was safe. Then in 2016, in a series of depositions, state health department scientists said that it wasn’t.

And now, well, the health and environmental departments are at loggerheads again.

A lack of guidance from the EPA — which is beset by its own infighting and inertia — and input from federal agencies whose credibility is suspect have set states adrift to set their own standards. Standards with high stakes for the public health. Standards whose level of scientific uncertainty for the people near Roxboro, Mayo and Belew’s Creek is nearly intolerable.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality last week outraged advocacy groups and those residents living near coal ash impoundments when it issued legally enforceable “performance standards” for levels of hexavalent chromium, also known as Chromium 6, in groundwater and drinking water.

That standard, 10 parts per billion, was set over the objection of the state health department, which has established a much lower health screening threshold of just 0.07 parts per billion. The Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch will continue to use that lower threshold, which carries a one in 1 million lifetime cancer risk.

According to a draft memo from the OEEB, state environmental officials based their decision to use 10 ppb on two factors: One, the belief that those levels in drinking water are “sufficient” to protect people on wells within a half-mile of coal ash impoundments. And two, the memo said, DEQ “lacked confidence” in the EPA’s cancer risk estimates of Cr6 “because of the comments in the draft document.” OEEB, though, “has confidence in those estimates” because the science behind them was reviewed “and found to be valid,” even considering the comments.

People who take heartburn drugs like Nexium could be more susceptible to effects of Cr6 Click To Tweet

The draft document in question is a 2010 interagency review of the toxicological effects of the Cr6. A two-year federal study showed that tumors of the small intestine and mouth were more prevalent in mice and rats exposed to high levels of Cr6: 57 parts per million to 516 ppm, which is higher than North Carolina’s performance standard.

The risk of cancer appears to be related to the level of exposure and dosage. Other factors, such as stomach acidity, can also affect how the body handles Cr6. In 2013, California toxicologist Deborah Proctor told the Water Research Foundation that people who take proton pump inhibitors such as Nexium, for heartburn, could be more susceptible to the health effects of Cr6.

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Déjà vu: Controversy over safe drinking water, coal ash, prompts DEQ to appoint science panel

(Photo: Creative Commons)

T he NC Department of Environmental Quality, facing criticism over its new performance standards for contaminants in drinking water, said today that Secretary Michael Regan will convene a science advisory board to make recommendations on those levels based on new health data.

Last Friday, DEQ announced these standards for levels of hexavalent chromium (also known as Chromium 6) and vanadium for water filtration systems that Duke Energy is planning to install in some homes near coal ash ponds. The affected homes are near sites including Roxboro, Mayo and Belews Creek.

However, DEQ’s standards for Chromium 6 are 140 times higher than the levels it and the Department of Health and Human Services set in 2016: The new standard is 10 parts per billion for Chromium 6, compared with just 0.07 ppb last year. That is equivalent to a 1 in 1 million cancer risk.

For vanadium, it is 33 times higher — 10 parts per billion — compared with 0.3 ppb in 2016.

These thresholds are known as “performance standards.” These are allowable levels of a contaminant, subject to regulation. The Environmental Management Commission adopts these standards for groundwater, which is a source of drinking water for more than half of North Carolinians.

Performance standards are different from health screening standards. These are levels of a contaminant in drinking water which no known adverse health effects would be expected. Health screening levels are not enforceable and are updated when new relevant data is released.

There is no federal standard for Chromium 6 in groundwater or drinking water, although the EPA, at least under the Obama administration, was studying its health effects as part of an emerging contaminant program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated the contaminant a “well-established carcinogen.”

Last year, state epidemiologist Megan Davies and a state toxicologist Ken Rudo both recommended that the groundwater and drinking water level for Chromium 6 be set at 0.07 ppb. As NCPW reported last summer, Rudo  said that 10 ppb carries a cancer risk, even though some states consider that level safe, according to a deposition taken by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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