Donald van der Vaart, former Department of Environmental Quality secretary, was in charge when state officials first learned last fall there could be a problem with GenX in the Lower Cape Fear River. And the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority knew even earlier.
But not until June of this year, when the Star-News in Wilmington reviewed and reported on the study, did DEQ under the current administration begin to investigate the presence of GenX in drinking water.
According to a letter sent Aug. 14 from DEQ and the Health and Human Services department to Sen. Bill Cook, and copied to the Senate and House leadership, in November 2016, “the previous administration” received a research report from the EPA and NC State University scientists regarding the Cape Fear watershed. This study, conducted in part by NC State professor Detlaf Knappe, showed GenX was present in the Lower Cape Fear and in untreated water at the Cape Fear utility. In 2013, the researchers found average levels of 631 parts per trillion of GenX in 37 samples of untreated water.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority received the same study in May 2016, according to the letter.
The letter was in response to communications sent last week from the Senate Republican Caucus. In that correspondence, lawmakers asked DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen a series of questions about Chemours and GenX. Lawmakers also requested a justification for their departments’ combined $2.5 million emergency appropriation.
Lawmakers had set a deadline of Aug. 14, at 5 p.m. for Cohen and Regan to provide the information.
Jamie Kritzer, DEQ communications director, told NCPW that it’s unclear who at DEQ originally received the study last November. Kritzer said the reason the current administration didn’t act more quickly is because this past spring, several staff members from the Division of Water Resources had tried to meet with Knappe to better understand the study results, but scheduling conflicts prevented that meeting from happening.
But it appears neither Chemours nor GenX rose to enough importance under van der Vaart to merit a mention in the transition documents provided to the new DEQ administration. (Transition documents are used to transfer institutional knowledge from one administration to another.)
However a different study by Knappe regarding another emerging, unregulated contaminant — 1,4 dioxane — does. Under the heading, “Special studies: 1,4-dioxane,” Jay Zimmerman, chief of the Division of Water Resources, notes that the presence of high levels of 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River “may be an indicator of things to come as previously unregulated emerging pollutants are studied.”
The chemical, used to stabilize solvents, is being discharged by industries upstream near Burlington and Greensboro. Zimmerman wrote that federal discharge permits would be modified to require additional sampling to “better isolate the issue.” He also wrote that “efforts to reduce sources will result in significant cost and potential loss of industry opportunities.”
A geologist, Zimmerman has been with DEQ since 1987. He managed the section overseeing groundwater protection and animal operations before van der Vaart promoted him to DWR head in 2015.
A lack of scientific data is hampering the rule-making on GenX and other unregulated contaminants, Regan and Cohen wrote to lawmakers. “While the state has the authority to enact regulatory standards, it does not currently have sufficient research at the state or federal level to make these determinations for GenX and other unregulated compounds on a consistent basis.”
The two agencies are requesting a total of $2.5 million. The bulk of that funding — $2 million — would go to DEQ to add 16 positions, plus pay for sampling and monitoring for GenX and other emerging contaminants throughout the state. Since 2013, 70 positions within water quality have been eliminated, resulting in a backlog in processing wastewater permits — some as long as two years.
Regan and Cohen also mention the proposed restrictions in House Bill 162, which would prohibit state agencies from making permanent stronger rules than the federal government’s, even in the case of “serious or unforeseen threats,” like the GenX crisis.
Meanwhile, DEQ is assembling documents related to the Chemours investigation, as required by federal subpoena . The NC Department of Environmental Quality is scheduled to testify before a grand jury Tuesday, Aug. 22, at 9 a.m. at the Lennon Federal Building in Wilmington.