Environment

A conundrum: rehabbing homes that have been damaged by a hurricane — and contaminated by GenX

Drinking water wells, which rely on groundwater, have tested positive for GenX nearly seven miles from the Chemours plant. Four homeowners who live within five miles have applied for federal housing disaster relief, which has presented a quandary for state officials. (Map: DEQ)

While Congress debates whether the EPA should regulate perfluorinated compounds, including GenX, the cost of inaction is playing out in North Carolina in an overlooked, yet significant way: hurricane relief.

In rebuilding or rehabbing homes damaged by Hurricane Matthew, state officials are encountering, for the first time, some houses whose water supplies have also been contaminated by GenX from the Chemours plant.

And the cost of cleaning up water contaminated with unregulated pollutants isn’t covered under housing disaster relief community development block grants.

“It’s not a storm-related damage so the cost isn’t reimbursable by HUD” — US Housing and Urban Development, said John Ebbighausen, chief of programs for the state Office of Recovery and Resilience. “But we have to bring the house up to code, and nothing hazardous can be there.”

The Office of Recovery and Resilience is a division of the Department of Public Safety; the housing disaster relief program is coordinated with the federal government and the state commerce department.

According to a letter from the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, four homeowners who live within five miles of the Chemours plant have applied for housing disaster relief. The plant is near the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

Dozens of wells between three and five miles of the plant have tested positive for GenX, and roughly 20 had detections above the state health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion. A few wells beyond the five-mile radius also had detections of GenX, but none above the state’s benchmark.

Federal law requires an environmental review for homes built or rehabbed under HUD’s disaster recovery program, as well as the land beneath. If a property is contaminated with chemicals that appear on the EPA’s list of hazardous substances list, then it must be cleaned up or mitigated; otherwise, it isn’t eligible for federal funds.

But the EPA hasn’t classified PFAS, including GenX, as hazardous. “There is no EPA guidance,” Ebbighausen said.

The Office of Recovery and Resilience has asked DEQ to determine the level of GenX contamination that would trigger a requirement for Chemours to pay for an alternate water supply.

“We need a piece of paper that we can take to Chemours and say, ‘You can install this, or our contractor will, and we’ll bill them,” Ebbighausen said.

Earlier this month, DEQ’s Director of Waste Management Michael Scott responded to Ebbighausen, noting that a recent consent order with Chemours includes provisions for alternate water supplies, based on thresholds of detectable PFAS in private well water.

Those alternatives include a connection to a public water supply, whole-house filtration and under-sink reverse osmosis systems. In some cases, it could be more protective for homes to receive a new, deeper drinking water well. However, only affected schools and public buildings are eligible for new well construction.

Scott said DEQ continues to sample private wells beyond a five-mile radius from the plant. Homes that are eligible for disaster relief and are within seven miles could have their well tested and if necessary, be provided with alternate water. Scott added that it would review groundwater and well sampling results for damaged properties between seven and 10 miles of Chemours.

Those boundaries could shift, Scott said, depending on ongoing well sampling. DEQ would notify disaster recovery officials of any changes.

Homes that sustained damage whose costs are equivalent to 50 percent of their prestorm tax value could be eligible for federal funding. Mobile homes with more than $5,000 in damage might also be eligible.

The deadline for homeowners to apply for disaster relief funds is May 31. This round of funding is applicable only for Hurricane Matthew damage.

The state is owed another $168 million in federal housing money for Hurricane Matthew recovery, Ebbighausen said. Earlier this week HUD awarded the state $336 million for housing damage caused by Hurricane Florence, far less than the $2 billion in damage caused by the historic storm.

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