As GenX concerns grow, House lawmakers grapple with how to win Senate support

As GenX concerns grow, House lawmakers grapple with how to win Senate support

- in Environment, Top Story
Chemours and DEQ have begun the fourth phase of well sampling near the Chemours plant in Fayetteville as they try to find the edge of the GenX contamination. (Images courtesy NCDEQ)

The good news is that the levels of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water is testing consistently below the state’s provisional health goal. The bad news is that GenX has been detected in the sediment of the Cape Fear River and in rain water at a UNC Wilmington weather station 70 miles from Chemours, a known source of the chemical.

The good news is House members are enchanted with their version of House Bill 189, which would provide funding for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to address GenX and emerging contaminants. The bad news is, as Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican representing the Outer Banks, said, “the Senate spurned us.”

And so vacillated the emotional temperature of the House River Quality Committee yesterday, which met for more than four hours on a sprawl of topics, ranging from an EPA presentation on mass spectrometers, to a DEQ report on enforcement against Chemours, to an impassioned discussion of House Bill 189.

As usual, new, surprising information — and equally colorful remarks— punctuated by long periods of well, calling it boredom would be unkind — but shall we say, dry, technical discussion.

The meeting was the first time lawmakers had heard that two homes near the Marine Outlying Landing Field in Atlantic, in Carteret County, had drinking water wells that tested for perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. One home is occupied, and receiving bottled water, said Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management. The other is a vacation home that will receive an alternate water supply when its owners return.

The likely source of the contamination is firefighting foam, which is known to contain perfluorinated compounds. The Navy and Department of Defense are taking the lead on the investigation, with DEQ assisting.

Two homes near the Marine Outlying Landing Field in Atlantic have wells with levels of PFAS above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt. The suspected source is firefighting foam. The Department of Defense and DEQ are investigating.

UNC Wilmington scientists also have detected GenX in sediment in the bed of the Cape Fear, said Bob Keiber, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, possibly because the dirt is absorbing the compound from the water. 

Why do we care if it’s in the bottom of the river?” asked Rep. Pat McElraft, a Carteret County Republican.

Hurricanes, storms, boats can stir up the sediment,” Keiber replied, and release GenX back into the water. That release restarts the contamination cycle into the drinking water.

Contaminated sediment can also harm aquatic life that burrows in the river bed or like fish, feeds on the organisms that do.

UNC Wilmington also found GenX in two samples of rainwater collected at its weather station. Although the station is 70 miles from Chemours, the detection suggests that the compound travels and is ubiquitous.

If you tested the rainwater in Asheville, you’d likely find GenX,” Keiber said. “And in Virginia.”

Meanwhile, Chemours continues to report spikes in GenX levels near the plant, likely because of rain carrying contamination from the soil and/or groundwater. DEQ has cited Chemours with six Notices of Violation in six months, an unusual level of recalcitrance for a company.

How long before we say enough is enough?” asked Rep. Ted Davis Jr., the committee chairman. “How much more is Chemours going to get away with before something is done?”

DEQ hasn’t fined Chemours yet, replied Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman, because the agency needs to calculate a penalty based on how much the state has spent on the case. And DEQ has build an enforcement case, she said, that it “can defend in court.”

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has a handle on reducing the levels of GenX in drinking water to below the provisional health goal, Executive Director Jim Flechtner said — costing the utility more than $1.7 million so far. He’s still concerned that any concentrations of compound remain, especially since Chemours has stopped discharging into the river.

Why don’t you say it’s below 140 parts per trillion and there’s nothing to worry about?” said McElraft, who often sounds sympathetic to Chemours and dismissive of GenX-related health concerns. “We have scared people to death in Wilmington.”

Flechtner quickly pointed out that GenX is only one of many emerging compounds — some known, some unknown — in the Cape Fear. “Our concern is that there is very little information about Nafion 1 and 2, and the additive effects of the compounds. There’s an absence of health data to determine what’s a reasonable level.”

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, remarked that when lawmakers passed legislation establishing the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, it contained a provision prohibiting residents from using their own well water if service passed by their home.

We said, ‘We’re going to require you to let the government provide your water,” Dixon went on. “Well, fast forward and look what government has done.”

However, the issue is not that simple. Newly drilled wells must be tested by county health departments — just once — but old wells have no such requirement. Generally, residents are responsible for having their private drinking water wells tested. If those tests showed contamination, the residents, in most cases, would be responsible for installing filtration systems, drilling a new well, or remediating the pollution — all very expensive ventures.

For the past nine months, DEQ has been relying on EPA labs in Research Triangle Park, and now Athens, Ga., to analyze its water samples. Those federal labs have the high-resolution mass spectrometers to do what is known as targeted and non-targeted analysis: testing for what it’s looking for, as well as what it doesn’t know it’s looking for — a fishing expedition of sorts.

As part of House Bill 189, DEQ had asked — and received from the House — a $573,000 one-time appropriation to buy a mid-level high-resolution mass spectrometer, plus $480,000 in recurring funds to hire five people to operate it. This money was part of an overall $2.4 million appropriation that the House unanimously passed — perhaps the first time in modern history there was such consent on an environmental bill.

Other state agencies like the Agriculture and Health and Human Services have this type of equipment, but all of them are committed for other work related to food, pesticides, toxicology, even analyzing water in case of chemical warfare. (DEQ Legislative Affairs Director Andy Miller showed slides of Agriculture’s and DHHS’s water science labs, which look like futuristic exhibits from the World’s Fair. DEQ’s, on the other hand, resemble a fry station at McDonald’s.)

DEQ’s water science lab lacks the equipment and updates of other agencies, including Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture (Image courtesy NCDEQ)

It’s also important to note that since GenX has been detected in honey in Bladen County, the agriculture department could become preoccupied with testing other foodstuffs for the compound; in that case, its equipment would not be available.

In its version of HB 189, the Senate appropriated $2 million to the NC Collaboratory to hunt down these spectrometers within the UNC System and connect those labs with DEQ. In turn, DEQ would turn over its samples for UNC grad students, faculty or staff to analyze.

While many UNC personnel would be scientifically qualified to operate the equipment, again, the issue is more complex. There would have to be chain-of-custody requirements, plus coordination with the EPA. The concerns are also legal: Chemours attorneys would likely salivate at the notion of cross-examining a former grad student on how she or he performed the analysis, even if years had passed.

“I don’t doubt UNC’s capabilities,” said Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican from New Hanover County, “but we need the equipment here.”

I’ve heard the word ‘lawsuit’ twice today,” McElraft said. “I don’t believe it should be done at university level, should be done at DEQ.”

It’s likely that the House will again request the appropriation for the equipment during the short session. And there will likely be a “bigger ask,” said DEQ’s Andy Miller.

The House bill asked for a bare minimum,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, adding that she “doesn’t share” Davis’s optimism that the Senate will agree to an even larger sum.

The committee did not vote on HB 189 yesterday, but, Davis said — in tones befitting of a political stump speech — that he hopes the House and Senate “can have a positive dialogue.”

It’s my sincere hope that the House and Senate will try and reach a resolution before the short session. The people of North Carolina need to be protected by having safe drinking water.”