For the first 50-odd years of his life Rusty Goins was healthy and hale, a strapping man who never smoked or drank. Then shortly before last Christmas, he began bleeding.
Several days later, when Goins woke up from surgery, he told EPA officials, the doctor had removed 30 inches of his colon and 18 lymph nodes. His right kidney, double its normal size, “was eaten up by cancer,” he said.
Now his body has been whittled away by nine months of “the most excruciating chemotherapy,” Goins said, weeping as he described the treatment’s side effects, which blistered his mouth and corroded the skin from his hands. He now uses a cane to walk.
Hour after hour. Witness after witness. From 10 in the morning until 8 at night, the EPA hosted a community engagement forum on the crisis of fluorinated compounds, such as GenX, PFAS and PFOS, that are contaminating the nation’s air, drinking water and food supply.
Held at the Crown Ballroom in Fayetteville, the forum was an opportunity for federal and state environmental officials to share the latest science on these toxic pollutants, and to hear from people most directly affected by the contamination. But the event succeeded only in part. While the science panel offered some astonishing findings about the compounds, there was scant discussion of how to adequately regulate the polluters.
Citing a lack of money, staffing and time, the EPA had refused state environmental officials’ request to hold three forums, including forums in Wilmington and Greensboro, where the chemicals have been detected in the public water systems. Even with dozens of New Hanover and Brunswick County residents who traveled 100 miles north to speak, there were hundreds more who could not make the trip.
“It’s an injustice that there was no meeting in Wilmington,” said Deborah Daniels Maxwell, a district director with the NAACP.
“You’re not representing them if they can’t talk to you,” added Ashley Daniels, a community organizer who lives in Wilmington.
Meanwhile, both candidates for the Eighth Congressional District viewed the forum as a campaign stop, while other opportunists used the somber occasion to make sales pitches for water filtration technologies.
EPA Region 4 Administrator Trey Glenn, who oversees eight states in the Southeast, offered some equally tone-deaf remarks. He appeared to ignore the experiences of many in attendance and the agency’s own employees, who have been handcuffed by budget cuts, demoralized by scandals involving former administrator Scott Pruitt, and trapped in an agency that has shamelessly favored business interests over environmental protection. “What a great time to be an American,” said Glenn, who himself has been tainted by associations with a lobbying firm currently under investigation. “What a great time to work at the EPA.”
Since the 1940s, fluorinated compounds have been used to manufacture Teflon pans, water-repellent clothing, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers, fire-fighting foam and hundreds of other applications. Tens of thousands of fluorinated compounds exist, but only about 4,700 have names, and of those, the science is still lacking. “We don’t know about them until we discover them,” said Andrew Gillespie, associate director for ecology at the EPA’s office in Research Triangle Park.
Some persist for decades in the environment, accumulate in the food chain, and are toxic, even at very low levels. Once released into the air, groundwater or surface water, as Chemours/DuPont has intentionally done in and around the Cape Fear River, it’s difficult to predict the compounds’ behavior. They might break down into other chemicals. They start as one compound, interact with rain, then fall to the earth as a different one. They are durable, widespread and nearly impossible to avoid.
“There is no soil sample that doesn’t have them,” said EPA Chief of Science Policy Laurence Libelo. “There is no water or human blood that doesn’t have some level of them.”
Exposure to these compounds—although at what levels and for how long is still under investigation—can cause developmental and reproductive problems, thyroid disorders, a depressed immune system and even cancer.
Even when the materials are responsibly disposed of in municipal landfills, items like a popcorn bag or couch cushion can release the chemicals into the leachate—liquid that collects in tanks at the bottom. But if the landfill leaks, the compounds enter the groundwater and from there, potentially the drinking water.
(Or the air: In 2017, Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, sponsored a bill requiring state environmental officials to allow landfill leachate to be forcefully sprayed into the air. He insisted the method was safe. The bill failed. Without any scientific evidence, Dixon has also insisted treated drinking water is safe, even if it contains low levels of fluorinated compounds.)
Chemours is behind the GenX discharges into the Cape Fear River. Although DEQ has ordered the company to stop all GenX discharges, the damage is done, and done so without financial penalty. Since the 1980s, Chemours’ actions—some intentional, others negligent—have contaminated the drinking water for thousands of residents in Bladen, Cumberland, Brunswick, Robeson, and New Hanover counties.
Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch pleaded with the EPA to demand more accountability from polluters. “Chemours knew what it was discharging,” he said. “The corporate misconduct, the inaccurate reporting, the unwillingness to acknowledge impacted communities.”
If the EPA succeeds in listing PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Superfund program, that designation requires potentially responsible parties to pay for the clean up. But companies have found creative ways of avoiding accountability, declaring bankruptcy or stalling in court, for example.
Bill Edge lives on County Line Road near the Chemours/DuPont plant. “We are a GenX family,” said Edge, who retired from the US Army Corps of Engineers. His duty station was near Chemours, and he said he saw the company discharging near there in 2002. A pipe under the road had rusted, and leaked corrosive fluorine—a component of fluorinated compounds—into a gully. The mouth of the gully ran into the Cape Fear, where Edge said he saw people swimming and fishing.
“This company’s track record is one of neglect,” Edge said. He has installed a reverse osmosis system at his home. The membranes in that system are made by DuPont.
These emerging contaminants are a statewide problem. GenX “is not the only contaminant we’re wrestling with, and the Cape Fear is not the only waterway,” said N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan.
In fact, fluorinated compounds have been detected in Jordan Lake, Lake Michie near Durham, and in Greensboro’s public water supply. The source of Greensboro’s contamination is likely the Piedmont Triad International Airport, where fire-fighting foam is used. At least one well in the town of Atlantic in Carteret County also tested high for fluorinated compounds, likely from a nearby military base, where training exercises also use the foam.
A $10 million study, funded by the Department of Defense, will examine the health of residents near and around eight military bases; the locations have not yet been chosen. Another federal health study of 350 children and 1,100 adults is scheduled for Peace, New Hampshire. Based on funding levels, the EPA plans to expand that study to other areas of the U.S.
The EPA is scheduled to release a proposed toxicity assessment for some compounds next month; it will be subject to public comment. However, Emily Donovan of Clean Cape Fear asked federal officials to consider the health effects on those residents who “have been chronically exposed.”
“How much is safe to drink if we’ve been drinking the water for 40 years?”
Willie Williams, 77, lives in Gray’s Creek but has not asked for his water to be tested. “I’m afraid,” he said. “What if I find out something is wrong with me?”
He criticized the state legislature’s funding priorities: $5 million to the N.C. Policy Collaboratory to study GenX and less than half that amount, $2 million, in grants to local governments to help households transition to clean water systems. “Two million dollars can’t get you down the street,” Williams said. “So we sing ‘Kum Ba Yah’ and pray and say, ‘Let’s get along.’ But we don’t do anything.”
The residents know that it’s difficult to prove a cancer cluster. There has never been one officially identified in North Carolina, although one possible cluster is under investigation close to Lake Norman near Mooresville. Nonetheless, the incidence of rare cancers, childhood cancers, and other severe health disorders are impossible to ignore.
“Our cancers aren’t holding up signs saying, ‘We were caused by C8. We were caused by GenX,'” said Rhonda Dunn, who lives in the Gray’s Creek neighborhood.
“I would have two sons,” Beth Kline-Markesino of Stop GenX in NC Water, told the EPA, as she handed over large signs bearing faces of the victims. “But my son Samuel died. He didn’t develop kidneys, a bowel, or a bladder. I’m giving you these posters so you’ll remember the faces of my community. This is real, and not just numbers on your desk.”
The long day had exhausted Rusty Goins. “I’ve got a six-year-old grandson and I’m scared to death for him,” Goins said, as he concluded his remarks. “When he looks in my eyes and says, ‘Poppy are you gonna be around next year?’ I say, ‘Let the piece of junk at Chemours answer.'”