Mixed messages from officials on GenX in Cape Fear frustrate locals

Gov. Cooper released a list of his recent actions on the crisis, but the questions about how long theyve known remain.

Madeline Gray | North State Journal
The Cape Fear River waterfront in Wilmington

WILMINGTON — Emotions ran high and residents of Wilmington had harsh words for Gov. Roy Cooper and his staff Monday regarding contamination of the Cape Fear River with the chemical GenX. Residents attending a public comment session were not just angry about drinking water safety but about communication from the state government on what they are doing to protect public health. Cooper met privately with state and local officials before the public session, where he outlined the steps his administration has taken in the wake of the crisis.

However despite the detailed list, there are a lot of questions still circulating about whether Chemours Fayetteville Works plant in eastern N.C. notified the state government of how much GenX, a byproduct of making non-stick coatings, they were releasing into the Cape Fear and what the state did about it.Under the Clean Water Act, touted by the Cooper administration as a critical tool in protecting public health, plants are required to present a list of the chemicals they are releasing. The state government is then required, through the permit process, to regulate any of those chemicals they consider toxic, whether there is a current EPA standard for them or not.

Cooper has said publicly that Chemours, previously owned by DuPont, notified the state of GenX being released and offered the lack of a federal standards as the reason that it’s release was not regulated by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Now, he’s calling on EPA to provide new standards. Cooper also said Monday that he directed NCDEQ to deny Chemours latest permit, which they had already requested when the story broke.

“There was a Federal Consent Order that allowed them to discharge GenX as a byproduct. We are stopping that,” said Cooper.

However, Chemours’ original permit from the state did not have any restrictions on GenX, putting Chemours notification to the state in question. Whether or not Chemours actually notified the state is critical moving forward as proper paperwork could shield the company from liability. The company is currently paying out a $670 million in West Virginia to settle 3,550 lawsuits related to the release of PFOA, a toxic chemical, into the area’s ground, air and water. Legal analysts say the February settlement was good for the company as it heads off potentially decades of separate lawsuits over the contamination.

Wilmington and it’s surrounding counties watched the West Virginia crisis closely and now public outcry and fear over GenX in the Cape Fear River is coming to a head. On Monday, when Cooper, NCDEQ Secretary Michael Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen met with public officials behind closed doors before the public session, Cooper would not allow local news cameras and reporters inside. He directed police officers to remove all media from the room except the Wilmington Star News newspaper. They also denied permission to broadcast the meeting.

An exchange caught on video between Cooper and WCET reporter Chelsea Donovan as he had her removed from the room got thousands of views on social media. It locally overshadowed the press conference as residents filled social media with claims of rising cancer rates around the region. Cooper and Cohen tried to calm fears and steer the discussion away from cancer.

“I have directed my administration to perform their work as if they and their families will be drinking this water. That is certainly how I approach it,” said Cooper once the public press conference started.”The levels of GenX are steadily trending downward but we will keep testing to make sure those chemicals keep trending in the right direction,” he said. He also has said he has contacted the Centers for Disease Control to “request a public health assessment to review any potential long-term health effects of exposure to GenX.”

“The CDC has the capability to create complex exposure modeling that will give residents a better understanding of any potential of health risks over the last thirty years,” he added.

Despite Cooper’s actions to study the health consequences of GenX, his denial of Chemours permit, and many public concerns over the drinking water safety, his Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the water is safe to drink.”I drank the water this morning and I can continue to say as a leader and a physician that folks can continue to drink the water,” said Cohen.

According to a statement released by the N.C. DHHS, on June 12, 2017, a two-year chronic toxicity and cancer study with rats was performed and determined no toxic effect of GenX. The department released a statement that “Based upon these data, the GenX levels detected in 2013-2014 would be expected to pose a low risk to human health.” However the audience in Wilmington Monday said the study is not enough.

Cohen was confronted by a woman in the audience who had suffered a miscarriage and believed that contaminated drinking water contributed to her miscarriage. She challenged Cohen to bring bottled drinking water to Wilmington and advise pregnant women not to drink the water.”

You knew GenX was in the water, and yet you did not tell us to stop drinking the water. You kept just waiting and waiting for those levels to go down,” the woman said. “Shame on each and everyone of you for waiting and not telling us.”

More studies are underway even as the departments green light ingesting the drinking water. New water samples taken by DEQ staff are being sent to a lab in Colorado and to the EPA lab in Research Triangle Park. The Colorado lab’s results are expected back later this month. In the meantime, Cooper has also asked the State Bureau of Investigation to get involved, but only to study whether there should be an investigation at all.”

The State Bureau of Investigation will work with the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the federal EPA, to determine if there is evidence of criminal violations of the permit, or of the federal consent order that allows the discharge of GenX that is in place, or of any other violations,” said Cooper.

‘Violations of the permit’ is the key phrase, bringing the question of whether Chemours notified the state or not of the discharge and if they did, why did the state not step in.