Lawmakers travel to Wilmington for hearing on GenX in Cape Fear River

20 legislators will hear from officials and the public as concern rises and the public utility works to filter GenX out of the water

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is testing a pilot program at the Sweeny Water Treatment Plant in Wilmington that uses Granular Activated Carbon, above, to see if it will remove perfluorinated compound chemicals like GenX. (Courtesy Cape Fear Public Utility Authority)

WILMINGTON – On Wednesday, a special meeting of the legislative Environmental Review Commission will be held in Wilmington to learn more about the unregulated compound chemical GenX in the Cape Fear River, the area’s primary drinking water source.

Lawmakers at the N.C. General Assembly called the meeting last week, inviting public officials from the lower Cape Fear region along with the secretaries of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services. Also on the invitee list are officials from Chemours, the company that has been releasing GenX, a perfluorinated compound that is a byproduct of manufacturing nonstick coatings, for 37 years.

“It’ll be a tough room. I’ll applaud them if they do show up, but we’ll see,” said Mike Brown, chairman of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, in an interview with North State Journal.

The meeting comes after weeks of controversy over GenX, what it is, what it can do to public health, and how it ended up unregulated in the river in the first place.

That’s a difficult conversation to have with 200,000 people in a community.” said Brown. “It’s so complex that if people don’t have all the answers they tend to speculate, they talk to a neighbor or a physician, and they speculate, then they put it on Facebook and the story takes on a life if its own,” said Brown.

“What is helpful is to strategically go through the path of connecting the dots to figure out what’s safe, what’s not safe and what do we need to do to reach definitive answers that everyone wants as quickly as possible,” he added. 

Over the weekend, environmental activist Erin Brockovich visited Wilmington, invited by a group called Stop GenX in our Water for a forum at UNCW.

“I know you’re fearful. I know you’re confused, and I know you don’t know who to believe, who to trust, where to go. We want you to know you are not alone,” Brockovich told the packed Lumina Theater.

Brockovich brought more than a dozen people with her; most were part of a film crew recording her visit for a potential documentary.  The trip was criticized by some as long on self-promotion and a bit short on actual science, but residents in Wilmington said they were glad for her visit as they weigh whether to drink the water or whether to let their children drink it. 

Chemours Fayetteville Work plant, north of Wilmington, had a federal consent order to release GenX in the Cape Fear.  However, GenX is not listed on their state permit.  The state is required by the federal Clean Water Act to regulate any chemical in the water that it deems toxic.  Taking steps toward figuring out how much the state knew and when is one of the goals of Wednesday’s meeting.

“The Clean Water Act is real clear about how it protects the drinking waters of the U.S.,” said Brown. “What was the regulatory process and how did Chemours and these regulators interact, what information was shared back and forth that led us to this point? … We’ve been asking those questions since early June.

“A lot of those questions, quite frankly, haven’t been answered yet, which is curious,” he added.

Before the Wednesday meeting, CFPUA will take lawmakers on a tour of the Sweeney Water Treatment plant, originally built in the late 1800s. In 2010 a $65 million renovation wrapped on the now state-of-the-art plant, featuring UV and ozone technology to purify water.  Calling it the “Stealth Bomber” of water treatment plants, Brown says they are currently running pilot programs to learn how to filter GenX out of the water.

“A compound like GenX is hard to treat for presently,” said Brown. “A lot of people talk about reverse osmosis, which might capture GenX, but then you have the byproduct. … Another drawback is that reverse osmosis is very water intensive. In order to get a gallon of water out, you may have to put a gallon and a half of water in.”

Their pilot program instead uses Granular Activated Carbon, or GAC. They are studying whether the GAC removes these new perfluorinated compounds, like GenX, from the water.

“We’re running a small simulated test board with filters in it to see how they are working,” said Brown. “If they prove successful we can take that methodology and implement it in the larger plant.”

Gov. Roy Cooper has asked the N.C. legislature for millions more in funding for state agencies to deal with GenX. However, last week the conservative think tank Civitas requested than any additional funds for come from the $2 billion Connect NC bond, passed last year, and be directed to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority through the state treasurer’s office. 

Both Civitas and CFPUA have filed separate legal actions over the GenX issue. In early August CFPUA sent a notice of Intent to Bring Citizen Suit letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of N.C., indicating that the utility plans to sue to Chemours to enforce the Clean Water Act.