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How an unregulated chemical entered a North Carolina community’s drinking water

One of about 85,000 chemicals registered in the United States are not tested for in drinking water. One of them is GenX, a man-made compound that manufacturing facilities have discharged into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River for decades. In the second of a two-part series, NewsHour Weekend visits the area, where residents are asking questions about the chemical’s health effects.

Read the Full Transcript

  • By Sam Weber and Laura Fong

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So this well tested at what?

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    This well tested at 236.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In a rural pocket of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Mike Watters has three drinking water wells on his five-acre property, but in the past three months, he has stopped using the water altogether.

    When did you figure out that your water is not safe?

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    6 September of this year. We had no clue. We’ve been drinking the water, feeding it to our dogs, our parrots. We knew something was odd, but 6 September Chemours came in. They had a letter and said, “We want to test your wells. Do you give us permission?”

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    A spinoff of the chemical giant DuPont, Chemours has a chemical plant just more than a mile away, Watters, has lived here since 2012 with his wife and son. He’s a veteran – former Special Forces — and works at nearby Fort Bragg.

    He had no inkling that his water might be contaminated until the company tested his well and told him it had an unsafe level of an unregulated chemical known as GenX. Watters paid $800 to have his own analysis done, which showed GenX at 236 parts per trillion, well above the state’s health goal of 140.

    The company has told him the water is okay for non-drinking uses.

    “Don’t use your well water for drinking, cooking…but it is suitable for bathing washing dishes doing laundry.” You’re just not taking that risk?

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    Nope. They’re telling me it’s safe to go ahead and stick in my eyes. I think they’re insane.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Watters now uses only bottled water provided by Chemours. And he’s not alone: residents of 115 homes within a few miles of the plant have been told their water is not safe to consume.

    Can’t you just boil it off?

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    No, you cannot boil this. Most filtration systems will not remove it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    GenX is one of the newest in a group of man-made compounds known as fluorochemicals. They’re used in the manufacturing process of your non-stick pans and your waterproof jackets. GenX is a replacement and closely related to another fluorochemical PFOA. That was used for decades before being phased out due to health concerns. GenX has been manufactured commercially here in North Carolina since 2009, but under a state wastewater permit, it’s been discharged as a manufacturing byproduct for decades.

    This is the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville. About a quarter million people downstream rely on it for their drinking water. A facility near here has been dumping GenX into the river since 1980. And not until this year, did residents learn about it.

    In 2013, a team of researchers began testing for GenX along the Cape Fear River, both upstream from the Chemours plant, and as far as 80 miles downstream near a water treatment plant in Wilmington.

  • DETLEF KNAPPE, PROF. NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY:

    What we had found was a GenX level of over 600 nanograms per liter in the drinking water.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Detlef Knappe, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State, was part of the team who found GenX in downstream samples. In November 2016, he co-authored a paper with his findings, and shared the results with water authorities and state officials. But it wasn’t until this June that a front page story in the Wilmington Star-News caused a public uproar.

  • MICHAEL REGAN, SECRETARY, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY:

    They are obligated to let us know what’s going into the water. They failed to do that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Michael Regan is the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ. The agency regulates the permitting process that allows Chemours to discharge wastewater.

  • MICHAEL REGAN:

    We immediately began to monitor and study sort of where the discharge was coming from and the potential impacts.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The DEQ confronted the company in June, and Chemours agreed to stop discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River. The company said at the time in a press release that it “believes that emissions from its Fayetteville facility have not impacted the safety of drinking water.”

    In July, North Carolina developed that health goal for GenX of 140 parts per trillion and since then state tests show GenX has generally been below that mark. While there’s very limited data on the health effects of the chemical, based on existing animal studies, the state says anything above that level could lead to “increased risk of adverse health effects.”

    But a goal isn’t the same as a law — it’s unenforceable. And in fact, GenX remains unregulated. One of about 85,000 such chemicals registered in the United States that are not tested for in drinking water.

  • DETLEF KNAPPE:

    With the development of more and more new chemicals. It’s really difficult for the public to just rely on the regulators to assure that the drinking water stays safe.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are chemicals assumed innocent until proven guilty?

  • DETLEF KNAPPE:

    That seems to be the mode of operation here. I think that’s part of the problem. We should really assume that a chemical may be harmful until it is proven otherwise.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney treatment plant is about 80 miles downstream the Chemours plant. The newly upgraded facility treats drinking water from the river for about 200,000 residents in the Wilmington area, according to Jim Flechtner, who runs the water system. But it does not filter out GenX.

  • JIM FLECHTNER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CAPE FEAR PUBLIC WATER UTILITY AUTHORITY:

    It wasn’t necessarily designed to filter some of these compounds out because they’re not regulated at the national and state level. When you design a plant, you design it to meet those standards. And unfortunately these compounds are in the river and they’re not regulated. And Sweeney cannot filter them. So we’re in a very difficult position.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The water utility was criticized for not acting sooner after GenX was found in the drinking water, but it has since started two pilot projects to test new treatment options for GenX and similar chemicals.

    And in October, the utility filed a lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont, alleging that the companies “deliberately evaded accountability for, and scrutiny of, their releases of toxic fluoropollutants,” including GenX. Chemours declined NewsHour Weekend’s request for an interview.

    Like Wilmington’s water utility, North Carolina has sued Chemours and DuPont for failing to adequately disclose what it was dumping in its wastewater. Secretary Regan, who was appointed in January by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, says that DEQ is in need of more resources in order to hold industry accountable. Since 2013, 70 positions in water quality at the DEQ have been eliminated.

  • MICHAEL REGAN:

    This agency has been cut significantly over the past few years. So we have made a request to our legislature for specific resources that would help us be competitive in this area. We would like to have more permit writers, evaluators, scientists and even technological equipment that would keep us competitive so that we could keep pace with these emerging chemical compounds.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Meanwhile, residents downstream from the Chemours plant are grappling with the news that gen x and other fluorochemicals are in their drinking water.

    Victoria Carey lives near Wilmington, North Carolina, downriver from Chemours. In June, she tested her water heater and found GenX and other fluorinated chemicals.

  • VICTORIA CAREY:

    There was 857 parts per trillion of GenX in the liquid portion of the sampling. So we’re already way over, way over the 140 parts per trillion.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Carey and her husband, Paul, refuse to drink the water, and are suing Chemours and DuPont. They have lived in the area for 15 years and believe that the chemicals in the water have caused a thyroid issue for them both.

  • VICTORIA CAREY:

    I believe strongly that it’s from the water because it’s unusual. Why would a husband and wife both have the same type of thyroid disorder? I mean it just doesn’t make sense. You know it’s something it had to triggered it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There isn’t a lot known about the health effects of GenX. And researchers in North Carolina have started the first human health study. But, PFOA, which GenX replaced, and is chemically similar to, has been widely studied.

    In a series of health studies over the last decade, involving 70,000 people living near a West Virginia DuPont plant, researchers found a probable link between PFOA and six illnesses, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, high cholesterol, kidney and testicular cancer, and thyroid disease.

    Earlier this year, DuPont and Chemours paid $670 million dollars to settle a lawsuit related to the releasing of PFOA in West Virginia. And the EPA has set a health advisory level for PFOA and a related chemical. But like North Carolina’s goal for GenX, it’s unenforceable.

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    This is Zeus—

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But less than a mile-and-a-half away from the plant, Mike Watters continues to worry. Last year, one of his macaws died, and one of his dogs has fatty tumors.

    Were they drinking the water?

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    They were drinking the water. Some of the tumors– they’ve gone down a little bit. But you’ll see he has a hard time getting up and down.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Two months ago there was another scare for downstream residents: a spill at the Chemours plant caused levels of GenX to spike to almost five times the state’s health goal of 140 parts per trillion. The company didn’t report the spill and in response the state moved to completely suspend the company’s discharge permit.

    That isn’t the kind of government intervention that usually appeals to self-described conservatives like Mike Watters.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what is the role of government in these kinds of situations?

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    Well, hold hold the the polluters responsible.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You sound a bit like an environmentalist.

  • MIKE WATTERS:

    You know I’m not. I never would have called myself an environmentalist at all. Your perspective changes when it comes to water when you can’t drink your water. That’s hard.

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