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Time to Fully Fund Our Environmental Watchdog

Governor Roy Cooper has asked the General Assembly during its Aug. 3 special session to approve about $3 million in emergency funding to pay for investigation and regulation of threats to the state’s drinking water. Good for him.

The Wilmington StarNews reported in June that the Chemours plant in Fayetteville was discharging the unregulated contaminant GenX into the Cape Fear River, a water source for New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick counties. Cooper directed the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to investigate. After their intervention, Chemours voluntarily stopped releasing GenX. GenX is in the same fluorochemical family of man-made compounds as C8, which has been linked to cancer. Researchers found in 1999-2000 that 99.7 percent of Americans already had C8 in their blood, exposed through a variety of sources, including Teflon, Scotchgard, and firefighting foam. GenX replaced C8 in 2009 after lawsuits contended that drinking water contaminated with C8 caused cancer. DuPont and its spinoff company Chemours was ordered to pay a $670.7 million settlement for releasing C8 into the air and Ohio River since the 1950s.

The federal Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of pollutants into waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to write the regulations to implement the Act and sets clean water standards. The EPA delegates regulation of the Act to the state. In recent years, North Carolina’s legislature has diminished this regulatory power by systematically defunding and dismantling the DEQ. There are simply fewer regulators, according to a 2015 EPA audit of how DEQ implements the permitting process that allows Chemours to discharge into the river. The backlog of permits continued and Chemours’ permit expired in October 2016. Chemours is now capturing and shipping GenX to Arkansas for incineration. Cooper has said the state would issue a new permit, but would not allow the company to release GenX.

Chemours discharged the compound under a loophole written into a 2009 EPA consent order. The document stated that GenX was so toxic that it could not be discharged under one manufacturing process, but could be released in undetermined amounts under another as a byproduct.

For people exposed to the chemical since 1980, when the plant first starting releasing GenX, long-term exposure remains a concern. Dr. Detlef Knappe, one of the authors of the published research that led to the initial StarNews story, told attendees at a June 29 public forum in Wilmington that even at very low levels, GenX and similar compounds could remain in the body and accumulate for a long time especially if people continue to ingest them.

GenX also isn’t the only unregulated contaminant found in the state’s drinking water sources. New Hanover’s Sweeney plant effectively treats most of the 1.4- dioxyene in the Cape Fear, Dr. Knappe said, but it is a concern for communities upstream on the Haw River. Chromium 6 has been found in private drinking water wells near coal ash plants. Dr. Knappe’s group also found six other compounds related to GenX in the Cape Fear. Chemicals are entering the environment continually, Dr. Knappe said, and it’s difficult for researchers to identify them since information about their structures is confidential business information.

Dr. Knappe’s study was based on samples taken beginning in 2012. What levels of GenX were in the water before then? There is no available public data. Cooper has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake a public health assessment of any potential long-term health effects of GenX. This also is a positive step.

Before the General Assembly approves Cooper’s request, legislators who in June delivered about $1.8 million in budget cuts for 2018-2019 to DEQ will have to perform the political equivalent of turning around an oil tanker in the Cape Fear. But it can be done. After StarNews reporter Vaughn Hagerty’s first story on GenX in the Cape Fear appeared June 7, a lightning-swift grassroots reaction spread throughout the community. Wilmington Democratic Mayor Bill Saffo and Woody White, Republican chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, presented a united front against Chemours. Following Chemours’ disclosure that they were intentionally releasing GenX, White and Saffo emerged from the meeting with a palpable, shared outrage.

They jointly advocated for answers and called for Chemours to stop all discharge. This has occurred and levels of the chemical have dropped below the goal established by NC DHHS. Legislators have loosened controls on businesses in recent years, in an attempt to stimulate economic growth. But at what cost? Legislators should swiftly approve Cooper’s request.

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