Legislators Struggle Over How to Handle Chemicals in North Carolina Water

North Carolina legislators are grappling with the growing knowledge that industries have discharged unstudied chemicals into the state’s waters for years, and that a recent upsurge in concern carries the risk of political blame.

The unregulated chemical GenX that for years poured into the drinking water supply for more than 200,000 people in and around Wilmington might be hazardous, but there’s been too little health research to know for sure, state Epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore told a special state House committee Sept. 28. The chemical known by its Chemours Co. trade name is just one of many compounds insufficiently studied to know how much is safe or how much is floating in waterways, Moore said.

“It was never just about GenX,” Moore said about concerns that captured public attention this summer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists about 85,000 chemicals used in commerce, but only about 10,000 have been tested for potential risks and just 65 declared toxic pollutants, said Lee Ferguson, a Duke University professor who studies water contamination.

GenX is used to make non-stick coatings like Teflon and other products at a Bladen County plant operated by Chemours about 100 miles (62 kilometers) upstream from Wilmington. The chemical was inadvertently produced as a byproduct of a different chemical process and entered the Cape Fear River, said Sheila Holman, an assistant secretary at the Department of Environmental Quality.

State health officials have said southeastern North Carolina residents who rely on the river can safely drink the locally treated water.

Meanwhile, GenX has been found in residential water wells near the Chemours plant at levels exceeding a state health target. State environmental officials have directed the company to provide bottled water to 19 homes.

A company spokesman did not respond to an emailed question Thursday.

The company has offered little information about the plant employing about 1,000 workers since the controversy erupted in June. But a Charlotte lawyer representing Chemours wrote to the state environmental agency’s top attorney earlier this month that the chemical company was being unfairly singled out.

“North Carolina law allows various known human carcinogens in drinking water at levels far greater – in some instances thousands of times greater – than the two substances about which DEQ has expressed concern in Chemours’ effluent,” attorney R. Steven DeGeorge wrote ahead of an agreement with state attorneys to turn over internal data. DeGeorge did not respond to calls and emails seeking clarification about his claim.

Whatever the cancer risk GenX and similar chemicals may present, a bigger worry is their potential for damaging human reproductive and immune systems, said David Andrews, a scientist at Environmental Working Group in Washington. The company attorney’s blame-shifting also doesn’t erase the company’s responsibility, Andrews said in an email.

Thursday’s hearing came amid similar finger-pointing by politicians.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has asked the Republican-led General Assembly for $2.6 million, in part to hire more water quality scientists, permit writers and others to keep tabs on river pollution statewide. Cooper’s administration said GOP legislators have eliminated at least 70 positions in water quality since 2013.

Legislators instead passed legislation Cooper said weakened environmental protections, but which included $435,000 to help Wilmington’s utility remove GenX at water treatment plants and help university researchers test chemicals in the river and its sediments. Cooper last week vetoed the legislation as inadequate and misguided. Lawmakers are expected to try overriding that veto during a work session in Raleigh next week.

Other politicians are working “to lay this problem at the feet of the Republican majority in the General Assembly,” said Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County. Earlier reports of GenX and related chemicals in the state’s waterways were missed by state officials or brushed aside by politicians when Democrats ran state government, he said.

Greensboro Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison agreed that did happen.

“I will take the blame for that for my party, but I think we’ve been trying,” she said.

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