Surveys, interviews: Responses of Chemours and DHHS to Gen X and PFAS pollution falling short

Surveys, interviews: Responses of Chemours and DHHS to Gen X and PFAS pollution falling short

- in Environment, Top Story

Last summer, Chemours sent contractors to the Cumberland County home of Katrina Rubiera and tested her drinking water. Shortly afterward, the first shipment of bottled water arrived.

“Our well water tested positive for, well, I’m not sure, because I still don’t have my test results,” Rubiera told Policy Watch last week via email.

Although Chemours has regularly sent bottled water to her home since then, she still doesn’t know what contaminants are in her drinking water and at what concentrations. 

The public mistrust of state officials and the alarming lack of information about toxic GenX and PFAS — perfluorinated compounds — in drinking water, fish and food were borne out in a community survey conducted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services; DHHS released the results yesterday. 

“The results emphasize the major impact that GenX and other PFAS have had on this community and people’s daily lives,” DHHS wrote. “Efforts should be made to restore the community’s trust in their environment and their ability to enjoy regular activities around their home and community.”

Many people living within 10 miles of the contaminant source, the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant, told DHHS their lives and routines have been upended by the groundwater and drinking water contamination. 

“Stopped watering garden. Don’t get in pond or river. Don’t dig in soil unless absolutely necessary. No longer go bare-footed. No longer go hiking or play games in yard,” wrote one private well owner, whose water contained high levels of GenX, to DHHS.

That’s a tall order. Chemours is responsible for contaminating the water supply both near the plant and downstream with GenX. For at least 30 years, the company’s predecessor, DuPont, discharged PFAS into groundwater and the Cape Fear River, which in turn tainted the drinking water.

Exposure to GenX and PFAS has been linked to several types of cancer, thyroid disorders, early-adult onset obesity, increased breast density — a risk factor for breast caner — high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, ulcerative colitis, low birth weight, liver and pancreatic problems, high blood pressure during pregnancy and developmental disorders.

These compounds are found not only in drinking water but also compost, food irrigated with contaminated water, as well as many consumer and industrial products: Teflon pans, microwave popcorn bags, take-out food containers, pizza boxes, stain-resistant carpet and furniture, water-resistant clothing and firefighting foam.

More than 1,100 households within a 10-mile radius of the plant have drinking water contaminated by these toxic compounds. Neither the state nor the EPA regulates GenX and other PFAS in drinking water. Instead, the agencies rely on unenforceable health advisory goals in determining who qualifies for alternate water supplies, provided for free by Chemours as part of a consent order with the NC Department of Environmental Quality and the nonprofit Cape Fear River Watch.

To gauge how residents have understood and responded to the drinking water crisis, DHHS last spring mailed surveys to all 15,319 households within a 10-mile radius of Chemours Fayetteville Works plant.

DHHS received 1,858 responses. The “overwhelming majority” said that DHHS “has not helped them better understand how to avoid exposure to GenX and other PFAS.”

Nearly 300 respondents, or 16 percent, said they had not received any information or communication from state officials about GenX or PFAS contamination in their community. 

“This is of note,” DHHS wrote, given that these households lie within areas of known contamination. “It highlights the need for better communication and community outreach.”

Kellie Hair, at a public meeting in 2018: “This is bullshit! We should tell Chemours to drink our water.” The Bladen County sheriff’s deputy escorted her from the auditorium, but she later returned. (File Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Nearly two-thirds of responding households — 1,151 — are on private wells. But many households whose wells had been sampled for GenX and other PFAS told DHHS they had little or no information about what the results meant.

DHHS recommends that people not drink, brush their teeth, cook or prepare baby formula with water containing GenX at or above 140 parts per trillion.

The same advisory is in effect for drinking water that contains any one type of PFAS at or over 10 ppt or a total PFAS levels at or over 70 ppt.

That communication problem persists: Two days before Christmas, Chemours sent a crew to test the drinking water flowing from Kristina Campbell’s tap. Last week, Campbell, a U.S. Army veteran once stationed at Fort Bragg, received her first shipment of bottled water, dropped on the front porch of her home in the Gray’s Creek neighborhood of Hope Mills, in Cumberland County.

“I got a notice saying my water was above the recommended level,” said Campbell, who has a daughter in elementary school. “But it didn’t say for what chemicals or what the levels were.”

Campbell’s case is not unique. Of the nearly 300 households whose wells had been tested, 56 didn’t know the results. 

According to the consent order, Chemours must provide bottled water to households within three days of receiving preliminary results from a lab indicating well sampling exceedances of any or a sum of 14 types of PFAS. Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall told Policy Watch that after the lab completes quality control checks on the preliminary well sampling data, it provides the final results to Chemours. In turn, Chemours mails the results to the property owner within seven days.

Households will eventually phase out of bottled water and receive a free reverse osmosis or granulated activated carbon system for their homes.

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin told Policy Watch that the agency “has heard the concerns of the community about the length of time it is taking Chemours to provide results.”

In addition to ensuring Chemours is meeting the requirements of the consent order and drinking water compliance plan, Martin said, “DEQ has instructed Chemours to provide preliminary data to residents ” — such as the notice provided to Kristina Campbell — at the time of bottled water delivery or shortly after.”

Roxanne Higgs, who lives in Gray’s Creek near Kristina Campbell, called the company in early December requesting that it test her water. Higgs’ water was tested on Dec. 23 and she recently received a note saying that it tested above the advisory goal for PFAS and 24 gallons of bottled water. However, Higgs said the details won’t be available for another four to six weeks.

“It raises an eyebrow,” said Higgs, whose husband died three years ago of pancreatic cancer.

For those households that do regularly receive bottled water, several said the amount was insufficient; one household reported using more than 200 bottles a month. 

Other respondents told DHHS that it was difficult for some residents to lift, carry and store the water shipments. (This was also a common problem for people who were on bottled water because their homes were near coal ash ponds.)

Although most households that responded to the survey said they have stopped consuming contaminated water, 27 responded that they had not. Of those, eight said they didn’t have access to an alternative water source, even though they are eligible to receive bottled water or a filtration system from Chemours. 

Martin said the issues identified about bottled water have been addressed since the survey period ended last May. 

“To ensure that DEQ is kept up-to-date, we are receiving weekly and monthly reports from Chemours about filtration system eligibility and installation,” Martin said. “This information also notes the number of residents who have not responded to eligibility correspondence. DEQ continues to review these weekly and monthly eligibility and installation reports and follow up as needed.”

This map shows the 10-mile radius from the Chemours plant

The GenX drinking water crisis has been ongoing since at least 2016, when NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe and EPA chemist Mark Strynar detected the toxic contaminant in the Cape Fear River and in drinking water flowing from household taps in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. (Just today, the Environmental Working Group released a report showing total PFAS levels in Brunswick County drinking water reached 185.9 ppt, or 2.5 times the EPA’s advisory level.)

The scientists reported their findings to DEQ, then under Secretary Donald van der Vaart, but the agency did not act on the information. Knappe re-sent the information to DEQ in March 2017, which was by then, and still is, led by Secretary Michael Regan. Again, Knappe said he received no response.

Finally, in June 2017, the Wilmington Star-News reported on the researchers’ paper, published in a peer-reviewed journal, which prompted health and environmental officials to act.

But state officials were caught flat-footed by the media reports and subsequent public concern. And part of the mistrust stems from the summer of 2017, when DHHS initially set a health advisory goal of 71,000 ppt for GenX in drinking water, based on information from European toxicologists. After reviewing more, albeit sparse data from the EPA, within a month the department revised the goal to just 140 ppt, adding to the public alarm and confusion.

Some of the households surveyed “thought the state had done a poor job in responding to the community, including a lack of timely response, poor outreach or communication and mistrust,” DHHS wrote.

Most state agencies send press releases and information via email and post it online at their respective websites. But it is difficult to navigate the DEQ and DHHS websites; some residents, particularly the elderly, don’t have email. These households get their information through direct postal mail or TV, according to the survey. 

Public meetings have also failed to reach some residents. Over the past three years, DEQ and DHHS have held dozens of meetings about GenX, but because of the lack of toxicological data they haven’t been able to fully answer residents’ questions or assuage their health concerns. In 2018, the EPA also hosted a “listening session” in Fayetteville, although little, if anything, concrete came of the all-day event. 

Residents “want more testing, provision of safe drinking water and more health information, including blood testing or health studies.”

DHHS did collect blood and urine from some residents who lived near the plant. However, the sample size was small, just 30 people, limited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DHHS said.

Under the terms of a consent order, the company was required to reduce its air emissions of GenX by 99 percent by Dec. 31, 2019. (It met the deadline.) The company also recently submitted a draft plan to reduce the amount of PFAS in groundwater. The public comment period has been extended to March 6.

DEQ also fined Chemours $12 million, plus $1 million in investigative costs, for groundwater violations. But that is a small amount for a company whose fluoroproducts line, which uses GenX, sold $636 million in the third quarter of 2019. 

Survey respondents want “regulations to be enforced and Chemours to be held accountable,” DHHS wrote.

The survey responses have prompted DHHS to change the way it communicates, the agency said. This includes placing printed copies of all of its fact sheets in a repository at the McEachern Public Library in St. Pauls. 

The agency plans to host a public meeting about the survey results, but using different methods of publicizing it. DHHS also plans additional work with local researchers to better inform the public of the health risks associated with exposure to the compounds.

“Please help our community,” one resident wrote to DHHS. “I appreciate the steps the state is taking but it simply not enough. … Clean water should be our right, not a privilege.”