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No Agreement Yet: Eastern NC Water Safety Remains in Limbo

GenX is one chemical used in the past to manufacture the nonstick surface of Teflon. It is found in numerous products, including nonstick pans. (Thomas/flickr)
GenX is one chemical used in the past to manufacture the nonstick surface of Teflon. It is found in numerous products, including nonstick pans. (Thomas/flickr)
January 12, 2018

WILMINGTON, N.C. – The wheels of government are turning slowly for residents who count on the Cape Fear watershed for their drinking supply.

This week, the General Assembly was unable to pass legislation that would have funded additional testing for GenX in the water supply. The chemical has been used in manufacturing Teflon at the Chemours plant in Bladen County.

While the company didn't have consent from the Environmental Protection Agency for its use until 2002, Detlef Knappe, an engineering professor at North Carolina State University, says we now know GenX was created as a byproduct of manufacturing at the Fayetteville plant since the 1980s.

"That's maybe a big take-home lesson from this entire story, is that manufacturing processes also produce byproducts," says Knappe, "and very little information is really known about byproducts in manufacturing."

Knappe authored research last year that found concentrations of GenX in the Wilmington water supply significantly higher than the recommended limit. A funding measure passed the state House on Wednesday but wasn't considered in the Senate.

State Senate President Phil Berger, R-Eden, said lawmakers may wait until their next scheduled session in May before taking up the issue again. When asked for comment on this story, a spokesperson for Chemours released this statement: "We continue to work closely with local, state and federal officials to determine the appropriate next steps."

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has found the chemical in at least 11 other North Carolina counties – including Cumberland, Guilford, Orange and Wake.

David Andrews, a senior scientist with the group, says the GenX problem is like a canary in a coal mine.

"They really highlight deficiencies in our drinking-water regulation,” he says, “and so, there's a failure at the federal and local levels to adequately regulate these drinking-water contaminants."

Knappe says the discovery of GenX in a beekeeper's honey in the Cape Fear region prompted additional concern beyond water.

"What's concerning further in that area is other impacts on the food web – in essence, if the crops or vegetables from backyard gardens are contaminated,” he says. “It's a question that's still unanswered."

GenX has also been found in the water supply in Parkersburg, W. Va., where it was discovered that a Dupont Chemours plant was disposing of the chemical into rivers, streams and landfills. More than 3,500 lawsuits have been filed by residents of that area, claiming they were made sick from the compound.

Reporting by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the Park Foundation.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC