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Communities Still in Dark on Cape Fear River Contamination

In 2017, scientists discovered GenX, a toxic and carcinogenic compound, in the Cape Fear River. (Adobe Stock)
In 2017, scientists discovered GenX, a toxic and carcinogenic compound, in the Cape Fear River. (Adobe Stock)
June 12, 2019

WILMINGTON, N.C. - It's been two years since communities surrounding the Cape Fear River found out their water supply had been contaminated by a compound known as GenX, part of the group of hazardous chemicals called PFAS. Today, New Hanover County residents say they still need answers.

The source of the Cape Fear discharge was Chemours, a spinoff company of DuPont that manufactures industrial chemicals. GenX is a chemical byproduct of the manufacturing process, and also is found in Teflon and firefighting foam.

Emily Donovan, who co-founded the group Clean Cape Fear, said local residents remain in the dark.

"A lack of information does not equal 'safe,' and that's where we have been living for the last two years," she said. "We've been living with a lack of information, and we're being continually told the water is still safe to drink."

Donovan said research continues to show chemicals in the PFAS family - per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances - are toxic and carcinogenic. Last year, the North Carolina Legislature approved more than $5 million to fund the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network, a research group to test public drinking-water sources across the state for PFAS contamination.

Donovan said regulatory loopholes in the permitting process allow companies such as Chemours to discharge GenX and other proprietary compounds without having to disclose any information about them. She said GenX initially received a lot of media attention as a compound scientists were able to detect and identify. However, she said, little is known about other chemicals or byproducts that could have seeped into the Cape Fear River.

"In our area, we have an increase in testicular cancer; there's cause for concern for liver or kidney, and then, we also have thyroid cancer," she said. "What's tricky is to track down the other health risks because these are chemicals that have not been very well studied."

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Greensboro, and other legislators have introduced House Bill 568, which would make it mandatory for companies to provide information about the chemicals they discharge and would suspend the permits of those that release unauthorized or undisclosed pollutants. The text of that bill is online at ncleg.gov.

Disclosure: Park Foundation - North Carolina contributes to our fund for reporting on Campaign Finance Reform/Money in Pol, Children's Issues, Consumer Issues, Environment. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC