EPA Investigates Chemical Contamination of North Carolina River

Nonstick chemical was found downstream of Chemours’ Fayetteville manufacturing facility.

The utility that proves drinking water to Wilmington, North Carolina, has been collaborating with academic scientists to evaluate unregulated chemical contaminants in the Cape Fear River. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will investigate whether the chemical company Chemours complied with a federal permit for the production and cleanup of an industrial chemical that has been detected for at least four years in the Cape Fear watershed in southeastern North Carolina, an agency spokeswoman told Circle of Blue.

Academic and federal scientists have identified the chemical with the trade name GenX in the drinking water of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which serves 67,000 customer accounts in the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County. The utility authority is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) downstream of Fayetteville Works, a Chemours facility that uses GenX to produce materials used in fuel cells and in the automotive industry.

DuPont, the company from which Chemours was spun off, received an EPA permit in 2009 to produce GenX, with the requirement that it capture or recycle 99 percent of the chemical in its waste stream. Whether that requirement was followed at the Fayetteville facility is the question EPA seeks to answer.

“This investigation will allow EPA to determine whether Chemours is in compliance with requirements of the order to control releases to the environment at the Fayetteville facility,” Enesta Jones, EPA spokeswoman, told Circle of Blue.

Chemours announced on June 20 that it would “capture, remove, and safely dispose” of wastewater from Fayetteville Works that contains traces of GenX.

Mark Garvey, an attorney in the EPA Office of Civil Enforcement who worked on litigation against DuPont in its use of a precursor chemical to GenX, would not comment on the case, but he did write in an email that “this DuPont matter is very active right now.”

Reactionary Chemical Policy

Detection of GenX reflects a tension in U.S. drinking water policy and chemical regulation. GenX belongs to a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which, because of their strongly bonded chains of carbon and fluorine atoms, are known to be durable in the environment and in human bodies. Some have also proved toxic to humans. The most comprehensive human study to date found a “probable link” between PFOA — a PFAS compound — and high cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and ulcerative colitis.

Though up to 3,000 such compounds are in use globally, there are no federal regulatory standards for acceptable concentrations in drinking water. The EPA has issued only a non-enforceable health advisory for two of the most well-known compounds, PFOA and PFOS. Three states — Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont — set their own standards for the same two compounds, while New Jersey is in the process of doing so.

The North Carolina State University testing that brought GenX into the spotlight detected at least six other PFAS compounds in the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s drinking water, three of which had concentrations 15 times as high as GenX. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality asserts that drinking water produced from the Cape Fear River poses a “minimal” health risk, though it does acknowledge that scientific understanding of the compound’s long-term effect on humans is scarce.

Finding a full basket of PFAS compounds is not uncommon. In testing groundwater near fire stations, where firefighting foams are the source of PFAS contamination, staff at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services found unregulated compounds for which no human health data exist.

DuPont developed GenX as a replacement for PFOA, which was phased out of production in the United States due to its toxicity. In developing alternatives, DuPont and other companies sought to maintain the beneficial properties of PFASs — namely, their nonstick, heat-resistant, and water-repellent qualities — while reducing their harm. The result is that companies produced compounds like GenX that have shorter carbon-fluorine chains, claiming that they break down more easily.

Academic researchers are calling for caution, though, arguing that not enough is known about the shorter-chain compounds to say whether these alternatives are acceptable. Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, told Circle of Blue, that only for PFOA and PFOS, the non-banned compounds, do scientists have “copious” data. For the rest, “we have a study or three, and not even in the same [animal] species.”

When it gave DuPont permission in January 2009 to manufacture, process, and distribute GenX, the EPA did so based on toxicity tests on rainbow trout, water fleas, and algae that exposed the organisms to the chemical over two to four days. At that point the company had submitted no tests evaluating the chronic effects of GenX or its cancer-causing potential.

The agency approved GenX even though it noted that “there is high concern for possible environmental effects over the long-term.” The consent order required the company to submit additional testing on the chemical’s long-term toxicity on animals.

Jones said that the EPA is now reviewing additional toxicity data supplied by Chemours. She did not respond to an emailed question asking when that data was submitted.

As far as DeWitt knows, there are no studies of the toxicity or prevalence of GenX in humans. The handful of existing studies have been conducted on mice, rats, and monkeys. Her lab has published one of the few studies of GenX toxicity in animals. She called U.S. chemical regulation policy “reactionary.”

“We don’t study a compound until it’s already a problem,” she said. “It’s how the system works.”