State officials struggle to keep up as GenX pollution issues spread, grow more complex

By: - March 20, 2018 12:53 pm

Image: Creative Commons

Late March is prime spring planting season in North Carolina, and this year, as part of his personal scientific experiment, Mike Watters is sowing not just one garden, but four. Vegetables in the first will be grown in a greenhouse, irrigated with bottled water and shielded from rain potentially contaminated with GenX.

Watters, who lives in Gray’s Creek a mile from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, will plant three others outside. Gardens two and three will use filtered water and bottled water, respectively. A final garden will receive water straight from his well – the same well he once used for drinking and cooking, until it tested positive for 14 chemicals, including elevated levels of GenX.

His private well tested at 236 parts per trillion for GenX, nearly twice the state’s health advisory goal. For the family of perfluorinated compounds, his water tested at 530 ppt; the EPA has set a health advisory goal of just 70 ppt. He now uses bottled water.

“You’re welcome to test the gardens,” Watters told the Science Advisory Board yesterday.

The concerns about GenX started with contamination in the drinking water, both public supplies in Wilmington and private wells near the Chemours plant. But over the past 10 months, additional testing by the state and Chemours has expanded those contamination concerns to include air, water, honey, wild game, and fruits and vegetables.

The Science Advisory Board, appointed by the heads of both the Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services, has thoughtfully gathered the sparse scientific data about GenX: vegetable studies from the Netherlands and Minnesota, information from the EPA. To the non-scientist, the SAB’s monthly meetings can seem to drop into rabbit holes of arcane statistical methods and advanced chemistry.

Yet so far, the SAB has not issued any recommendations to the state on enforceable health standards. The SAB doesn’t make policy, but only advises state regulators on what those standards should be. DEQ continues to collect important data, but the public has become increasingly frustrated with the uncertainty of what’s safe to eat, drink, fish, hunt and harvest.

“Behind the scenes is there any talk of formulating a regulatory standard?” Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch asked the SAB. “Do you have a timeline?”

“It may not be obvious that everything we’re doing is about moving toward a number,” replied SAB Chairman Jamie Bartram. “We’re studying these other routes [of exposure] to see if they influence water. We don’t want to make potentially dangerous recommendations because of a lack of information. Yet we want to move as quickly as we can.”

About 10 days ago, the Department of Environmental Quality received a vegetable study of two cities in the Netherlands. Although the analysis must be more thoroughly translated from Dutch, it shows that some varieties of vegetables grown in gardens within six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) of Chemours plants had high concentrations of GenX and perfluorinated and/or polyfluorinated compounds. The affected vegetables were potatoes, lettuce and beets.

Dutch scientists theorize that like what is occurring at the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, atmospheric deposition is contaminating the produce. Chemical compounds are leaving the plant in the air from the stacks and then falling on the ground. When these compounds mix with water, such as rain, a molecular change occurs, with the result being GenX. From there, GenX can enter the groundwater, drinking water, gardens and beehives. Last year, honey harvested from one private farm southwest of Chemours tested at 2,000 ppt for GenX.

Rainwater collected at a weather station near Wilmington has already tested positive for GenX. The state is conducting additional rainwater testing near Chemours, said Michael Scott, director of DEQ’s Division of Waste Management. Early rainwater results show levels that range from “non-detect” to as much as 630 parts per trillion at areas near the plant, depending on the wind direction. By comparison, the state tested rainwater near Raleigh, which showed no GenX.

The air data results could be announced later this month. The primary sources of the contamination are from indoor air and emissions from two processing methods that are being vented through the plant’s stacks, said Mike Abraczinskas, director of the Division of Air Quality. (Policy Watch today asked DHHS and the state Department of Labor if either has conducted any health and/or workplace investigations at Chemours; we’re awaiting a reply.)

Abraczinskas said the state is working with Chemours to reduce the air emissions and has approved a trial program to use carbon absorbers. While data collection is necessary, SAB member John Vandenberg said he’s concerned about the inhalation risks associated with the air emissions. “I’m worried that we’ll be paralyzed by analysis. We need to be recommending health levels,” said Vandenberg, who specializes in air quality.

Last month, DEQ officials collected fish from the privately owned Marshwood Lake, northeast of the plant. Those results could be available in late April. The state Department of Agriculture is also working with DEQ on food testing. The SAB recommended examining land use near the Chemours plant to determine what acreage is being farmed either commercially or privately.

Since the final frost of the spring is forecast for Friday, home gardeners like Watters will soon begin putting plants and seeds the ground. And there’s a chance of rain nearly every day next week.

Above photo by Southern Foodways Alliance is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.