Attacking the messenger: GOP lawmakers unhappy with GenX reports from UNCW scientist, Cape Fear utility official

By: - April 30, 2018 12:35 pm

Several Republican lawmakers want to hear good news about GenX and emerging contaminants, even apparently, if it’s not true.

At the House Select Committee on River Quality last week, Reps. Jimmy Dixon, Larry Yarborough, Scott Stone, and Pat McElraft assailed a UNC Wilmington scientist and the head of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, alleging they were intentionally emphasizing bad news about emerging contaminants, and were essentially failing to be cheerleaders for Chemours.

“We’re scarin’ the puddin’ out of people,” said Dixon of Duplin County, using one of his favorite phrases. “There’s nothing that says the water’s not safe to drink.”

[Tweet ““We’re scarin’ the puddin’ out of people” “]

It’s true that since Chemours has purportedly stopped discharging GenX into the Cape Fear, raw water entering the CFPUA’s Sweeney plant contains levels of GenX below the state’s health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion. However, scientists have since discovered the presence of five more fluorinated compounds whose concentrations can be detected but not accurately be measured. The analytical tools to measure the levels don’t yet exist.

Rep. Ted Davis Jr., of New Hanover County and the Republican committee chairman, reminded Dixon that “I agree the water’s safe for GenX but it’s not absolutely safe because other compounds might be in there.”

Rep. Pat McElraft

State environmental officials, as well as the Science Advisory Board, have repeatedly told lawmakers that the cumulative effects of the many fluorinated compounds on public health is unknown. Nor have there been human health studies on the effects of GenX, although NC State scientists are analyzing blood and urine samples from 300 Wilmington residents for the first such research.

Rep. McElraft, who represents Carteret County, even insinuated that lawmakers were entitled to shape the content of public reports on emerging contaminants because, “we paid for them.”

She was referring to the $250,000 appropriation to UNC Wilmington and another $185,000 to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority last August to study the problem of emerging contaminants in the Cape Fear River. In that same bill, lawmakers opted not to appropriate $2.5 million requested by Gov. Roy Cooper for the state departments of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services.

McElraft was upset about a UNC Wilmington oyster study, recently presented to the Environmental Review Commission, that showed a quarter of oysters died when exposed to very high levels of GenX — 100,000 parts per trillion.

[Tweet ““The summary should not mention ‘mortality’ ….It’s so extreme.””]

“The summary should not mention ‘mortality,’” McElraft said. “People will think there’s a possibility we could die from that. It’s so extreme. Why would we test for that concentration? It will never go into the river at this concentration.”

“They had to test [at that level]” interjected Dixon. “Because they had a political agenda.”

Actually, it’s not politics but science that determined the experiment’s parameters. Aside from the fact it’s impossible to know that GenX would never enter the Cape Fear at those levels, UNC Wilmington scientist Ralph Mead told McElraft that scientists often use very high concentrations in experiments to learn about worst-case scenarios — the thresholds at which harmful effects can be observed.

Rep. Larry Yarborough

Yarborough, though, cited more personal reasons for downplaying the negative.

“The summary should highlight good news,” added Yarborough, who represents Granville and Person counties, “because I like oysters.”

Both DEQ and UNC Wilmington officials told the committee that high levels of GenX had been detected in rainwater not only near the Chemours plant in Fayetteville at 810 ppt, but downwind in Wilmington, where concentrations exceeded 500 ppt.

Rep. Stone, of Mecklenburg County, said that if the public sees those measurements, “they could be alarmed it’s in the groundwater [at those levels]. Maybe we shouldn’t release that data until the modeling is done.”

Some members of the public should be alarmed. Contaminated rainwater has polluted both the groundwater and drinking water wells near the Chemours plant. A drinking water well northeast of the facility tested at 1,300 ppt. That household, and more than 100 others, are now on bottled water.

Chemours has refused to cooperate with the utility in providing a full list of compounds being discharged into the river and their testing standards, said the utility’s executive director Jim Flechtner. The utility requested the information last June and has yet to receive a response.

Lawmakers implied that the utility was picking on Chemours, and that it should ask all industrial dischargers the same question. The utility has zeroed in on Chemours because it is the source of GenX discharges, according to the NC State and EPA scientists who discovered the river and drinking water contamination more than two years ago. 

Rep. Jimmy Dixon

“Maybe we’re misunderstanding why Chemours is doing this,” Dixon said in defense of the company. “Don’t you think getting info from other industrial dischargers is important? It’s one more stamp for the utility to ask other companies for the information.”

Flechtner told the committee that reducing the levels of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water has cost the utility $1.7 million so far. The concentrations are now 28 ppt and below the state’s provisional health goal — down from a peak of 800 ppt. Rates charged to customers are expected to increase three percent to pay for the plant upgrades and testing. Some of that money could be recovered if the utility wins a lawsuit against Chemours.

“If the raw water is clean,” Dixon said, “then what we’ve got here is motivated by lawyers. The water’s clean.”

[Tweet “…what we’ve got here is motivated by lawyers. The water’s clean.””]

But GenX will never be completely removed from the water. River sediment has been found to be contaminated with the compound. In turn, the sediment and rain will continue to be a source of contamination even if wastewater discharges have halted. Flechtner said a $50 million plant upgrade to remove as many emerging contaminants as possible would result in a 16 percent rate increase for utility customers, paid over 25 years. The expense and the increase are subject to the utility board’s approval.

Dixon was incensed at the mention of the potential increase. “Our message has been that the water meets federal/state standards but there are things we don’t know,” Dixon said. “Why did you think that putting that out there — 16 percent rate increase?”

“We were providing context,” Flechtner replied.

“Your report was biased. You had a message you wanted to deliver — to make the problem look bigger than it is.”

[notification type=”notification_info” ] What’s next?
* 27th – Deadline for Chemours to respond to DEQ and demonstrate that GenX-related air emissions don’t contribute to contaminated groundwater.
* If the company doesn’t comply with the deadline, then DEQ will modify the company’s air permit to prohibit all GenX air emissions.

* If the company does comply with deadline and presents an acceptable alternatives to reduce the emissions, DEQ will modify the permit with “enforceable conditions.”
*Ongoing: Continue six-month air ambient monitoring for fluorinated compounds in Jordan Lake watershed
Mid-month Fish tissue results scheduled to be released. Collected March 14 at Marshwood Lake near the plant, the data is back, but needs reviewed by the state toxicologist.
16th: Legislative short session begins; unclear whether a GenX funding bill will be resurrected
Ongoing: Ambient air monitoring for fluorinated compounds in the Cape Fear River watershed through October
18th Science Advisory Board is expected to finish evaluating the scientific basis of the state’s health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion in drinking water[/notification]

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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.