At emotional committee hearing over PFAS bill, lawmakers and concerned citizens confront Chemours, business interests

By: - June 3, 2022 8:00 am
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has spent $46 million to upgrade its Sweeney Water Treatment Plant to remove or sharply reduce PFAS levels in drinking water. Rates have increased 8% to cover the costs. (File Photo: Lisa Sorg)

State Rep. Ted Davis Jr. sputtered into his microphone at such volume that it distorted the sound of his words.

“I’m going to fight for my constituency,” Davis told his fellow lawmakers on the judiciary committee. “If the gentleman from Chemours really wants to show they care, why don’t they pay to make the water safe from the contamination they put in that river?”

Davis’s district is New Hanover County, home of Wilmington which, with Brunswick County, has had to grapple with exorbitant levels of GenX and other types of PFAS in their public drinking water.  The water supply for roughly a half million people in seven counties has been contaminated, including 6,500 private wells.

Yesterday’s public hearing on House Bill 1095 exposed the private battles that have happened for the past five years — battles that thus far have thwarted any meaningful legislation to regulate these toxic compounds: People who’ve been exposed to high levels of PFAS versus powerful and profitable business and chemical interests.

The measure has four primary sponsors: Davis, Frank Iler (R-Brunswick), Charlie Miller (R-Brunswick and New Hanover), and Robert Reives (D-Chatham). 

The culprit behind the contamination in New Hanover and Brunswick counties lay 90 miles upstream. Chemours and its predecessor, DuPont, manufactured several types of PFAS and then discharged the toxic pollutants into the Lower Cape Fear River from its Fayetteville Works plant for decades. 

Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (R-New Hanover) (Photo: NCGA)

Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers. 

In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast food containers, firefighting foam, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

Most people in the U.S. have PFAS in their blood, but scientists have found that some individuals, like those living in the throughout the Cape Fear River Basin — from Greensboro to Wilmington — have higher than average concentrations because of sustained and high exposures.

House Bill 1095 seeks to right that wrong. (It contains similar language to that in two previous measures from 2019, which went nowhere.)

It would authorize the state’s Environmental Management Commission to adopt a legally enforceable maximum contaminant level for PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances compounds. Although the MCL, as it’s known, is not detailed in the bill, the threshold would be science-based and “technologically feasible.”

The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS in drinking water, although it plans to release a more stringent toxicity assessment for GenX and PFBS this year. States can use those assessments to set their own regulations.

Currently, North Carolina has issued only a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion for total PFAS in drinking water, which is legally unenforceable. For GenX, a type of PFAS, the goal is 140 ppt. State health and environmental officials have advised not to drink water that contains more than 10 ppt of any individual compound.

North Carolina’s recommendations are less stringent than those enacted by several other states, especially those that have legally enforceable maximums, as low as 6ppt.

Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, lives in Brunswick County and works in neighboring New Hanover County. “Chemours did this for 40 years. They hid their discharges and broke the law,” she told the committee, crying, as she listed friends who have died of or developed rare cancers. Her husband survived a brain tumor. “I raised my children on this water. I’m begging you to pass this bill.”

The measure would also authorize NC Department of Environmental Quality to order responsible parties — manufacturers who contaminated the water supply — to repay the public water system for costs associated with reducing levels of PFAS contamination below the permissible concentration level. This requirement would be retroactive to 2017.

That’s the year Chemours’s practices finally became public. The Star-News of Wilmington reported that scientists had found high levels of GenX in the river; subsequent testing revealed Wilmington’s drinking water was also highly contaminated.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) (Photo: NCGA)

Since then, utilities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their treatment systems to remove or sharply reduce levels of PFAS in drinking water. Those costs are passed onto ratepayers.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has spent $46 million, plus incurred $4 millions to $5 million in annual operating costs, Kenneth Waldrop, executive director of the CFPUA, told the committee. As a result, the utility implemented an 8% rate increase for its water and sewer customers. “And we need another eight and half percent,” Waldrop said.

Customers on public water but private sewer systems pay 18% higher rates, he said.

To cover a $170 million expansion to remove the contaminants, Brunswick County water rates skyrocketed by 40%, beginning in January, said John Nichols, the county’s utilities director. 

“Remember one thing,” Nichols told the committee, “we’re paying for it right now, today. The industry profited from that pollution. We don’t think that’s fair.”

Jeff Fritz, lead for state government affairs at Chemours, called the bill “unnecessary.”

“It’s already occurring under existing law,” he said, referring to a consent order among the company, DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch. 

However, the consent order is not comprehensive, nor has it deterred Chemours from violating it. DEQ has fined Chemours $500,000 in civil penalties in the past 18 months for violations of that consent order, because of excess emissions and discharges of PFAS into the air and drinking water supply. 

While Chemours is paying for alternate drinking water supplies for private well owners, the company has not reimbursed public utilities; that litigation is still in the courts.

Jeff Fritz, state government affairs, Chemours (LinkedIn)

Chemours and other chemical companies responsible for PFAS, including 3M, have a history of finessing the truth. Fritz told the committee that Chemours “had voluntarily cut off all discharges to Cape Fear River.” What Fritz didn’t say was that the company faced legal action, including the state’s revocation of its discharge permit, if it failed to do so.

When Fritz commented that the company had “spent or committed to spend $400 million” to comply with the consent order, he did not mention that Chemours reported enormous first-quarter earnings: net sales of $1.8 billion, up 23% over this time last year, according to investor reports.

The NC Manufacturers Alliance, the American Chemistry Council the NC Chamber of Commerce, and the NC Forestry Association all opposed the bill.

Ross Smith, president of the NC Manufacturers Alliance, said, without evidence, that the bill would dampen business interests in the state and cause “uncertainty.”

Davis of New Hanover County could barely contain his rage. “This doesn’t prevent business from coming or staying in North Carolina,” he said. “It will be a deterrent for any business” that would contaminate the water and air. 

“Barring that, it doesn’t affect any jobs,” Davis said.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, had sponsored a similar bill in 2019 to require polluters to pay for cleanup costs and alternate water supplies. The measure never made it out of committee. Constituents in her district and other areas in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin have been exposed to PFAS through fire-fighting foam that contains the compounds. The House passed a bill to phase out AFFF, as it’s known, but the Senate has yet to hear it.

“I’m trying to hold my composure,” Harrison said, her voice quavering. “This bill will protect North Carolinians from being poisoned. I can’t believe this bill isn’t sailing through. I’m appalled.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison (on the left in pink mask) told the committee “This bill will protect North Carolinians from being poisoned.” She sponsored a similar measure in 2019.

Here  is a timeline of major revelations and Chemours violations, as well as legislative inaction, even outright hostility, toward regulating Chemours and PFAS.

This is based on previous Policy Watch coverage since 2017.

2010 and 2015
DuPont meets with DEQ (then DENR) and maintains no contaminated effluent would reach the Cape Fear River because the manufacturing process is a “closed loop.”

November 2016

Tom Reeder, DEQ assistant secretary for environmental protection, is copied on an email from NC State scientists alerting him and the Division of Water Resources to problems with GenX in drinking water.

June 2017

Star-News of Wilmington reports on GenX contamination in Cape Fear River, drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people.

After DEQ starts sampling the Cape Fear River and at the Chemours plant, the company halts its GenX discharges into the waterway. Chemours issues a statement: “We continue to believe that emissions from the Fayetteville facility have not impacted the safety of drinking water.  However, Chemours will take these additional steps, embracing its role as a significant employer and member of the community.”

August 2017

The state Senate Republican caucus sends a letter to Gov. Cooper questioning whether “any additional appropriations could make a meaningful difference in water quality and public safety in the Lower Cape Fear region” and if Cooper was simply engaging in “public relations.” Letter signed by Sens. Bill Cook, Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Rick Gunn, Michael Lee, Norm Sanderson and Bill Rabon.

EPA finds more PFAS chemicals coming from Chemours even though it has stopped discharging GenX into river. Levels of the Nafion byproducts range from 2,900 to 73,000 parts per trillion from the Chemours outfall to 53 ppt to 7,860 ppt in finished drinking water. Chemours did not list GenX or any of these recently discovered compounds in its federal discharge permit.

October 2017

Rep. Jimmy Dixon says people who have politicized the issue, including Gov. Roy Cooper, “need a spanking.” That politicization, Dixon claimed, has provided grist for the rumor mill. “How do we do this” — advising the public on the risks — “without scaring the puddin’ out of Mr. and Mrs. Public?”

“Folks are scared to death. The testing has been blown out of proportion. It’s not like the [lab] mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX. People die every day. There have been no tests showing it harms humans. There are no abnormal levels of cancer, but people are blaming GenX for their cancers for the past 30 years.” — Rep. Bill Brisson (R-Bladen)

“Are we scaring people?” Is there an uptick in cancer in these regions? We don’t want to incite panic.” — Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican representing several counties in northeastern North Carolina

Chemours has an illegal spill of GenX, but doesn’t report it for a month.

January 2018

“Chemours is serious about cleaning up the contamination/ Don’t blame Chemours totally. Maybe they made mistakes. They’re trying to do their best to do what’s right.” — Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret)

February 2018

DEQ sends a letter Chemours detailing the company’s refusal to comply with the agency’s requests to control the release of PFAS from its Fayetteville Works plant.

“Past behavior predicts future behavior. This is going to be a long, long, long process and you should avail yourselves of the court system.” — Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, to concerned residents regarding DuPont/Chemours.

April 2018

DEQ says Chemours intentionally misled regulators about discharges.

November 2018

Chemours emits nearly 40 times higher levels of GenX-related compounds into the air than it reported.

Company issues statement on a proposed consent order with DEQ: “This agreement is an example of how industry can work with stakeholders at the local and state level to address these concerns. We are committed to operating with transparency and a bedrock commitment to a sustainable future. We intend to live up to our commitments with actions not just words.” — Paul Kirsch, president of Chemours’ fluoroproducts business unit

January 2019

Chemours reveals it has exported GenX waste from the Netherlands to Fayetteville for the past five years “for recycling.”

February 2019

EPA cites Chemours with multiple notices of violation, including failure to provide key documents.

“Dilution is the solution to pollution.” — Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin)

April 2019

Two bills would tighten regulations of PFAS, setting a “precautionary” threshold of 10 ppt, and requiring polluters to pay for all cleanup costs and alternate water supplies. The bills stall in committee.

September 2019

Kirsch of Chemours tells U.S. House committee that it will not compensate people harmed by PFOA or PFOS, ostensibly because its corporate predecessor, DuPont manufactured those compounds.

October 2019

According to a new analysis of preserved samples from 2014 to 2016, PFAS were found at concentrations of at least as high as 130,000 parts per trillion near Lock and Dam No. 1, near the drinking water intake for the City of Wilmington.

March 2020
FDA says chemical replacements for PFOS and PFOA more toxic than thought.

May 2020

EPA Inspector General finds communication breakdown within EPA allowed Chemours to discharge GenXinto Cape Fear.

House Democrats introduce bill to ban sale, production of PFAS in NC. Goes nowhere.

August 2020

Cumberland County Commissioner Michael C. Boose, while in a public meeting with EPA Administrator  Andrew Wheeler, posits that GenX is good for you. “No one knows. Some people wonder, is GenX making them live longer? Is it curing vision problems? There’s so much mystery about it.”

March 2021

DEQ fines Chemours $200,000 for failing to comply with consent order

April 2022

Chemours agrees to pay $305,000 for air quality violations

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

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