Facts, fictions and unknowns: What we learned at the legislature’s GenX hearing

By: - August 24, 2017 11:19 am
Left to right: Reps. Jimmy Dixon and Chuck McGrady, Sen. Trudy Wade, co-chairs of the Environmental Review Commission (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

NCPW covered the epic investigative hearing on GenX, held by the Environmental Review Commission yesterday, which mixed fact — “All citizens deserve clean drinking water free of contaminants,” said Rep. Holly Grange — with fiction: “We’ve got fat kids” because of GenX and related compounds are endocrine disruptors, said one Wilmington citizen.

(Yes, scientific studies have shown that endocrine disruptors can contribute to obesity in some people, but this is a sweeping overgeneralization.)

Fact: The NC Department of Environmental Quality, according to Secretary Michael Regan, does have the statutory authority to set health goals and drinking water standards for GenX.

But, Regan said, “It’s a huge resource drain to go it alone. Do we have adequate data? There are a lot of gaps.”

Fiction: The legislature has no regulatory power over these standards. In fact, they do. Lawmakers could pass legislation setting a standard. They could direct DEQ to set a standard. They could also repeal the Hardison amendment, which makes it more difficult for state agencies to set more rigorous health and environmental standards. They could kill House Bill 162, which would further obstruct state agencies’ ability to regulate.

Unknown: Ambiguous federal and state laws, pose an uncertainty of whether Chemours would challenge the DEQ’s authority in court. And no ERC member could ask Chemours this question, or any question, at the hearing, because, as ERC co-chair Sen. Trudy Wade said, although company representative Michael Johnson originally agreed to appear, Chemours attorneys nixed that idea. So his seat, reserved at a table next to Regan, was empty.

Fact: Federal toxics law has failed to protect the environment and human health. ERC counsel Jennifer McGuinnis offered this piece of troubling data: Since the enactment of TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) in 1976, only five chemicals have been banned. Only four have been prohibited from coming to market — out of 23,000.

Congress did amend TSCA last year to add more transparency about the chemicals and to amp up safety standards.

Fact: GenX is only one of many toxic perfluoroctanic chemical compounds in the Cape Fear River. “We’re talking about a cocktail,” said UNC Wilmington professor Larry Cahoon. “Some of them are at levels far in excess of GenX.”

Unknown: The science on GenX and other emerging contaminants is slim. Some of it is even conducted and published by the regulated industries themselves — thus, they get the (usually positive) results they pay for.

Fact: Last November, DEQ’s Division of Water Resources and Assistant DEQ Secretary Tom Reeder were notified by NC State University professor Detlef Knappe that GenX was in the drinking water. He sent his scientific findings and requested a meeting. The meeting never happened.

Unknown: A more complete narrative of what Chemours, and before it, DuPont, told whom at DEQ when. Correspondence from 2002, when Bill Ross was secretary (he also filled in as acting secretary before Gov. Cooper appointed Regan earlier this year), showed that the company claimed the discharge of these chemicals was in a “closed loop system.” That would mean that no discharge would have left the plant or come into contact with the outside world.

It’s also unclear why senior DWR staff didn’t mention the November email to Regan. Regan told the ERC that GenX didn’t come to his attention until early June. “There was a lack of understanding on what GenX was,” Regan told the ERC. “This was something to revisit as staff got to it.”

Unknown: It’s unclear if Chemours adequately disclosed the nature of its discharge in its 2009 permit application. The permit itself, which expired last October (fact) mentions monthly monitoring for PFOAs in the plant’s effluent. But did Chemours go into more detail? Did it list the Chemical Abstract Service number for the pollutants? A CAS is like a chemical fingerprint, a unique identifier, said professor Cahoon.

Regan replied,  “Our investigation will get to the bottom of it.”

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo at the podium: “Nobody should be putting anything into the drinking water we don’t know about.” Left: DEQ Secretary Michael Regan (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo pleaded with lawmakers and state officials to act quickly. “Citizens should know what’s in their drinking water,” he said. “We know the EPA has issued studies. They should be shared and the results should be given to us immediately. We need to find out the sources of these contaminants, where they’re are coming from. Nobody should be putting anything into the drinking water we don’t know about.”

Yes, that’s a fact.

Read more coverage of the ERC hearing.

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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.