Cape Fear pollution
Monday, September 25, 2017
Bad news about the Cape Fear River is coming in buckets and barrels this year, all of them filled with anything but clean, clear water.
There is, of course, all the bad news about GenX, the chemical used by DuPont spinoff Chemours in its Fayetteville Works, where it manufactures plastic films like Teflon. The stuff was developed to substitute for another Teflon ingredient, called C8, a few years ago because C8 had leaked from a West Virginia DuPont/Chemours plant, shown up in public water supplies and provoked a host of lawsuits that cost DuPont and Chemours a $670 million settlement. C8 likely causes a number of illnesses, including testicular and kidney cancer.
So now GenX has been found to cause testicular, pancreatic and kidney cancer in animals, but research into its effects on humans is only in early stages. GenX has been found in significant quantities in the Cape Fear River below the Chemours plant, which straddles the Cumberland/Bladen County line. It’s also showing up in the public water system that serves Wilmington and surrounding municipalities. Wilmington residents, and their elected representatives, are angry and demanding state action — which they’re getting. State regulators have already begun steps to revoke Chemours’ permit to discharge waste into the Cape Fear. Last week, GenX was also found in ground water around the chemical plant.
The state is also investigating other compounds found in the river that are related to GenX and may have come from Chemours as well. None of the chemicals have been thoroughly examined for their health effects.
Then there is the older, longer-known pollution that spans much of the Cape Fear basin, which is the largest in the state. That’s the chemical 1,4-dioxane, widely used in the manufacture of varnishes, paint thinners and other products. The state has known about the discharge for several years and has tried unsuccessfully to track the source, but it appears to be coming from the Cape Fear’s principal source, the Haw River, from somewhere around Greensboro. 1,4-dioxane is a likely human carcinogen.
The nonprofit Environmental Work Group said last week that the Cape Fear basin is one of the most highly polluted by 1,4-dioxane in the country. In the group’s report, high levels of the chemical were found in the Sanford, Harnett County, Fort Bragg and Dunn water systems. All were at least eight times the Environmental Protection Agency’s “negligible” level.
The Fayetteville Public Works Commission, which provides water to the city and other parts of Cumberland County, says concentrations of the chemical in the river and in Fayetteville’s water have been dropping. That’s good news, but we shouldn’t be cheered by it. It’s still there and it’s still in measurable, and possibly dangerous, concentrations.
But wait, there’s more. Earlier this year, the nonprofit American Rivers listed the Cape Fear as one of the 10 most-endangered rivers in the country. The reason: runoff from factory farming operations. That’s no surprise, given our legislature’s efforts to cut back, instead of increasing, the amount of buffer required between agricultural operations and our state’s waterways. As if our rivers weren’t already dirty enough.
All of this exposes a state whose lawmakers and regulators have long shrugged off all but the most blatant dumping of chemicals and wastes into our rivers. Much of the state’s drinking water comes from those rivers, but somehow it’s OK to use them as open sewers as well. If it’s just sewage, our water treatment plants are capable of removing most of the pollution. But when it’s chemicals — C8, GenX or 1,4-dioxane among others — there is no such capability. For all practical purposes, it’s just about impossible to filter those chemicals from our drinking water. We’re at the mercy of the waste dumpers and until just this summer, regulators and lawmakers haven’t done much more than close their eyes.
We don’t want the Cape Fear River to carry poisons into our municipal water supplies. We assume no one does. A good, loud public outcry can make a difference.