An unregulated chemical has been discovered in the Cape Fear River between Fayetteville and Wilmington, and officials all along the river are stuck in a waiting game.
In November, the Environmental Science and Technology Letters published a study done by N.C. State University professor Detlef Knappe, in which Knappe and his team traced a chemical, GenX, down the Cape Fear River. The contaminating compound is made by the Chemours Company at Fayetteville Works, a 2,150-acre, 900-employee plant in Bladen and Cumberland counties.
The chemical in question — GenX — is a replacement for a key ingredient in Teflon, C-8, and since the compound is a replacement, it has yet to be regulated. Bladen County Health and Human Services Director David Howard explained.
“In a very general sense, it’s almost like proving a negative,” Howard added. “A lot of things are discharged without proof that they’re safe. They’re not required to do a decade’s worth of testing as to whether or not it is harmful.”
Not only is it unknown if the chemical is harmful, the technology to do anything about it doesn’t exist. GenX is a water-loving chemical that bonds tightly with the hydrogen and oxygen in water, making it extremely difficult to filter or dispose of. Most authorities do not have the capacity to test for the chemical, and the state does not require it.
Howard said he and other officials along the river are trying to determine to which family of compounds the new chemical belongs in order to learn more about it. If the information raises flags, it’s possible the Department of Environmental Quality could issue a new permit imposing limitations on the output.
In Bladen County, it is unclear how many people could be potentially affected. Kip McQueen, with Bladen County’s Public Works Department, said county customers would not be affected.
“The water we pull from comes from two aquifers — the Lower Cape Fear Aquifer and the Black Creek Aquifer,” he explained. “Geologists tell us those are from somewhere west around Lillington or Sanford and further north above Clinton, so we don’t think there’s much potential (to be affected by the Cape Fear River).”
The Bladen County Public Works Department serves 6,000 customers.
Chemours’ website touts the chemical industry as “the safest in the world” and Chemours as “one of the safest companies in the industry” and claims to “place a high importance on environmental stewardship and meeting or exceeding public expectations.” Calls to the company were unreturned.
“Everyone up and down the river — anyone who pulls from it — is watching this pretty closely to see what the state and EPA will be doing over the next few weeks,” said Howard.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.