Meeting notes cast doubt on DEQ Secretary's GenX statements

(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)

WILMINGTON, NC (WBTV) - Documents obtained by WBTV appear to shed new light on the situation involving a toxic chemical that has been found in the drinking water supply in Wilmington and surrounding communities.

The chemical, referred to as GenX, is manufactured by the company Chemours - a company spun off from Dupont - at a plant outside of Fayetteville, upstream from Wilmington on the Cape Fear River.

GenX is used to make Teflon. The chemical has been made at the plant outside Fayetteville since 2009 but public alarm about the presence of GenX in the water supply was raised earlier this summer after the Wilmington Star News reported on a 2016 study that found the chemical in the treated drinking water supply.

Since that time, regulators, politicians and the company that makes GenX have pointed fingers and attempted to pass blame for who is responsible for the chemical turning up in drinking water with practically nobody noticing.

In an interview with the Star News in June, Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan cleared Chemours of any wrongdoing over the GenX disposal.

"What we have here is a situation where the company is not breaking the law," he said.

But it's not clear what basis Regan was using to determine the company's compliance with the law. The chemical compound for GenX does not appear in any of the company's discharge permits.

Read: DEQ staff notes from July 2010 meeting

And notes taken by state regulators during two separate meetings with company officials suggest Dupont said GenX would not be discharged into the Cape Fear River.

Notes suggest regulators were told GenX wasn't being discharged

Notes from a meeting in July 2010 between staff at what was then known as the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and employees of DuPont Fayetteville show regulators were told GenX would not be discharged into the river.

"New chemical- process and waste stream captured and disposed offsite by incinerator," the employee notes read.

A second set of notes taken by the same employee from a meeting between agency staff and DuPont held in June 2015 further suggest the company told regulators it was not discharging GenX into the river.

In the notes, the quasi-scientific name of GenX, C3 dimer acid, is underlined and a line is drawn above the words to the note "no longer discharges to river."

Some Wilmington residents like Dr. Larry Cahoon, a biological oceanographer who is a professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, have been following DEQ's reaction to the GenX problem.

Cahoon said he doesn't believe Regan was telling the truth when he said the company had not broken the law.

"I thought that was wrong from the beginning," Cahoon told WBTV. "It's abundantly clear that the presence of these compounds in their discharges was not disclosed as required by law. It's also abundantly clear that those compounds were not permitted specifically in those discharges. Therefore, the discharges are illegal."

Complicated science

Cahoon, who has a doctoral degree in biology and has studied water-related science for roughly four decades, acknowledged the technical details of the current GenX crisis can be hard to grasp.

"That's a big part of the problem," Cahoon said of the lack of understanding by both the public and regulators as to what GenX actually is.

"I've seen some of the notes and some of the internal correspondence that took place between Chemours, DuPont and various elected reps and agency folks and so forth. And it becomes clear that DuPont wasn't putting the proper details on record, that they were using a lot of jargon an dtechno-speak stuff," Cahoon said.

For instance, Cahoon pointed out, meeting notes taken by DEQ staff from a meeting with Chemours representatives on June 12, 2017, show company representatives told regulators that there were two kinds of chemical involved when discussing GenX: a substance sometimes referred to as HFPO and another, similar but different substance referred to in the DEQ staff notes as HFPO dimer acid.

Cahoon said HFPO dimer acid is an improper scientific term that sounds technical but doesn't actually refer to anything.

A term less technically inaccurate for the chemical commonly referred to as GenX is C3 dimer acid. That chemical replaced a compound known as C8 or FPOA, a chemical known to be harmful that DuPont was trying to replace with the development of GenX.

"From a technical perspective, it's really easy to roll over somebody who doesn't get the jargon, who's going to sit there and go 'uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, we'll take your word for it,'" Cahoon said. "There's a lot of things that I see in those written notes and correspondence that I'm thinking 'somebody is snowing somebody else here."

For his part, Cahoon thinks regulators at DEQ got fooled by officials from DuPont and, later, Chemours about what it was the company was actually producing.

DEQ secretary holds "DuPont meeting"

WBTV obtained a copy of DEQ Secretary Michael Regan's calendar for his first five months on the job.

The calendar shows a thirty-minute period of time reserved for a "DuPont meeting" on May 5, 2017.

It is not immediately clear what was discussed during the meeting nor who participated in the discussion. There is not a specific topic for the meeting listed on the copy of the calendar obtained by WBTV.

But the appointment came three days after a meeting between the Environmental Stewardship Initiative, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and a DEQ deputy director in which GenX was discussed. reported a staffer with CFPUA brought up GenX with Linda Culpepper, who is the deputy director of the Division of Water Resources at DEQ, and asked what assistance the state could provide. Staff at the water authority sent DEQ an official letter asking for help investigating GenX after the meeting, WRAL reported.

A DEQ spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for details about the meeting sent by WBTV late Thursday afternoon. But on Friday, the spokesman said the meeting was between Regan and another DEQ staffer to discuss the DuPont State Forest in Brevard, NC.

When asked to provide documentation or notes in support of the agency's description of the meeting, an agency spokesman provided an undated map of the DuPont State Forest without any notes on it. Nothing on the map indicates it was given to Regan during the meeting, as the DEQ spokesman claimed.

Agency, company refuse to answer questions

A spokesman for Regan first told WBTV the secretary would do an interview for this story but ultimately declined to make Regan available.

The department did issue the following statement:

Secretary Regan said in the June 15 press conference it was too early to make any definitive statements regarding the investigation, which had just started. The state's investigation is ongoing and we are developing additional information to make a final determination about whether there were any violations of the law.

A spokesman for Chemours also declined to answer WBTV's questions but issued the following statement:

We continue to work closely with local, state and federal officials to determine the appropriate next steps.

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