New study finds additional chemicals in Cape Fear River; no timeline to stop discharge

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - A new study has found previously unidentified chemical compounds in the Cape Fear River.

The study of the Cape Fear River was conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency at the request of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. It began months ago after new concerns arose about contaminated water from a chemical known as GenX, which is discharged by a chemical plant along the river outside of Fayetteville owned by a company called Chemours.

The plant—which was owned by DuPont until 2015—manufactures chemicals for commercial use.

One of those chemicals, GenX, is used to produce Teflon and other similar products. A report released in 2016 found GenX in the treated water supply in Wilmington and neighboring communities, which is about 100 miles downstream from the Fayetteville plant.

Scientists at DEQ collected water samples from discharge points near the Chemours facility for six weeks as part of the ongoing investigation surrounding GenX.

The EPA tested the water for five different chemicals—three associated with GenX and two other chemicals not associated with the substance.

Tests found levels of the three chemicals associated with GenX had significantly declined; which was expected since the company is no longer discharging GenX.

But the tests also revealed high levels of the other two chemicals, which are no unknown they have no name. Regulators are referring to them as Nafion byproducts 1 and 2.

FULL COVERAGE: GenX Water Investigation

Regulators at DEQ and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services first learned of the EPA's findings in  a briefing on Monday.

Legislative leaders were given a heads up about the new report late Wednesday night but details of the new findings were not released until Thursday morning.

Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners was unhappy to learn regulators sat on the information for three days before releasing it.

"They've had 3 days now to politicize this and figure out their statement and their talking points. Enough with that. Get the information to the public and take action," White said.

But NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said scientists at her agency needed the time to study the new information provided by the EPA and determine whether the newly-identified chemicals posed an immediate health risk.

"Our team sort of dug in right away into the scientific data and I'm very proud of them and how quickly on how quickly they've turned it around, that we were able to share the information we're sharing today," Cohen said.

Because the two new chemicals found in the drinking water supply were previously unknown toxicologists at NCDHHS have no information to use when determining a safe level at which the chemicals can be consumed.

Until more information is gleaned about the substances, Cohen said, her agency is studying outside factors like the number of cancer cases in the area – a metric she said shows no spike and indicates a preliminary comfort level in giving guidance to continue drinking the water.

The other major question voiced by White and other leaders around the state on Thursday was when will DEQ take enforcement action against Chemours.

"What we can't figure out is why the chief enforcement officer of the state at DEQ, Secretary Regan, and why his boss, Governor Cooper, aren't shutting the permit down, why they aren't revoking it," White said Thursday.

As the permitting agency, DEQ has the ability to order the company stop discharging the two newly-discovered chemicals (it has already reportedly stopped discharging GenX) and take other action up to and including revoking the company's permit to discharge any substances into the water.

On Thursday, Regan, the DEQ Secretary, said the agency is evaluating all of its legal options.

Regan said his agency has reiterated its request for a list of all chemicals it discharges into the Cape Fear River, a request he said the agency first made in July.

Regan also said his agency has asked Chemours to stop discharging the two newly-discovered chemicals immediately. But, when pressed to an answer on what the agency would do to ensure the company would stop discharging the chemical—as it has the legal authority to do—Regan would not commit.

"DEQ is looking at all legal options," Regan repeating multiple times in response to various questions from WBTV.

The secretary would also not commit to a timeline by which his agency would ensure the company was no longer discharging the two new substances – only saying it would do so "immediately."

When asked at least a half-dozen times what 'immediately' means—days, weeks, months or another length of time—Regan only repeated that DEQ would take action "immediately."

INTERVIEW: Click here to watch video of the exchange

The public water utility in Wilmington, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, issued a release in response to Thursday's news further criticizing state regulators for being slow to act.

"CFPUA believes NCDEQ (has a) duty to take decisive action," the utility said in a press release.

Lawyers for the utility have taken the first steps to file a legal action that would force state regulators to take action against Chemours.

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