WILMINGTON — The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced Wednesday that it is leading a state investigation regarding reports of an unregulated chemical in the Cape Fear River.
The DEQ and state Department of Health and Human Services are collaborating to investigate the presence of a compound known as GenX.
The release stated that DEQ is strongly encouraging Chemours, the company that produces the chemical for industrial processes at its Fayetteville facility, to identify any measures that can be taken to reduce or eliminate the discharges of the chemical to the river until the state completes its investigation. DEQ is also pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to provide regulatory guidance on GenX.
Additionally, DEQ staff are pushing Chemours officials to limit the amount of GenX making its way into the river. A Chemours official told state environmental regulators this week that the company is working to assess waste streams containing GenX and determine whether the company can reduce the amount of GenX discharged to the river under current production levels.
DEQ and DHHS leadership plan to participate in a meeting in New Hanover County convened by local officials Thursday to establish the next steps in addressing this issue. Representatives from Chemours were expected to attend.
“We are seeking answers and solutions to a problem that has prompted understandable concern among citizens who live and work in Wilmington and the lower Cape Fear region,” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. “We are taking a hard look at the quality of the region’s source of drinking water and all options we have to limit or eliminate how much of this chemical makes its way to the river.”
The department explained that environmental regulators will collect water samples from the Cape Fear River and will send those to a laboratory capable of detecting GenX in water at low concentrations. The laboratory has indicated that the materials the state is required to use for the water collection and testing should arrive next week. DEQ staff are prepared to mobilize as soon as the sampling materials arrive from the lab.
After meeting with DEQ staff this week, Chemours agreed to bear all costs for the water collection and testing. The laboratory, which is in Colorado, has indicated that the first test results will likely be available four weeks from when the samples are received, but multiple rounds of testing and analysis will be necessary for a meaningful evaluation of the water quality.
Staff at DHHS also have initiated daily conference calls with local health departments in the lower Cape Fear region to share the latest information on this issue.
“The department has a history of close collaboration with DEQ to protect the health of North Carolinians. We are working closely with DEQ to understand more about GenX and we will keep people informed as we get more information,” Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said.
There are no U.S. regulatory guideline levels for GenX. DEQ leadership have reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency for information about GenX. The EPA, which is the lead agency responsible for establishing drinking water standards, is working to establish guidance on unregulated compounds such as GenX that North Carolina and other states can use to develop potential regulations for the chemical compound.
Based on available published research, however, the levels of GenX that were detected in the Cape Fear River in 2013-14 would have posed a minimal health risk. This is a relatively new chemical, and the health effects are not fully understood at the current time.
“A sampling event from 2014 is the most recent data that shows GenX present in the Cape Fear, which makes obtaining new data critical,” Regan said.
More recent data will be available for analysis following the water sampling expected to get underway in the coming days.
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