CFPUA staff 'acted in appropriate' manner in involvement with GenX study

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - An internal review of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority's involvement in a study that found GenX in water treated by the company's Sweeney Water Treatment Plant determined CFPUA staff "acted in an appropriate, professional, timely, and scientific manner."

CFPUA's board passed a motion last week to have board member Jennifer Adams and environmental attorney Robin Smith conduct the review after conflicting reports of when CFPUA staff first learned of the unregulated chemical. The results of the review were discussed at a special meeting Friday.

"Data was gathered, studied, and reviewed at appropriate levels," the reviewers concluded. "Based upon information and facts available to CFPUA at the time, staff moved the issue appropriately through the CFPUA chain of command."

Those interviewed in the review process included: Dr. Detlef Knappe, an NC State professor and one of the researchers who detected GenX in the Cape Fear River, CFPUA Board Chairman Mike Brown, CFPUA Executive Director Jim Fletchner, CFPUA Chief Operations Officer Frank Styers, CFPUA Water Operations Supervisor Ben Kearns, CFPUA Water Treatment Plant Supervisor John Malone, CFPUA Environmental Management Director Beth Eckert, and CFPUA Consulting Attorney Linda Miles.

The timeline begins with June 2013 through October 2013, during which Knappe's team first identified GenX and analyzed samples of the Sweeney raw water feed. It's noted Knappe could not recall if those sample results were provided to CFPUA at that time.

Nearly a year later, Knappe communicated with then-water resource manager at CFPUA, Michael Richardson, requesting an assessment of Sweeney, Brunswick and Pender for 1,4-dioxane and perfluorinated compound removal. The assessment took place three months later at Sweeney.

Over the following year, Knappe conducted a study, which he notified CFPUA about, to learn more about the possible impact of emerging fluorochemicals on the water supply as well as their fate in water treatment processes.

Knappe CFPUA staff "actively participated in" Knappe's study, the beginnings of which were shared with CFPUA staff in May 2016. The preliminary report's abstract stated, "The only PFECA for which an authentic standard was available for quantification, GenX, was detected at an average concentration at 631 ng/L."

In a September 2016 meeting between Richardson and Styers, they noted Knappe's report was a "[g]ood thing to be published and get information out there on emerging contaminants." Richardson and Kearns were later added as co-authors on the paper.

Knappe's report was published two months later in November 2016, and he later forwarded the paper to multiple individuals within NCDEQ and various cities.

However, CFPUA was not included in the email. The email read in part, "none of the newly discovered compound being discharged by Chemours plant south of Fayetteville are removed by the advanced and conventional treatment processes employed in the Sweeney WTP in Wilm… A large number of people are exposed to high levels of PFAS through their drinking water!"

A week after Knappe's email, a UNCW professor sent the published paper to CFPUA, along with several other public entities.

According to the timeline, Knappe sent the published paper to Kearns on March 6, 2017, and various other CFPUA staff the following day.

On March 20, Styers, Fletchner, Kearns and Carel Vandermeyden, CFPUA's director of engineering, met to discuss the paper, and determined more information was needed and that Knappe needed to provide next steps.

In an April 19 meeting with CFPUA staff and Knappe, the NC state professor said he "wanted his next project to further investigate GenX and its fate and look for potential treatment technologies and to use the research to talk to the state to get it regulated and out of the river," the timeline states.

Knappe also reportedly told Styers, "[there is] not enough information to say that you shouldn't drink the water."

Three days later, Knappe forwarded the abstract of a Swedish study on GenX toxicity to Kearns, reportedly saying, "[the study] purports that GenX is more toxic than PFOA (the chemical GenX replaced), concentrations in Wilm, Brunswick, & Pender greatly exceed the current health advisory level for PFOA. I think it is important that we push to dramatically reduce inputs of GenX and similar compounds into the [Cape Fear River]."

During a June 15 meeting with local officials following reports of the compound in the water, Chemours said it had reduced the GenX discharge by as much as 80 percent since the initial 2013 study. State regulators are working to verify this claim.

Adams, who lead the review, worked as an engineer at DuPont, the company who owns Chemours. She said Thursday that while she knows people at the Chemours plant, that there has been no communication between CFPUA board members and employees at Chemours or DuPont.

At the end of the review, there is a recommendation that CFPUA considers a process involving releasing more information about "non-routine" sampling results to the public.

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