WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Trial attorneys from across the country have started coming to Wilmington after news of GenX water contamination began making headlines earlier this month. Attorneys say they expect to be filing lawsuits against chemical manufacturers Chemours and DuPont in the coming weeks or even days.
GenX is an emerging contaminant that is still being studied for potential health impacts, but it is similar to other chemical compounds which have been linked to cancer.
DuPont, and later its spin-off company Chemours, have been producing GenX at the Fayetteville Works plant since at least 1980 and have been discharging the contaminant into the Cape Fear River, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.
Although GenX has yet to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, Chemours voluntarily agreed to stop discharging it in response to public outcry after GenX was discovered in the water. On-site inspectors with the Department of Environmental Quality confirmed Tuesday the GenX discharge from Chemours has stopped.
WECT talked with attorneys from Baron & Budd out of Dallas on Thursday about potential litigation that could stem from residents' exposure to GenX. The attorneys confirmed that they have been contacted by numerous clients in the Wilmington area suffering from medical issues, and expect to file suit soon against Chemours and DuPont.
"Wilmington residents have been calling us, and my mailbox has been full several times a day," Baron & Budd environmental law attorney John Fiske told WECT. "There have been so many people calling us, and they're calling us with ulcerative colitis. They're calling us with kidney cancer. They're calling us with thyroid deficiencies and immune deficiencies. They're calling us because their loved one drank the water for several years and died of kidney cancer, and kidney cancer is one of those things that is related to fluorinated chemicals."
Scott Summy, who heads Baron & Budd's environmental law group, was in Wilmington 20 years ago litigating a water contamination case in Federal Court. In that case, Summy says the Conoco gas company, another spin-off of DuPont, leaked a chemical called MTBE into the ground water in Castle Hayne.
Summy explained that MTBE tainted the drinking water in one neighborhood, and the company ended up settling for $36 million with about 200 residents affected by the contamination. Some suffered health problems. Others were compensated for future medical monitoring in the event their health suffered as a result of exposure.
Summy said the GenX contamination has some striking similarities to the MTBE case.
He said for a case to have the merits to proceed with a lawsuit, attorneys must establish that exposure to a chemical occurred, and that a particular company released that chemical in a way that it eventually made it into people's drinking water.
Attorneys must prove exactly which chemicals people were exposed to, that those chemicals have been shown to cause certain adverse health effects in humans, and then find people who suffered those ailments. They also have to prove the period of time during which people were exposed, and the levels to which they were exposed.
Baron & Budd said they are handling four cases in other parts of the country, including Barstable, Massachusetts, and Escambia, Florida, involving residents who were exposed to C8, a predecessor of GenX that has been linked to cancer. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) is also in the process of testing for C8 in the Cape Fear River.
Summy said Wilmington is the first place his firm is aware of where GenX contamination has been an issue, and that the city could become the "poster child for GenX contamination."
Chemours claims it received a consent order from the EPA to discharge GenX into the Cape Fear River as long as it was produced as a byproduct while making other chemicals. Summy said even if Chemours had regulatory permission, it could still be liable for residents' exposure to that chemical.
"Just because you have regulatory authority if you follow a consent order does not mean you are not responsible if some third party is injured by that conduct," Summy explained.
The CFPUA is studying various water filtration systems that could be installed to remove most of the GenX and other emerging contaminants in our water supply. But early estimates put the cost of some of the more advanced filtration systems at $100 million.
Some residents have also expressed anger that CFPUA knew about GenX in the water months before the public was first made aware of the contaminant in an article in the Wilmington StarNews. Summy said it is unlikely the water authority could be held liable for not disclosing that contaminant information sooner since the chemical remains unregulated by the EPA.