On the same day that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper sent a letter asking the Environmental Protection Agency to take quicker action on GenX contamination, local leaders expressed their disappointment in the state's handling of water safety in southeastern NC.
At a news conference in the New Hanover County Courthouse on Monday, 40 days after news about GenX in the Cape Fear River first broke, NHC County Commission Chairman Woody White, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, Brunswick County Commission Chairman Frank Williams and Pender County Commission Chairman George Brown all were left with as many, or possibly more questions than answers.
While acknowledging that members of the community who have claims should seek legal action, White said the threat of lawsuits should not be a precursor to the public getting information about GenX, which was discharged into the Cape Fear River by the Chemours Company.
"Our community, as a whole, should not have to wait on lawsuits to get this information," he said.
White added that he wants the state to immediately begin studying GenX's effects on human health and for those findings to be released as soon as possible.
In addressing state leaders directly, White said the issue is no longer a Wilmington or Cape Fear Region issue, saying instead, "It's a state of North Carolina issue. ... It is likely affecting our tourism and our local economy. It may have affected the health of our citizens in some way."
Questions surround the status of Chemours' permit to discharge GenX, even after the company said it was removing all wastewater containing GenX from its Fayetteville plant.
"What's the status of the legal compliance over these discharges?" White asked. "Has the Governor or the Attorney General decided whether Chemours or DuPont violated the law? Have they threatened to prosecute them or sue them on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of citizens and people affected here? This issue has nearly paralyzed the community and despite recent test results that show things are moving in the right direction, we demand leadership from our chief executive and our No. 1 state attorney. Let us know what is going on."
Sheila Holman, the NC Department of Environmental Quality assistant secretary for environment, said the DEQ's primary goal is not legal action at this time.
“That investigation is still ongoing, as I explained to officials," Holman said. "Our focus is trying to understand the current concentrations of GenX in the water supply. We’re continuing to investigate whether there are any permit violations. Our focus has been on public health protection first regarding what is in the drinking water and are levels safe to drink."
When asked about an investigation into Chemours and its permits, White was blunt.
"To be in compliance with their permit, they should have the data as to what they've been releasing and in how much quantities for decades," White said. "So the question (is), do you have it or not? If it's yes, let's see it. If it's no, why not?"
Saffo made a plea for the state to do local studies on possible adverse health effects of GenX and brought up questions many longtime residents of the Wilmington area likely have about the drinking water and Cape Fear River itself.
"We appreciate the Governor's actions in asking Chemours to shut off that valve and putting that stuff into the river," Saffo said. "But now we have to evaluate, what are the damages done to the river? What's our drinking water like moving forward and making sure that we have good water standards that we can all adhere to, including EPA, (Department of Environmental Quality), and of course, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and to make sure that this never happens again.
"Why was this allowed to happen for so many years?"
White admitted that, to his knowledge, no one from the county or city has reached out to Chemours since a June 16 meeting in Wilmington, other than an email from Saffo. He said universities have contacted the Department of Health and Human Services in hopes of starting GenX studies and that "if someone at the executive level or high up at the state had demanded that 40 days ago, we'd be a month into blood collection samples" and possibly closer to identifying GenX's impact on our health.
As Monday's news conference came to a close, White made it clear that any possible Chemours permit review should take place in Wilmington, not Fayetteville, since Wilmington is downstream and affected more by chemical pollution in the water.
He closed by saying that any missteps taken early on in the process will not happen again, mainly because he said area residents are fully engaged now.
"If the last 40 days have taught us nothing, they've certainly taught us that somebody has been asleep at the switch," White said. "We're no longer asleep. This community is galvanized, unified and I would suspect they would show up in large numbers at a public hearing and that the state would take notice of what they have to say."
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