Total PFAS concentration in Cape Fear River before 2017 nearly 1,000 times more than “health goal” level of GenX, study shows

PFAS contamination in Cape Fear River nearly 1,000 times greater than “health goal”

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A recently published study shows the total concentration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in the Cape Fear River before 2017 was nearly 1,000 times more than the state’s recommended “health goal” level for GenX.

Dr. Detlef Knappe, a professor at NC State whose 2016 research first revealed the presence of GenX and similar PFAS compounds in the river, notified the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services and CFPUA of the new research on Monday.

“We characterized for the first time archived samples from 2014 and 2015 using an expanded suite of fluoroether standards,” Dr. Knappe told the state and local agencies. “The 2014 sample was collected at Huske Dam, just downstream of the Chemours WW (wastewater) discharge. It had a total PFAS concentration of almost 1 mg/L (a million ng/L)! The 2015 sample was collected at Lock and Dam 1, and its total PFAS concentration was 130,000 ng/L. Given its fairly typical GenX concentration of 780 ng/L, I think results for this sample provide a reasonable snapshot of PFAS levels in drinking water of communities that sourced their water at Lock and Dam 1 prior to discharge control at the Fayetteville Works in mid-June of 2017.” (Note: ng/L is nanograms per liter, which is equivalent to parts per trillion or ppt.)

Knappe added that “perfluorinated ethers, such as PFMOAA, PFO2HxA, and GenX are highly persistent chemicals” and that the study results “suggest that these chemicals are as persistent as historically used PFASs, such as PFOA and PFOS.”

PFMOAA, PFO2HxA, and GenX are among a list of PFASs identified by state regulators as originating at the Chemours’ Fayetteville Works industrial site on the Bladen-Cumberland county line. Chemours previously told state and local officials the compounds had been discharged by its plant as a byproduct of manufacturing operations that had been ongoing since about 1980, when DuPont, which created Chemours, owned the site.

The research gives a clearer picture of the total PFAS contamination in the river prior to the state suspending Chemours’ discharge permit in 2017. The state also pressed the company to institute measures to curb its air emissions, which have been tied by regulators to extensive groundwater contamination.

Under a consent order signed earlier this year with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, no process water is allowed to be discharged from the Fayetteville Works site and into the Cape Fear River. Chemours also agreed to eliminate 99.99 percent of GenX and PFAS air emissions by the end of 2019.

A spokesperson for Chemours said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that while they have not fully reviewed the study, the water samples that were collected in 2014 and 2015 mostly predate Chemours, which was formed in July 2015 as a spinoff from Dupont.

“Our definitive actions have significantly reduced emissions to air and water, as is demonstrated through current water sampling data,” said Lisa Randall, communications lead for Chemours. “We would encourage other businesses and industries whose actions impact water quality in the Cape Fear to do the same. Chemours remains committed to reducing PFAS emissions from our Fayetteville manufacturing facility by 99% or greater. We are on track to achieve a 99% reduction of air emissions of PFAS by the end of 2019.”

Those actions greatly reduced levels of PFAS in the river, with GenX concentrations consistently remaining below 140 ppt – the “health goal” level set by state regulators, which has been characterized as the concentration “at which no adverse non‐cancer health effects would be anticipated in the most sensitive population over an entire lifetime of exposure.”

Trace amounts of GenX and other PFASs are still detected, however.

“Regulators have stated that highly contaminated groundwater at the Fayetteville Works could be migrating to the river,” the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said in a release. “Researchers also believe PFAS likely is in river sediment downstream from the plant.”

CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner says they’re still working through the new study to determine exactly what it means.

“There’s a lot of information in there that’s important to everybody in our community, because we’re talking about public health, we’re talking about a long term exposure to PFAS compounds that appear to be coming from the Chemours site so understanding all of this, understanding the health implications, is very important to our citizens and our community,” he said.

State regulators have not set a health goal level for total PFAS concentration.

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