Companies react to study indicating presence of unregulated toxin in water supply

Companies react to study indicating presence of unregulated toxin in water supply
Updated: Jun. 8, 2017 at 5:32 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Water companies and local officials are reacting to a study published in the Wilmington StarNews this week indicating the presence of an unregulated chemical known in the trade market as GenX in the raw water supply feeding many people in southeastern North Carolina.

The chemical was introduced in 2010 as an alternative to a compound known as C8 after evidence indicated potential negative health effects, including studies suggesting an increased risk to several cancers, due to long term exposure to C8. There are few studies of the effects of exposure to GenX, although industry officials say a greater understanding of that is needed.

GenX is produced and being discharged into the water supply at Chemours along the Bladen County line, upstream in the Cape Fear River. It is not currently regulated by the state or federal environmental agencies.

The study, published in November 2016 by a team of researchers including a North Carolina State University professor, cited samples taken from the supply for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. While not tested for other companies, it is believed the chemical would be present in other water supplies in the area.

While water supplied by CFPUA meets all federal and state quality standards, CFPUA Chief Operations Officer Frank Styers wrote in a memo to board members this week that "due to the persistence of these compounds it is possible these substances should be regulated at the point of discharge into the river to prevent downstream long term health concerns." NCSU Professor Dr. Detlef Knappe stressed that GenX can not be filtered out of the water supply currently.

"The reason is that GenX is a water-loving chemical, which means it is very difficult to pull it out of the water. Also, the chemical bonds in the GenX compound are extremely strong, making GenX resistant to degradation by water treatment processes, such as the ones present at Sweeney (Water Treatment Plant under CFPUA), that can degrade many other pollutants," Dr. Detlef Knappe wrote via email.

CFPUA sent the following notice to the public Wednesday evening about the study.

CFPUA is aware of the N.C. State study concerning unregulated contaminants in the Cape Fear River.  We take our responsibility to provide clean drinking water very seriously, and we reasonably expect private dischargers to behave responsibly and regulatory agencies to provide proper guidance and oversight.  Since the State of North Carolina and EPA establish the drinking water standards we follow, we will be looking to them to determine whether this currently unregulated contaminant should be regulated in our source water.  As a local water utility, we look forward to supporting the state and EPA in ensuring our customers continue to enjoy safe and reliable drinking water.  In the meantime, CFPUA continues to meet all state and federal drinking water standards for safety.

Other water officials responded publicly Thursday after receiving calls from customers, including Brunswick H2GO.

H2GO is aware of the StarNews story about a toxin, commonly known as GenX, present in the CFPUA drinking water supplies.  The same source water, the Cape Fear River, provides drinking water supplies to H2GO via wholesale water purchase from Brunswick County Public Utilities.  H2GO staff have been receiving numerous calls from our customers expressing concerns about the drinking water.  According to current state and federal regulations, the water treated and provided by Brunswick County Public Utilities meets all primary and secondary drinking water standards.

As stated in the StarNews article, the toxic chemical, GenX, is an unregulated contaminant which cannot be removed by surface water treatment processes operated by CFPUA and Brunswick County Public Utilities.  At this time, H2GO is relying on the work of state and federal regulators to determine potential health risks.  Those regulators will be reviewing the findings of Dr.Detlef Knappe to determine future monitoring and regulatory limits for GenX and other unregulated contaminates.

The presence of GenX is yet another example of the potential threat these unregulated contaminates pose to our surface water supplies.  A couple of years ago, 1,4 Dioxane was detected in the Cape Fear River.  Late last year, the presence of hexavalent chromium caused concern with the surface water supplies.  And, a few months ago, the Cape Fear River was placed on America's list of the 10 most endangered rivers because of the upstream Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) operating within the river's watershed.

The Cape Fear River is vulnerable to a host of potential contaminants.  Surface water supplies by nature are vulnerable to contamination and that is just one of the many reasons why H2GO began work six years ago to evaluate alternate water supplies and treatment options for our service area.  The decision to move forward with deep-well groundwater supplies and reverse osmosis water treatment eliminates the threat of these emerging unregulated contaminates.  The reverse osmosis water treatment plant will eliminate our dependence on the Cape Fear River, will improve drinking water quality, will maintain customer water rates at or below existing rates, and will ensure the long-term financial viability of the utility.

A spokesperson for Brunswick County Public Utilities said they are considering means for testing for GenX, but there appears to be no commercial labs immediately available to perform the test. They said they believe the NCSU team developed its own protocol for analysis.

Styers said studies like this one have typically led to stronger regulations at the state and federal level.

"CFPUA takes water treatment and water quality very seriously and we are committed to working with the regulators to address this compound to eliminate any public health concern," Styers said Thursday.

Dr. Knappe said regulation should begin at the source level.

"Once the chemical is in the river, it is extremely difficult to remove, even with the advanced water treatment processes that are used at the Sweeney water treatment plant. Also, once the chemical is in the river, it affects the drinking water of any community that is located downstream and relies on the river as its source of drinking water (in the case of GenX, areas of Wilmington as well as areas in Brunswick Country and Pender County). That means that all of these communities would have to install treatment processes that are very costly to pull GenX out of the water. The cost of the construction and operation of these processes would translate into substantially higher water bills for everyone. In short, the focus should be on the controlling the source of the pollution by eliminating GenX and similar compounds from the industrial wastewater causing this pollution."

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