NC’s environmental agency is taking steps to track what’s in our water

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina’s environmental agency says it’s taking better steps to track what chemicals are being dumped into North Carolina waters.

This move comes after a state and federal investigation into a company that was dumping a toxic chemical known as GenX into the Cape Fear River for years.

It created a scare when it showed up in water systems downstream.

CBS North Carolina set down with Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan to talk about how it happened.

“Initial reaction for me was to focus on what GenX was,” Regan said.

At first, no one really had heard of the chemical called GenX.

But an N.C. State University scientist wrote a report about it. It was then discovered in water systems and couldn’t be filtered out.

GenX then had statewide attention.

“The governor (Roy Cooper) took very swift action once we understood it was being discharged into the Cape Fear River,” Regan said. “He directed our agencies to approach this issue as if we were drinking the water and our families were drinking the water”

Chemours, a spin-off of DuPont, makes chemical coatings like Teflon. GenX is a toxic byproduct used in the process.

It wasn’t until June that the state found out it was being dumped into the river.

The problem is GenX is not regulated by the state or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With no standards, it wasn’t being tested for.

Further investigation found the company, has been dumping the chemical for more than 30 years.

“Why wouldn’t the state know about something like that since it’s being pumped into North Carolina rivers?” CBS North Carolina’s Jonathan Rodriguez asked.

“That’s part of our investigation. My department has launched an investigation to determine if the chemical compound was adequately disclosed in the permit,” Regan explained.

Companies are required to disclose all regulated and unregulated chemicals they are putting into North Carolina waters.

“What we are going to do a better job of is providing a letter of specificity on the level of exposure that we at the state level expect,” Regan said.

After pressure from state leaders, the company eventually agreed to stop dumping the chemical into the river.

DEQ could not immediately require the company to stop the discharge, since the chemical is not regulated.

“We instituted an aggressive monitoring program to make sure that we could be sure the company actually did cease,” Regan said.

Regan says the EPA had given Chemours consent to dump the chemical in 2009, but never notified the state.

“The state did not have knowledge of the consent decree,” he explained. “Part of our investigation is to determine what the answer is to that question. I believe there are always opportunities to improve communication but the investigation will lead us to where there was a lack of communication, where there was a possible lack of disclosure and what we do to remedy it moving forward.”

Cooper called for DHHS and DEQ to investigate the issue.

He also asked the SBI to look into whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

There is also a federal investigation.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued the criminal subpoena on July 28. The subpoena requests that by August 22 DEQ provide to a grand jury in Wilmington permits, environmental compliance information, reports and correspondence about the Chemours Company’s Fayetteville Works facility, GenX and other fluorinated chemicals.

The state has been testing the water ever since.

Regan says he drinks the water on trips to Wilmington and other should feel comfortable doing so as well.

“At this juncture we have set a health goal and based on the analysis that we’ve done so far, the concentrations of GenX in the water are well below that health goal,” he said.

You can see the latest test results and an interactive map here.

But what’s the next GenX?

What is the next unknown chemical that no one is testing for?

Regan says DEQ is putting together a science advisory board to try and figure that out.

“Epidemiologist, medical doctors, scientist, people well versed in this area to partner with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to better understand the emerging chemical compounds we should be prioritizing,” Regan said.

Regan says permit applications will now ask in more detail what chemicals companies are dumping.

“Moving forward in our permitting process we will require some advanced monitoring and advanced disclosure so we can better ascertain the appropriate level of information about the chemicals of concern,” he said.

He says DEQ will deny Chemours request to continue to dump GenX into the river.

“The company will be held accountable if we find any violations as it pertains to this investigation,” Regan said.

Cooper has asked for more than $2 million in new money for DEQ and DHHS to study GenX and other emerging chemicals. Regan says the money would also help speed up the turnaround time for companies renewing permits.

A Senate appropriations committee responded to the governor’s request with concern.

They wrote a letter saying:

“While we review your administration’s request for a roughly $2.58 million additional appropriation, we also want to address recent news reports that have called attention to multiple inconsistencies in your administration’s handling of this crisis.”

They asked the governor to answer a list of questions about how the incident was handled. You can read the letter here.

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