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North Carolina Politicians, Scientists Flummoxed by Cape Fear River Contamination Crisis

North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger (R) wants an override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) Sept. 21 veto of legislation that would have provided $435,000 to clean up GenX chemical contamination in the Cape Fear River.

Berger said Cooper wants to do nothing more than grow “a bureaucracy that has thus far failed to resolve this crisis.”

GenX is a type of a fluorochemical that is a byproduct of the production of Teflon and other materials like fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags. It is an “emerging contaminant,” created in 2009. So far, the EPA has not set up protocols to regulate it.

North Carolina environmental officials told WRAL that DuPont and its spinoff company, Chemours — as part of factory operations in Bladen County, N.C. — had been dumping GenX into the Cape Fear River for nearly 40 years.

North Carolina health and environmental officials began monitoring GenX in the Cape Fear River, a 202-mile-long blackwater river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean through Wilmington, N.C.

Gov. Cooper said in July that North Carolina environmental regulators had blocked a permit for the company to resume GenX discharges into the river.

But North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R), following Cooper’s veto of Cape Fear River cleanup money, blamed “the GenX crisis” on a “failure of state agencies — spanning multiple, bipartisan administrations back to the 1980s — to properly regulate clean water resources for North Carolina.”

Cooper didn’t dispute the pollution — that spilled out of a chemical plant where Teflon was manufactured — had resulted in a health crisis. Nor did he argue with the contention that the state’s environmental bureaucracy had failed to deal with GenX. In fact, he wanted North Carolina lawmakers to appropriate $2.5 million to clean up the river.

“The legislation passed by the General Assembly, House Bill 56, provides no resources to the state agencies charged with protecting drinking water and preventing illegal chemicals from being discharged into our rivers,” Cooper said in his veto statement. “It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester.”

“When it comes to drinking water, there is no room for political posturing or hollow solutions,” Cooper added.

Amen, said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. He said it was time for the legislature and Gov. Cooper to stop rattling their political sabers and come up with a solution.

“Get us some resources down here to monitor the water quality of the drinking water,” Saffo told WECT. “I think the citizens at the end of the day don’t care who does it, where the money comes from, but let’s just get it done.”

But cleaning up the Cape Fear River involves more than getting Democrats and Republicans to put aside their partisan squabbles.

Madison Polera, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, told WWAY GenX was created as a spin-off of another toxic chemical, C8. The idea was, she said, that it would be easier to break down than C8 since it has a smaller strand of atoms.

“The half life, the amount of time it takes to cycle it out of your body is on the order of hours to days, rather than weeks to months like C8,” Polera said.

Polera said it is possible that the chemical might no longer be in the Cape Fear River. But if it is still in the river, Polera said she and her colleagues know GenX is hard to remove from water systems.

However, also unknown — and this could be considered good news — is whether GenX will actually hurt people. Scientists know so little about the chemical, the structure of which was kept confidential as a DuPont company trade secret, that they can’t be sure if it is harmful.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said in August people could still drink water drawn from Cape Fear River.

North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality Michael Regan told reporters during a conference call that state officials had “very little to no scientific information” about compounds discovered in the river and couldn’t yet say for sure if they even constituted a health threat.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said cancer rates were not any higher in the Wilmington area and did not show “any unusual trends.”

Are North Carolinians confused? If so, they’d better get used to it, said Polera, or at least be prepared to keep their minds open to all possibilities.

“As scientists we have to be prepared to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Polera said, “and we need the public to be prepared to hear that.”