Local officials ask for health study, push for more state action.

WILMINGTON -- Less than an hour before Wilmington-area officials took to a podium Monday in the Historic New Hanover County Courthouse, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper joined a conference call to tell them he is seeking answers to the Cape Fear Area's lingering questions about GenX.

The phone call -- which Cooper remained on for just under 10 minutes according to several people in the room -- marked the first time the governor discussed the unregulated chemical with local officials.

Moments before, Cooper's office released a letter from the governor to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt asking for the EPA to expedite its health assessment of GenX and set a maximum contaminant level, a step Cooper said could impact North Carolina's ability to regulate discharge of the chemical. Cooper also called for the EPA to review its 2009 consent order governing GenX to limit any and all release of the chemical -- a step that would cover the discharge of any GenX created as a byproduct.

"North Carolina residents need immediate help and long-term certainty about the safety of the water they drink. I am writing to seek your urgent action to get us answers and solutions," Cooper wrote.

During their news conference, local officials expressed concerns about the lack of answers coming from the state and federal levels while also calling for agencies to start a health study to determine what impacts GenX has had on area residents. They also asked whether Cooper or Attorney General Josh Stein could more effectively use the weight of their offices to answer questions about the risks GenX poses to humans or the legality of Chemours' discharge of the chemical.

George Brown, the chairman of the Pender County Board of Commissioners, said, "I can appreciate the governor's words and everyone that I listened to today. I still have a lot of questions that are unanswered. I left the room today very frustrated. ... I would like to ask the governor to step it up a bit and get the state and federal agencies to get us more answers than we are getting now."

'Nearly paralyzed the community'

In a release sent Monday, Cooper's office said they and others -- including the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services -- have coordinated an investigation into and response to the GenX situation that includes setting a public health advisory level for GenX and implementing testing of the Cape Fear and its associated drinking water systems. In recent weeks, since Chemours has started capturing wastewater from the main source of GenX, the testing results have largely declined below the new GenX advisory level, which was downgraded late last week from nearly 71,000 parts per trillion (ppt) to 140.

"This issue has nearly paralyzed the community," said Woody White, the chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, "and despite these recent test results that are moving in the right direction, we expect and demand leadership from our chief executive and our number one state attorney. Let us know what is going on."

White also addressed DEQ's ongoing review of Chemours' discharge permit, joining other officials in expressing hope public notice and hearings would be held in the Wilmington area -- not only the Fayetteville area around the plant.

"I would be surprised, frankly, if (the permit is) continued or renewed," White said, "and if it’s continued or renewed, and if it allows any discharge of GenX I would hope that there would be some lawsuit that ensued to prevent that from happening."

Any legal action from the state would come after DEQ completes its investigation, Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for Stein's office, wrote in an email late Monday afternoon. She also reiterated that the attorney general "stands ready to assist."

In the email, Stein wrote, "I continue to believe that people have the right to know what's in the water they and their families are drinking. Protecting our environment is critically important and must be a top priority in our state."

Since the StarNews first reported a 2016 study found the unregulated chemical in the Cape Fear River as part of testing conducted in 2013 and 2014, the most prevalent question has been whether the water is safe to drink. Then, in a mid-June meeting with local officials, Chemours said they have been conducting a vinyl ether process resulting in the discharge since 1980, immediately raising more questions among longtime residents.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo reiterated those questions Monday by reiterating calls for a health study while also asking the state to conduct constant monitoring of the Cape Fear to determine if and when GenX or similar compounds are released again.

"We need to make certain the state does some ongoing studies into the health and well-being not only of our citizens, but also of our river," Saffo said.

Saffo also said he reached out to Chemours in late June and asked the company to visit Wilmington to answers questions from the citizens, but the company had not responded.

'Our eyes are opened'

The study that found GenX in the river also identified six other similar compounds, about which almost nothing is known. As the amounts of GenX fall in the river, those other compounds and similar threats to the river have the attention of other policy makers such as New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple.

"I certainly don't want to get caught again like this," Zapple said "Our eyes are opened up, and we're laying the template for other communities across the United States. We also are beginning to realize the chemical industry is basically self-regulating."

Zapple also called on the state government and other local officials to enact emergency powers, a stance similar to one taken by Harper Peterson, a former Wilmington mayor who has emerged as a community advocate on the GenX issue.

"Maybe we should have water distribution points down here now using our emergency management plan," Peterson said. "If the city and county aren't going to do it, why not the state? That would go a long way toward showing people the government cares and this is a serious issue."

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority announced Saturday that it would start offering free water at Ogden Park, 615 Ogden Park Drive. Jim Flechtner, CFPUA's executive director, said after Monday's news conference that the agency is looking at possibly opening a similar station at Veterans Park in the southern part of the county, while a late afternoon news release from the agency said officials are working to establish partnerships to transfer water from Ogden to downtown Wilmington.

"What we all ultimately want to know is that the water we and our families drink is safe," Frank Williams, the chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, said Monday. "That’s the question I hear. People don’t even ask about themselves, they ask about their children and interestingly about their dogs, more than even themselves."

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com