A carbon adsorption unit is seen at Chemours plant near Fayetteville on August 2, 2018. The company said the unit was intended to reduce air emissions. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

In a lawsuit filed last month, Cumberland County alleges that Chemours and its predecessor companies have, over the past few decades, “secretly pumped millions of pounds of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” or PFAS, into the air above its Fayetteville Works facility in the southern part of the county.

Chemours, a spinoff of the chemical company DuPont, is the maker of GenX, one of the PFAS substances, among others, referred to in the lawsuit.

Cumberland County alleges that Chemours and DuPont have been polluting the air, groundwater and surface water with PFAS for decades with a “blatant disregard” for residents in the county.

“As has been widely reported, defendants have used the environment surrounding the Fayetteville Works facility as a dumping ground for hundreds of chemicals while assuring the EPA and state agencies that they were doing no such thing,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that from the early 1970s until 2015, when DuPont owned the Fayetteville Works site, the company “discharged millions of pounds of PFAS.”

Among these PFAS, the lawsuit alleges, was a chemical called C8, a substance previously produced by DuPont that may be related to health issues such as birth defects and cancer, when exposed at high levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2005, DuPont agreed to pay $16.5 million in EPA fines for violating a requirement to “report to EPA substantial risk information about chemicals they manufacture, process or distribute in commerce,” according to the regulatory agency.

In 2009, DuPont began production of GenX as a replacement for C8.

While C8 has ceased, the production of GenX at the Fayetteville Works site continues, but there is limited information on the effect of GenX on humans, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

In an emailed statement to Carolina Public Press, Chemours said the company was disappointed by Cumberland’s decision to file a lawsuit.

“Our discussions with the county have included offering different alternative water systems to qualifying county properties,” the company said.

“We are also working collaboratively with the county and (the Fayetteville Public Works Commission) water to connect impacted Cumberland County residents to public water where feasible.”

In 2020, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners voted to allocate $10.5 million in an effort to find an alternative water source for Gray’s Creek, an area south of Fayetteville where GenX was found in N.C. Department of Environmental Quality testing in some residential wells and groundwater.

Last month, commissioners were expected to finalize an agreement in which Fayetteville PWC would provide water to the area, but County Manager Amy Cannon requested more time to work on the contract with PWC.

Since the Chemours facility is located off State Road 87, south of PWC’s water supply and farther down the Cape Fear River, the GenX contamination attributed to Chemours does not affect the PWC, a spokesperson for the utility said.

The company has also supplied bottled water to students and faculty at Gray’s Creek Elementary, the company’s statement said.

On behalf of Cumberland County, the lawsuit against Chemours was filed by Crueger Dickinson LLC and Baron & Budd, P.C. Commissioners decided on these firms last June. According to the contract with the attorneys, the firms will receive 25% of any possible recovery for damages.

GenX and its effect on humans

GenX is a trade name for an unregulated PFAS used in manufacturing nonstick coatings, among other purposes. It is also produced as a byproduct of certain manufacturing processes, according to DHHS.

The substance is part of a larger group of chemicals called PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” due to their durability and virtual inability to be broken down.

Exposure to high levels of some PFAS, according to the EPA, may lead to health issues in humans such as high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects in children and increased risk of some cancers.

For GenX specifically, the link isn’t as clear.

A study published by the EPA last year suggests that livers in animals may be sensitive to GenX. Other potential effects in animals include developmental issues and some cancers.

More studies on people are needed to determine the chemical’s effect on the human liver or other organs, according to DHHS.

A small, limited study from DHHS found that GenX may not stay in the human body for a long time.

Chemours stands by the safety of the chemical, according to its website. “If incidental exposure were to occur, it’s rapidly eliminated from the body,” the company claims.

Continued research on the effects on humans is ongoing among scientists, including those at N.C. State University’s GenX exposure study.

State investigation

The NCDEQ has been investigating allegations of GenX contamination from Chemours since June 2017 when the Wilmington StarNews reported that the chemical had been found in drinking water in the lower Cape Fear River.

In February 2019, DEQ filed a consent order against Chemours requiring the company to address current and prevent future GenX contamination.

Last year, DEQ found Chemours responsible for the contamination of groundwater and water supply wells in New Hanover County and possibly Pender, Columbus and Brunswick counties as well.

As a result, the state required Chemours to sample the drinking water in those downstream communities. On March 28, DEQ sent the company a letter requiring the company to expand its plan for sampling within the counties.

In its emailed statement, Chemours said the company is continuing to comply with the state’s consent order.

“We are committed to continued engagement with Cumberland County as we implement the terms of the consent order agreement,” the company said.

Correction: GenX is a chemical substance used in manufacturing nonstick coatings, among other purposes. It is also produced as a byproduct of certain manufacturing processes, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The article has been corrected to remove an inaccurate definition of GenX that initially appeared.

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Ben Sessoms is a former Carolina Public Press reporter. To reach the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email news@carolinapublicpress.org.

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