EDITORIAL: Senate leader ignores widening GenX threat
Jan. 13--Phil Berger is either breathtakingly ill-informed about the pollution problems threatening residents of the Cape Fear River Basin or he just doesn't care that residents' health is imperiled by pollutants that are likely to cause cancer. There isn't much gray area between those possibilities to explain why the state Senate leader shut down a House bill last week that would have ramped up state efforts to track and study GenX and other chemicals that have leaked, flown or been dumped from the Chemours plant on the Cumberland-Bladen county line.
The legislation that would have added $2.3 million to fund the state's response to GenX pollution and other water quality issues passed the House unanimously on Wednesday. But Berger quickly called it a do-nothing measure that "unfortunately does nothing to prevent GenX from going into the water supply." Berger said the time to talk about appropriating money is when testing that was ordered last summer is completed.
In saying that, Berger sidesteps reality. Last summer, it was believed that the GenX issue primarily affected residents in the Wilmington area whose water appears to have been contaminated by GenX and other related chemical compounds for at least several decades. Since then, state regulators have discovered that GenX and other "perfluorinated" compounds haven't been confined to the wastes that Chemours -- and DuPont before it -- have dumped into the river. The chemicals also have leaked into the water table and become airborne, leaving the plant premises on wind currents. Public and private wells in the plant's vicinity have been found polluted with GenX, and every time the testing radius around the plant is expanded, more of it is found. Just last week, one Bladen County private well was tested and found to have a GenX level of 4,000 parts per trillion, more than 28 times the state's provisional health goal.
And in truth, we don't know if the state's health goal is a safe level for long-term ingestion. There isn't yet any definitive research into the effect of GenX and its chemical cousins on the human body, only tests on animals that show it does indeed cause cancer and other health problems.
The legislation that Berger shot down would have, among other things, given state agencies more sophisticated testing equipment to determine what's in the water and land around the Chemours plant. Testing so far has even found GenX in the honey from bee hives not far from the plant site. The effect on the intensive agricultural operations in that area needs to be evaluated as well, and the additional Department of Environmental Quality staffing that the $2.3 million would have provided would help begin that research. It also would help DEQ catch up on its long backlog of discharge permit requests.
Yet Berger, ever the champion of deregulation, chooses not to go there. He shows little interest in accelerating efforts to deal with this serious health threat that affects hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents. And based on reports of other perfluorinated chemicals recently found in Jordan Lake, it's possible that we're talking about protecting the health of millions of state residents. Why doesn't Berger feel a sense of urgency about this? Why are senators from this region backing his position? And for that matter, where has state Sen. Wesley Meredith of Fayetteville been? Reporters and local officials who attended a crowded public forum on the GenX problem last month say they didn't see Meredith there. And he's made no public statements. Why the silence?
This is a serious problem. Cumberland County and the Fayetteville Public Works Commission are working on what will be a multimillion-dollar project to extend water mains to the Gray's Creek areas affected by the pollution. Bladen County is facing some expensive solutions as well.
And all of this is evidence that years of gutting DEQ staff has resulted in a regulatory failure that allowed DuPont and Chemours to dump dangerous chemicals into the river and the water table around the Fayetteville Works for decades. The people affected by all this feel a great sense of urgency -- and fear. Why doesn't Phil Berger?