RALEIGH, N.C. — The head of the agency providing drinking water to more than 200,000 people in and around Wilmington said Tuesday that unregulated and little-studied chemicals in the Cape Fear River aren’t a hazard — as far as he knows.
Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Executive Director Jim Flechtner told North Carolina legislators that the agency’s water meets all state and federal standards for drinking water. The problem is that too little is known about emerging pollutants to know whether they’re unhealthy or OK, he said.
“There is a question mark of what else is in the river,” Flechtner said.
A state Senate committee is investigating chemicals in the state’s rivers, especially the chemical GenX, which is used in making Teflon and was released from a Chemours Co. plant near Fayetteville. Senators said a Chemours official was invited to speak Tuesday, but didn’t appear. A company spokesman didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
The company has said it met all the conditions of a permit that allows it to discharge wastewater — but not GenX — into the Cape Fear River about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Wilmington. GenX was the unexpected byproduct of a separate process, the company said.
There are no federal health standards for GenX. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as an “emerging contaminant” needing research. The chemical is related to other fluorinated chemicals including PFOA, which has been blamed for causing health problems. In February, Chemours and DuPont — which spun off Chemours two years ago — agreed to pay nearly $671 million to settle thousands of lawsuits related to the release of PFOA from a Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant more than a decade ago.
Only a fraction of the tens of thousands of chemicals used by U.S. industries have been studied enough to establish the health risks they pose for humans, Duke University professor Lee Ferguson told a similar House hearing last week.
Ensuring public drinking water supplies are safe is complicated by the lack of requirements to notify water treatment plants when a new factory or other operation begins releasing chemicals upstream, Flechtner said. Flechtner was asked what he would recommend to protect water supplies in an environment where industries employ far more chemicals than have been proven safe.
“I would be sure that before it was in the river, we would be comfortable that there would be no adverse health effects,” he said.