WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA — It’s hard to miss the piles of tree branches, logs, and other debris that line the streets of Wilmington. Local business posters are clustered at the main intersections advertising repairs and help with water damages. It’s been five weeks but the remnants of Hurricane Florence are everywhere.
When the storm hit on September 14, it turned this eastern North Carolina town into an island. Coal ash spills were reported just outside the town and six hog waste lagoons were damaged, spilling excrement into the rivers and setting off alarm bells among residents. Wilmington is no stranger to water contamination.
“All of the issues and challenges that North Carolina faced before the storm, still exist and many have been exacerbated,” Deb Butler, Democratic candidate for North Carolina house district 18, told ThinkProgress.
Florence made a difficult situation even worse. Residents are tired of not knowing what health risks they might be facing after years of drinking contaminated water. And now, with the midterm elections just weeks away, they have a chance to vote for candidates who might finally do something about it.
“One of the things that’s crystal clear,” Butler said, “is that we had in this region of eastern North Carolina a water quality problem, GenX. And now you can add coal ash and hog manure into the cocktail. So, the problems that we had before the storm are just worse now.”
GenX, as it’s known, is a potentially cancer-causing chemical. It is the byproduct from the manufacturing of vinyl ethers at the local Chemours’ plant — a DuPont subsidiary — located on the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.
Some 60,000 Wilmington residents rely on the Cape Fear River for their drinking water. In June 2017, the Wilmington Star-News reported that GenX was being released by Chemours’ Fayetteville Works into the river; even worse, the utilities drawing water from that same river were unable filter it out.
While the human health impacts of drinking water laced with GenX are still unclear, studies conducted by DuPont and submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show it causes tumors and reproductive issues in lab animals.
According to local news outlets, the EPA has been aware of the toxic chemicals in the Cape Fear River since at least 2006, and its presence in drinking water since 2013. The public, however, was not alerted until 2017.
Residents have been drinking contaminated water for decades. Last year, a DuPont official acknowledged during a meeting that the company had been discharging GenX into the river since 1980. While the state’s restrictions have brought GenX levels down below the required 140 parts per trillion limit, heavy rain can sometimes result in runoffs from the plant, spiking GenX levels.
GenX isn’t the only concern for Wilmington-area residents; there’s also the suspected carcinogen C8, GenX’s predecessor, as well as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances better known as PFOS and PFOA — and all are believed to be originating from the Chemours plant. DuPont has previously said GenX is safer than C8.
“We drank GenX for 30 years without knowing it, and I want to know what we’re drinking now,” Leslie Cohen, Democratic candidate for state house district 20, said.
All of the local candidates who spoke with ThinkProgress agreed that water quality is the top concern for many Wilmington-area voters this year. Residents want clear communication regarding contaminants in their water and their resultant level of risk. They cite the need for more rigorous testing and the establishment of baseline safety levels.
And Hurricane Florence’s destruction only intensified the simmering tension over the area’s contaminated water and what’s being done to address it.
Cohen only realized the full extent of the region’s water quality issues after attending a small public talk with local experts. “I was the only person in the room who was not a scientist,” she said.
“When I heard the scientists talk, I heard fear from the scientists. And I said, okay I need to be worried,” she told ThinkProgress. “You don’t hear scientists scared very often, and there was real worry there.”
For those who can afford it, the fix is to either drink bottled water exclusively or to buy a reverse osmosis device that attaches to the kitchen faucet and filters out the chemicals. Some residents are even using bottled water for their dogs.
Jeannie Lennon, a Wilmington resident and a grandmother of seven, has been helping a group of Democrats who have all been endorsed by the Sierra Club for their strong positions on water quality. She knocks on doors, volunteers at the polls, and calls everyone she knows asking them to vote. Clean water is “huge” in the community, she said.
“It’s been a quadruple whammy,” she told ThinkProgress of the chemicals, coal ash, and animal waste that spilled from both Florence and Hurricane Matthew two years ago.
Lennon was part of a research study to test whether people have been affected by GenX. Her urine and blood were tested but she’s still waiting on the results. “I haven’t gotten that back, which worries me,” she said. “It’s been a long time, almost a year I think. We should’ve known something by now.”
But her fears aren’t just for her own well-being. “I’m concerned that my grandchildren, who all live here, are drinking this water and have grown up drinking it,” she said. “And I don’t know what long-term impact that’s going to have on them.”
The safety of the drinking water in local schools is a major worry for local parents. More affluent schools are able to afford bottled water; parents will regularly organize donation drives at the beginning of the school year to gather enough bottled water for each semester.
But in areas where families can’t afford the time or money to organize and donate the necessary amount of bottled water, children drink from potentially contaminated water fountains. It’s “an economic injustice,” Marcia Morgan, Democratic candidate for state house district 19, told ThinkProgress.
“This isn’t something you can boil out of the water, that’s not an option,” Morgan said. “You have to have it go through some sort of purification system or come from a different source, and that’s expensive. There is no cheap fix for the less affluent to be able to tap into.”
Morgan believes that in addition to better testing methods, corporations need to be held to a higher standard. At the first sign of any kind of violation, she said, the plant should be shut down. “I think that gets their attention,” she said; fines alone don’t seem to act as a strong deterrent.
But, “we have to have the political will to do that,” Morgan added.
In May, the state senate introduced the Water Safety Act with the aim of setting better water quality standards and stricter contamination rules (the bill has yet to pass). The proposal was quickly criticized by Democrats, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and some news outlets for not doing enough to tackle the GenX problem.
Cohen, for instance, criticized the state’s Republican Party for having “actively worked to protect polluters,” specifically for adopting Chemours’ desired changes. Morgan, meanwhile, has questioned why the state legislature has done so little to address GenX contamination over the past year.
An editorial by the Fayetteville Observer took the bill’s Republican sponsors to task, arguing that the measure would make enforcement against Chemours more difficult and reduce the authority of the state DEQ.
Efforts to address water contamination “will all but grind to a halt,” the Observer’s editorial warned. “The Senate has once again put its deregulation mania ahead of public safety. We hope the voters are taking notice in this election year.”
It seems some voters are paying close attention. Water quality is a “very major concern,” said Michael Mallin, a research professor at the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Was it a deciding factor in how he voted this election cycle? “Absolutely.”