North Carolina legislators began grappling Wednesday with a growing environmental and health alarm about an unregulated and little-studied chemical compound its maker released for years into a river supplying drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people.
Nearly two dozen lawmakers gathered in Wilmington to hear about discharges of the chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River, the main source of the water utility serving about 200,000 people in and around the city.
For about four hours, lawmakers listened as dozens of local residents described how they've become worried to drink their tap water.
"I've raised my children on this water," said Emily Donovan of Winnabow. "I can afford an alternative source of water for my family. But many of your constituents cannot. We have a moral obligation to protect all human life."
State Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County and New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White — Republicans like the bulk of the commission delegated to investigate by the GOP-dominated General Assembly — said they wonder whether the chemical caused miscarriages and childhood sicknesses in their families.
Wilmington is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) downstream of the Chemours Co. plant near Fayetteville, where the chemical was discharged. The Wilmington, Delaware-based Fortune 500 company said it is working with officials on next steps. That's the same statement it has made for weeks.
Dupont developed GenX to replace a chemical that was used for decades to make Teflon and other non-stick products before the earlier chemical was suspected of causing cancer. DuPont spun off Chemours two years ago.
There are no federal health standards addressing GenX and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as an "emerging contaminant" to be studied.
The hearing came as people are realizing the GenX saga is part of a broader problem of chemicals deployed into industrial production before their risks are clear. For example, researchers are increasingly finding a likely human carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane in water supplies in North Carolina and dozens of other states.
The chemical industry has long lobbied Congress for less-stringent scientific assessments for newer chemicals that companies are trying to get into the marketplace.
Meanwhile, North Carolina legislators have limited environmental officials in most situations from imposing regulations tougher than federal law. That has created legal uncertainty about whether state environmental regulators can restrict GenX and other chemicals in the absence of the EPA declaring a chemical as a pollutant.
Though local speakers urged state legislators not to turn the GenX discharges into a political weapon with which to attack rivals, Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have differed about what to do next.
Cooper's health and environmental secretaries want legislators to spend an additional $2.6 million to cover the cost of ongoing testing for GenX and other compounds and hire more scientists with water quality expertise. Legislators have eliminated at least 70 positions in water quality since 2013.
GOP legislators have proposed sending any money for study and remediation to the local water utility and the Wilmington campus of the University of North Carolina.
"The primary problem is the pollutants and the contaminants should have never been in the river in the first place," Republican Rep. Chris Millis of neighboring Pender County said about GenX. He said he wanted to learn "how it happened, why it happened and to make sure it doesn't happen again."