Residents With GenX In Their Wells Want Answers

Nov 9, 2017

Christopher Watters, left, and his father, Mike Watters, one of 50 or so residential well users now getting bottled water from Chemours. Tests on their wells showed levels of GenX above the state’s health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

Updated 2:39 p.m. | Nov. 13, 2017

Mike Watters is angry. The military veteran lives in a subdivision about a mile from the center of Fayetteville Works, a plant owned by DuPont affiliate Chemours.

“Twenty-three years in special forces," Watters said. "The enemy couldn’t kill me but my well’s going to."

Chemours is a chemical manufacturer that produces GenX, a so-called fluorochemical used in non-stick surfaces like Teflon.

Watters is one of 50 or so residential well users now getting bottled water from Chemours because tests on their wells showed levels of GenX above the state’s health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion.

“I’m 54, my son’s 27, he’s just starting his life,” he said.

Watters and his son are taking baths at work while his wife uses bottled water from Chemours to take showers in a trailer the family owns.

Related: GenX: The Challenge Of Regulating Emerging Compounds

Chemours delivers nine gallons of water at a time, supposedly a two-week supply, but Watters said that is not enough so he goes to the plant himself to get another 60 gallons every four days.

“We’ve got three huskies, three parrots and three people," he said. "We’re washing the dishes in it."

Watters refuses to bathe in his well water even though health officials say residents with elevated levels of GenX may use it for baths and showers; they are just being advised to use the bottled water for cooking and drinking. Boiling well water is not sufficient because that would not remove the toxic chemicals.

Watters helped organize a forum at Fayetteville’s Methodist University recently for affected well owners and others with questions about GenX and other emerging compounds.

At the forum, Fran Minshew heard from the panel of scientists and attorneys. She has the dubious distinction of being the well owner with the highest level of GenX since Chemours began testing: 1,300 parts per trillion.

“I need to know what they’re going to do about our water," Minshew said. "I can’t drink it, give it to my animals, I don’t even want to shower in it. You can’t brush your teeth with it. What are we going to do?”

Minshew is 76, she is undergoing treatment for breast cancer and says her dog has been getting tumors for the past six years.

A lot of people who attended the forum had questions about the possible health effects of GenX.

Human Health Effects of GenX Still Unclear

The human health effects of GenX are not known. Tests on animals show links to liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer.

N.C. State University Prof. Detlef Knappe told the audience at the forum that health studies will take time and thousands of test subjects to determine any correlation between these chemicals and certain diseases. Scientists from NCSU and East Carolina University just got money to take a preliminary step, a grant to test 400 people in the Wilmington area.

“What our data can show, is that if these chemicals are in the water, that they actually are in your blood or are in the urine. Right now those data are lacking, ... so we don’t have a measure of exposure,” Knappe said.

Knappe is the scientist whose research team discovered GenX in the Cape Fear River in 2013.

His study led to the revelation that Chemours had been dumping GenX and other fluorochemicals into the river since 1980.

That resulted in the contamination of drinking water for more than 200,000 customers of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.

The GenX in the Cape Fear ended up there because it was discharged by Chemours in wastewater. However, the GenX and other fluorochemical compounds that ended up in private wells near the plant were likely airborne.

Chemours first tested wells within a mile from the center of the Fayetteville Works plant—now the company is testing an additional 450 wells within a mile from the plant’s boundary. And the testing area may be expanded further.

“In essence we’re looking for the edge of the contamination plume,” said Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

State Working With Chemours To Find Permanent Solution

Kritzer said state officials are working with Bladen and Cumberland County officials as well as Chemours to find a permanent solution to the problem for contaminated wells, including installing effective filters, digging deeper wells or tying residents into the county water supply.

Neil Brown said he supports that idea. Brown, 68, is currently getting bottled water from Chemours.

“I think our county commission has more of a responsibility to make sure every citizen in Cumberland County has clean water,” Brown said.

But Fayetteville resident Gene Swinson said there’s another way for Chemours to fix the problem.

“You cut me a check, I’ll give you my key and I’ll move,” he said.

Swinson and others with contaminated wells are concerned that the GenX contamination will cause property values to take a nosedive.

That’s one reason he and many others in his neighborhood have signed up with Baron & Budd, a national law firm already representing Brunswick County residents in a class-action lawsuit against Chemours.

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