by Greg Barnes, North Carolina Health News
January 6, 2020
UPDATE: The Cumberland County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to extend public water lines to Alderman and Gray’s Creek elementary schools, which lie in the heart of an area contaminated by PFAS. The board agreed to allocate $10.5 million from county reserves, about $3 million of which will be used to extend the lines to the schools within 18 months. The remainder will go toward a second phase to provide public water to homes in the most affected area of Cumberland County.
No one told Army veteran Carter Bryant about groundwater contamination near the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant when he bought a home there in July.
Bryant said he knew almost nothing about GenX and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” -- before he and his family moved in.
About two months later, Bryant said, he received a notice from Chemours stating that contaminants in his home’s well water exceed the level North Carolina considers safe to drink.
Under terms of a consent order, Chemours supplied Bryant with bottled water until it could install a reverse osmosis filtration system under his kitchen sink and in two bathrooms.
Bryant is far from alone.
At the beginning of December, 1,673 homes within a nine-mile radius of the plant had qualified for filtration systems.
Maintained and operating properly, those systems are expected to remove the potentially cancer-causing contaminants from residents’ drinking water.
But they were never meant to be a permanent solution.
A permanent fix would require extending public water lines, but at this point, no one seems willing to pay the soaring costs.
Most of the affected homes lie in the Gray’s Creek community along the southern edge of Cumberland County. The community’s northern boundary presses against Hope Mills and Fayetteville. The Cape Fear River bisects the area.
Here, you’ll find sprawling farms that have been tended by the same families for generations. You’ll also find new subdivisions that seem to have sprung up almost overnight.
The neighborhoods come with trendy names, such as James’ Place, Lynn Meadows and Shannon Woods.
Some of the homes come with hefty price tags upward of $300,000. Many are being built right now. Others have only recently been bought, many by soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Bragg or veterans such as Bryant who are looking for a quiet, peaceful lifestyle.
Like Bryant, some of the new homeowners say they would have chosen another place to live had they been told about the contamination.
“We would never have bought,” said Tim Daniels, who relocated with his wife, Shawna, from Pennsylvania and bought a home in the James’ Place neighborhood in December 2018.
Since then, they have added an inground pool, a privacy fence and other improvements that Daniels said set him back about $70,000.
That was all done before the couple learned about the contamination.
Last summer, a contractor for Chemours tested their well water. The results came back on Sept. 11 showing PFAS contamination above a 70 parts per trillion threshold.
That’s the level specified in the consent order entered in February by Chemours, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the environmental advocacy group Cape Fear River Watch.
The consent order requires Chemours to install filtration systems whenever a well tests above 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS or over 70 parts per trillion for a combination of them. The order also requires Chemours to provide public water or whole-house filtration systems to homes, schools and businesses that test above 140 parts per trillion for GenX.
“I had no idea,” about groundwater contamination, said Gray’s Creek resident Jordan Johnson. “My husband is military and we aren’t going to be here forever.” Johnson bought an older home on Midus Street about two years ago. She was awaiting her test results.
Active-duty soldiers are typically required to move from one military base to another every two to three years. Johnson and others worry whether they will be able to sell their homes.
Summer Trimm bought a house on School Road in 2018, after Hurricane Matthew flooded her previous home in Gray’s Creek. Trimm said a real estate agent advised her to get her well tested before buying.
Trimm said she was told that her well would be sampled for GenX. When the tests came back, she said, everything looked good. Unknown to her at the time, the tests failed to sample for GenX or other PFAS.
Chemours conducted another test of Trimm’s well water about two months ago. Trimm said she learned soon afterward that she qualified for a filtration system.
“I can’t even believe we live in a world that that can happen and it go under the radar that long,” she said.
The Chemours Fayetteville Works plant lies about five miles from Trimm’s home, on a 2,150-acre tract along the Cape Fear River. The plant sits just across the Cumberland County line, in Bladen County. It was built by DuPont in the early 1970s and became Chemours in 2015 when Chemours was spun off from DuPont.
Tall vent stacks protrude from the plant’s maze of pipes and buildings. From those stacks, DuPont and Chemours emitted thousands of pounds of GenX and other PFAS into the air. The chemicals were blown with the wind and fell with the rain, seeping into groundwater and contaminating the wells surrounding the plant. A DEQ sample of rainwater taken in April 2018 measured GenX at 1,580 parts per trillion.
A map of contaminated wells provided by the DEQ begins to tell the story. Think of a dartboard, with Chemours as the bullseye and 16 pie-shaped sectors extending outward from there. Concentric circles mark the distance from the plant in miles.
Hundreds of small dots representing contaminated wells fill much of the map. One dot is unique from all of the others in that it is farthest from the plant -- nine miles.
Every time a well is found to be contaminated at the farthest edge of testing, Chemours is required by the consent order to expand its search parameters another quarter of a mile.
Chemours and state regulators didn’t expect the contamination zone to expand out nine miles when testing began about two years ago.
Today, they still don’t know where the zone will end, though the contamination does appear to be lessening as the distance from the plant increases.
Shortly after Christmas, Chemours began operating a $100 million thermal oxidizer. The equipment, essentially a giant incinerator, is expected to reduce 99 percent of the PFAS from 2017 levels before the chemicals can leave the plant.
The dots on the map don’t just represent contaminated wells. They represent people. Thousands of them. People who are forced to drink bottled water while waiting for Chemours to install filtration systems. People who now worry about their health and the health of their loved ones. Some of them had been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for decades.
They worry because forever chemicals, a class of about 5,000 substances that includes GenX, have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Their potential effects on humans are less known, but studies show they include liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, low birth weight and reduced vaccine response in infants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies PFAS as “possibly carcinogenic.”
For that and other reasons, people who live in the nine-mile radius surrounding Chemours are livid. They believe that they were knowingly poisoned and that their property values will plummet.
At a community forum on Dec. 3 in Tar Heel, people wanted to know about the effects of PFAS on their health. How to get their blood tested. Whether it is safe for their children to bathe in contaminated well water. Who to call to get their wells sampled.
Hundreds of people regularly go on a Facebook advocacy group page to provide or search for information or to attack Chemours and state regulators. They demand action but say they get little response. Many of them have joined a class-action lawsuit.
It’s no coincidence that as the contamination zone expands, so too does membership to the Facebook page, “Gray’s Creek Residents united against PFAS in our wells and Rivers.”
In late November, the group listed about 700 members. By mid-December, it had claimed its 1,000th member.
The enormous growth is due, in part, to Chemours stepping up well sampling. Chemours is now testing between 200 and 250 wells a week in the contamination zone, company spokeswoman Lisa Randall said.
There is another, perhaps larger reason for the growth in the website’s membership.
Mike Watters, a Gray’s Creek resident, activist and the group’s administrator, has been going door to door with other members to warn people about the contamination and to urge them to get their wells tested.
Even now, Watters said, he is amazed by how many people don’t know about the contamination.
The well contamination appears to be indiscriminate.
Eric Bostic said his and seven other new houses in a row along Gray’s Creek Church Road all have wells containing PFAS that exceed the consent order’s threshold.
Cassandra Pilkington, who bought her house in the new James’ Place subdivision in July, said her well does not contain excessive levels of PFAS, though she believes it could soon.
“This house has ruined my life,” Pilkington said. “They can say all they want, that it’s not contaminated, it’s just a matter of time that ours is.”
Daniels, who does have well contamination, lives directly behind Pilkington. Both homes draw water from the same aquifer. The DEQ could not say whether the contamination is likely to spread to other wells. There are too many variables, officials said. It appears that deeper wells are less likely to be contaminated.
Nearby, tests revealed no contamination at Alderman Road Elementary School. A quarter-mile down the road, however, bottled water continues to be supplied to Gray’s Creek Elementary School. Recent tests showed PFAS nearing the threshold there.
Nastassja Toombs, a real estate agent, lives in a home with well contamination in the developing Shannon Woods subdivision. Toombs’ home was the first one built. Many others have recently been sold or are still being constructed.
At the rear of the subdivision, Kanisha Lamothe had just received her well test results. She said they came back negative. Next door, a soldier inspected a house that was being built for him. He said he planned to get his well water tested. His house was nearing completion.
Tim Evans is a real estate broker and developer who selects the builders for the James’ Place subdivision and sells the homes through his company, Longleaf Properties.
Evans, who lives in Gray’s Creek, said he had no idea that the contamination extended to James’ Place when construction began on the first house in the subdivision. He said he found out about three or four months ago when test results started coming back.
Evans said he has not sold a house in James’ Place since he learned about the contamination. He vowed to disclose the contamination to all new potential buyers and said he already has done so. Several houses in the subdivision are on the market.
Evans does question whether the levels being detected in James’ Place are high enough to cause anyone harm. At those levels, he said, he wouldn’t hesitate to buy a house there.
“I would buy a house in James’ Place today based on the testing that has just been revealed because there is more wells in there that have tested negative than positive and none have tested above 140 parts per trillion,” he said.
Toombs, the real estate agent who lives in Shannon Woods and real estate broker Kristin Barfield, who also lives in Gray’s Creek and has a contaminated well, say real estate agents are bound by their profession to disclose material facts, including groundwater contamination, before a home is bought or sold.
“I’m not going to put my license and reputation at risk,” Barfield said. “I’m always going to disclose.”
As in any profession, Barfield said, there are going to be unscrupulous agents. But she and Toombs say the real problem is that little information is getting out to the agents. Many, they say, don’t know the contamination exists.
Toombs said she has spoken to fellow agents about the contamination.
“They were clueless,” she said. They said “I thought they treated it, I thought they fixed the issue, I didn’t know it was spreading the way it is.
“How are we supposed to be knowledgeable of this when we don’t have the correct information?”
Barfield has started a blog that she hopes will help educate agents and the public alike. She also had set up a meeting with agents to discuss the matter.
Longleaf Pine Realtors is an association that oversees more than 1,400 agents in Cumberland and surrounding counties. Last year, at the association’s request, representatives of Chemours spoke at a luncheon to 350 agents about the contamination. (Chemours does not believe the levels of GenX and other PFAS being detected in the wells are harmful.)
Otherwise, the association has done little to educate its agents about the potential dangers of PFAS and their presence in Gray’s Creek.
Rosemary Buerger, president of the association’s board before her term ended in mid-December, placed the responsibility squarely on the EPA.
The EPA has set health advisories for only two PFAS -- the so-called legacy compounds PFOA and PFOS, which are no longer manufactured in this country. The state has a health advisory of 140 parts per trillion for GenX in drinking water. The other 5,000 PFAS have no such advisories in North Carolina. The EPA continues to study whether more regulations are necessary at the federal level.
Buerger, a real estate agent, said it’s up to the EPA to regulate PFAS.
“I have to follow their guideline of what is and what is not contamination,” Buerger said. “Without the EPA we have nothing to go on.”
About a week after Buerger made those comments, she told NC Health News that lawyers are now working on a disclosure statement that would be attached to real estate closing documents for homes in the contamination zone.
“There are too many questions,” Buerger said. “The only way to answer those questions is to have a disclosure … so now we’ll have a specific disclosure for the Gray’s Creek area.”
Barfield, the real estate agent, called the disclosure “a double-edged sword” that could result in fewer houses being sold and property values decreasing.
“But I would rather take the risk of property values going down,” she said. “I would rather take full disclosure and not have to worry about lawsuits.”
The disclosure document could go a long way to letting people know that the home they are planning to buy may have a contaminated well, but it doesn’t completely resolve the problem.
As it stands now, developers and home builders don’t have to test for PFAS, said Adrian Jones, director of environmental health for the Cumberland County Health Department. State regulations prohibit the department from making such a requirement, Jones said in an email.
Jones said the department does try to inform some people of the contamination.
“When people come to the office who live within 2.5 miles of the Chemours Plant, we do make them aware of what is going on in the area,” he said in the email.
Well contamination now has been detected as far as nine miles from the plant.
Gray’s Creek has long had issues with well contamination. Before PFAS, arsenic, benzene and other contaminants were found in wells in the area. Cumberland County formed a water district for Gray’s Creek, but in 2011 residents voted against extending public water lines to the area. They worried that it would bring unwanted development and annexation.
That sentiment appears to have changed. With the discovery of PFAS, Chemours is required to pay to extend public water lines to any home with a well contaminated by PFAS, provided the cost of the connection to each home doesn’t exceed $75,000.
The problem is that the anticipated per-household cost is now estimated at $92,000 or more, according to a letter dated June 21 from Cumberland County Manager Amy Cannon to David Trego, general manager of the Fayetteville Public Works Commission.
The letter also outlined other problems with extending lines to the area, including low housing density, low water flow and uncertainty about future development.
Cannon indicated that efforts to extend the water lines have been put on hold. That means at least 1,673 households -- and perhaps hundreds more -- will have to make do with in-house filtration systems that researchers and public officials all agree are not a permanent solution.
At the community forum, Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch summed up her thoughts for the more than 100 people who attended.
“We shouldn’t be allowing these big corporations to force us to filter our water,” Sargent said. “It puts the burden on citizens, on utilities, and that’s not where it should be. It should be on Chemours.”
Last month, Michigan reached a $69.5 million federal court settlement with shoe manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide, which is accused of discharging PFAS for decades at its plant in Rockford and creating an unregulated waste dump in a nearby field in the neighboring town of Belmont. The dump is said to have contaminated well water for a 25-square-mile area.
The settlement money will be used to extend public water lines to an estimated 1,000 people living near the dump site whose wells are contaminated with PFAS and other contaminants.