WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Gov. Roy Cooper is calling for criminal investigations and denying permit requests to Chemours as the search for answers about GenX continues.
The governor received several rounds of applause during a visit to Wilmington this morning but he also took some heat from the residents in the audience.
“I want to make it clear today that the Department of Environmental quality is going to deny Chemours’s request,” Cooper said about a pending permit to continue to release GenX into the Cape Fear River.
The governor also said he’s asked the SBI investigate.
“I want to know if any criminal violation has occurred here,” Gov. Cooper said.
Cooper came to Wilmington to discuss GenX more than six weeks after we learned about the toxin in the Cape Fear River.
After the governor held a meeting with local officials closed to everyone except one pool reporter, he announced all the steps the state is taking to protect the area’s water.
“To address the health issues and the long-term issues, I have spoken personally with the director of the Centers for Disease Control,” the Democrat said.
And while a lot of those steps got a round of applause, some of the things he said, like, “People here can continue to drink the water,” struck a nerve with some residents.
“Shame on every single one of you,” Wilmington resident Beth Markesino said while telling the governor and other state and local leaders that she believes tainted water led her to miscarry at 24 weeks.
“Still after they know we have GenX and PFOAs in our water, they’re still saying it’s safe to drink, and that’s just really frustrating,” Markesino said.
Markesino did not hold back any of that frustration towards Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen.
“I want you to know that we are doing the best we possibly can with the limited understanding and science that we have,” Cohen responded.
But New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple says it’s a concern on everyone’s mind.
“We just want assurances that the water we are drinking is safe, and I think that’s what I’m hearing and on the other side,” Zapple said. “The officials are frustrated as well saying, ‘We can’t tell you 100 percent, because we don’t know, but we are going to get that information for you.'”
And while many questions are still unanswered, Gov. Cooper says this is just the start.
“This is an important step for us, but it’s also the beginning of a process that I hope will ensure that we protect the water in the future,” Cooper said.
We reached out to Chemours after the meeting for a comment. A spokesman responded by writing in an e-mail, “We continue to work closely with local, state and federal officials to determine the appropriate next steps.”
Here is a recap of the steps Cooper’s office says the state is taking, according to a news release:
Governor Cooper has directed the State Bureau of Investigation’s Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit to assess whether a criminal investigation is warranted. The SBI will work with its partners at the state Department of Environmental Quality and federal EPA to determine if there is evidence of criminal violations of the permit or the federal consent order that is in place.
Denial of Chemours’ Permit Application
Chemours is in the process of applying for a new NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit, a federal permit program that controls water pollution and is managed by North Carolina DEQ. Today, Governor Cooper announced that DEQ will deny Chemours’ permit request to release GenX, issuing a new draft permit that prevents GenX release. Acknowledging the potential for other possibly harmful compounds, Chemours’ draft permit will include a clause authorizing the state to quickly re-open the permit if needed to regulate and enforce levels of any of emerging compounds based on new scientific findings.
Public Health Assessment
Governor Cooper spoke with the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, to request a public health assessment to review any potential long-term health effects of GenX. Chemours disclosed that they have been discharging GenX as a byproduct from another manufacturing process since 1980. The CDC has the expertise needed to conduct complex exposure modeling that will give citizens a better understanding of any potential health risks from the last 30 years. Dr. Fitzgerald told the governor the CDC will begin these studies. Local, state and federal authorities will need to work together to provide all available data to the CDC.
Engaging the EPA
Governor Cooper has spoken directly with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to request that the EPA move swiftly on completing a health assessment to help set regulatory standards. They also discussed the consent order that allowed Chemours to release GenX in the first place, and the EPA is looking into whether that order needs to be updated and tightened.
Science Advisory Board
Governor Cooper acknowledged that GenX is not the only compound that could potentially affect water quality. To tackle issues surrounding unregulated emerging compounds and overall water safety, Governor Cooper is expanding the scope of the reconstituted Science Advisory Board to review the research and assist the state in addressing water quality.
Enhance Disclosure and Monitoring
North Carolina DEQ will make changes to its permit application process that require companies to disclose more information about the unregulated pollutants they release. DEQ will also require additional monitoring of unregulated pollutants for the purposes of developing water quality standards and improved transparency. The results of additional monitoring will be shard with DEQ and DHHS on a regular basis.
Investing Resources to Prioritize Safe Water
Governor Cooper highlighted the need for more state experts to work on protecting North Carolina’s water. He announced that when the legislature returns in August, he will push legislation with specific requests to the General Assembly for enhanced staffing to handle water safety.
For DEQ that will include a request for more inspectors, engineers, environmental specialists and chemists; resources to conduct long term GenX sampling; and a reversal of this year’s harmful budget provisions that required over $1 million in budget cuts. For DHHS that will include a request for resources to establish a Water Health Safety Unit in the Division of Public Health that would include two senior scientists, a data analyst and a health educator.
As Governor Cooper said in Wilmington today, he has directed state employees to work on this issue as though their own family members were drinking this water every day. The safety of drinking water – not just in Wilmington, but statewide – is a top priority for Governor Cooper, and he will continue to push for answers and solutions. The governor expects to be back in the Lower Cape Fear region in the coming weeks, and will continue to stay updated through regular briefings.