CFPUA review finds staff handled GenX info appropriately

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The CFPUA Board of Directors met today in special session to review an internal investigation board members requested last week. Members of the media learned after the presentation that the board member who led the investigation has ties to Chemours.

The investigation, conducted by CFPUA Vice Chair Jennifer Adams, who works as a chemical engineer at Corning, and Robin Smith, an environmental lawyer who used to serve as North Carolina’s Assistant Secretary of Environment, found that “Given all of the available information, CFPUA staff acted in an appropriate, professional, timely, and scientific manner.”

While talking with reporters after the presentation of the report, it was learned that Adams worked for DuPont as an engineer at its Cape Fear Plant from 1990 until 2001, when the plant closed. When asked, given her ties to DuPont, which spun off its performance chemical division two years ago to create the separate Chemours Company, if she knew anyone who worked for Chemours, Adams paused before saying she does. She said she had not spoken with anyone at Chemours over the last couple of weeks since news of GenX in the water broke.

Board member and New Hanover County Commissioner Patricia Kusek, who was critical of the investigation being done in-house, said while she was surprised to learn of Adams’s DuPont ties, she did not think they impacted how Adams handled the probe.

The report Adams and Smith put together established the first detailed timeline of what CFPUA knew about GenX, when the utility knew it and how it handled that information.

According to the report, CFPUA partnered with the NC State University team, led by Dr. Detlef Knappe, that was researching compounds that may be in the Cape Fear River, in 2015. But while members of CFPUA staff learned in May 2016 of the presence of GenX in the water at a concentration of 631 parts per trillion, the investigation found that there was no frame of reference for what that amount really meant.

The investigation found that despite CFPUA being a co-author of the study, the utility had little information on what the study found until after it was published in November 2016.

According to the report, on Nov. 23, 2016, Dr. Knappe emailed the published paper to multiple people within the NC Department of Environmental Quality and various cities, but not CFPUA, even though his email specifically mentioned the impacts on Wilmington’s water supply.

Nine days later a UNCW professor emailed the study to several people, including two members of CFPUA staff, Cape Fear River Watch and the NC Coastal Federation.

According to the report, CFPUA finally got the study from Knappe in March of this year, at which point internal discussions began, including about getting more info from Knappe.

On April 13, a meeting was scheduled with CFPUA’s Water Team and several department heads to meet with Knappe. That meeting was held on April 19. Just hours before, CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner fired CFPUA’s Chief Communications Officer Mike McGill, who was scheduled to be part of the meeting. According to McGill the termination was rescinded, and then an agreement for him to resign was reached on April 21. WWAY asked Adams about that, and she said while she could not speak on a personnel matter, it was part of the investigation, but that it was found not to have been a factor in the handling of the GenX information. McGill says he was never interviewed as part of the investigation even after reaching out multiple times to Adams after the investigation began.

The report says CFPUA staff began contacting DEQ about Chemours and GenX on April 26, which was four days after Knappe shared with them a study from Sweden about some of the potential health risks from GenX.

On May 2, CFPUA staff drafted a letter to DEQ, but waited to get approval from the CFPUA Board. That approval did not come until the board’s executive committee met on June 7. That’s the same day the StarNews posted its story about GenX to its website and a day before the story hit newsstands. June 7 was also when Flechtner brought the GenX issue to the committee and CFPUA Chief Operations Officer Frank Styers summarized the Knappe study and mentioned the StarNews story, which CFPUA first knew was in the works May 15. The full board learned about the StarNews story two days earlier.

“We need to not lose sight of there is more work to do,” Flechtner said. “We still need to work to make sure the water that we’re getting is clean. That were treating it properly, and we are. And that we’re working with the regulators in our entire community to make sure long-term we have a good supply of water.”

CFPUA and DEQ have both asked the EPA for guidance on what to do about GenX, but Flechtner conceded that, so far, the federal regulators had provided little information.

Categories: Local, New Hanover