A tugboat on the lower Cape Fear River, near Sunny Point. Photo by John Wolfe.

Part of the river: Anger and uncertainty after decades of drinking water contamination

In 1980 – the same year Lennon fell in Manhattan, the same year Mt. St. Helens turned a corner of Washington State into a blighted moonscape – a molecule the land had never before seen slipped quietly out of a discharge pipe near Fayetteville, North Carolina, and entered the Cape Fear River.

How it was born remains a mystery. It might have been immaculate conception or a bastard birth, but it came into being at the 2,150 acre Fayetteville Works chemical manufacturing plant, built by DuPont, gray industrial buildings surrounded by verdant forest. The molecule was christened: perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid, or PFPrOPrA. Years later, the newspapers and magazines would call it by another name – GenX – but the chemical formula, C6HF11O3, remained the same.

The molecule left the pipe in a quiet meander, almost eighty miles downstream from Mermaid Point, where the Haw and the Deep rivers converge to become the Cape Fear. The Cape Fear is North Carolina’s largest river, with a 9,164-square-mile basin which drains more than one sixth of the state. It is also the only river in North Carolina whose mouth exhales into the waters of the Atlantic directly, passing no bays or sounds. Into the tea-brown water the molecule slipped, under a surface wind-rippled like glass windows in an old farmhouse. Oak, pine, and sycamore trees reach upwards on the river’s edge like cathedral spires, their thirsty roots drinking the life-giving water. Perhaps this molecule was welcomed to the river by an otter, brown-backed and white-whiskered, feasting on mussels on the sandy riverbank, shaded by bowed willows.

The molecule flowed southeast towards the sea, borne on the river's current. South of Fayetteville there are no rapids, but the molecule did pass three of the river's four locks and dams. Built between 1915 and 1935, these are remnants from the days of commerce-bearing barges; this river, like all rivers, was the highway before paved roads. At the southernmost Lock and Dam #1, the molecule spilled over the low falls and shallow pools of a fish ladder, built to assist the many anadromous fish species – striped bass, river herring, shad, and the threatened shortnose sturgeon – which live in the ocean but must swim up this river to spawn.

The river darkens as the molecule is joined by tannins from the Black River, leeched from the leaves of ancient cypress trees. Many of these Methuselean cypresses pre-date America; a few have been found to be older than Christ. Empires have risen and fallen since they were saplings. They have seen much in their time, but they have never seen a molecule like this one.

The river turns a corner. A city appears. This is Wilmington, founded 1739, the last port to fall in the Confederacy. The shipping industry, while still present, has given way to tourism in recent years; visitors come from around the world to explore the historic downtown, or wander the pristine beaches. Often they stroll along the riverwalk, gazing out over the Cape Fear, watching the steady traffic of tour boats and skyscraper-sized container ships maneuver, with tugs alongside, below the bridge at the port. The molecule passes them, unannounced.

Twenty-nine miles from the city to the sea, and all an estuary. The river opens up, wide and deep, dredged by humanity to accommodate our ever-growing ships. Pelicans bullet into the water after mouthfuls of menhaden and shrimp. White foam buoys bobble in the current as the tide comes in, tied to crab pots fathoms below. Ospreys perch in the arms of bone-grey cypress. Their sharp eyes, ever watchful for fish, cannot see something as tiny as the molecule. It was not long ago when another molecule threatened their number. That one, DDT, bioaccumulated in their bodies from the fish they ate and caused their eggshells to emerge so thin and weak that the mothers crushed their young as they incubated.

Beyond the town of Southport the river curves into a broad “S.” Under the winking eye of Oak Island lighthouse, the water leaves bright green banks of Spartina grass and muddy oyster beds behind for the shallow sandbars of Frying Pan Shoals. The water's hue changes from brown to green to the lapis lazuli of true depth. The molecule now floats, planktonically, in the vast Atlantic.

This journey has taken less than four days. The molecule is still a newborn, but its life stretches forward nearly forever. It does not break down in nature. The ancient world and waters do not know what to do with it. Perhaps it settles in the muddy sediment, where it will remain for eons – or at least long after the men who made it are gone. Or maybe, along the way, it was detained by one of the many living creatures it encountered – breathed in by the gills of a fish, perhaps, which was then in turn eaten by a bald eagle or a dolphin. Or an oyster, in its daily work of filtering 50 gallons of water per day, took it in and never spat it out.

But what if it ventured down the tube of the drinking water intake for the city of Wilmington?

What happened was this: It passed straight through the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority's (CFPUA) state-of-the-art Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, whose filters are too large to catch it. It traveled up the pipes into the nearly three hundred thousand homes which drink from the river, accumulating especially in water filters and hot water heaters. Then it cascaded invisibly into a cooking pot, or onto a toothbrush. Into a bottle mixed with baby formula. Into a cup, handed to a thirsty child by their loving mother. It passed the lips, trickled over the tongue and down the throat.

This happened, unknown to the public, for thirty-seven years.

The Cape Fear River embraces Wilmington, North Carolina, before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. In 2017, the chemical GenX, manufactured by Chemours, was discovered in the river water. It has been contaminating the river, and Wilmington’s drinking water, for decades. Photo by John Wolfe.

June 7th, 2017, was the day that ended the innocence of spring. That morning, the headline which screamed from every newsstand and every front porch that subscribed to the Wilmington daily Star-News was TOXIN TAINTS CFPUA DRINKING WATER. A team of researchers from North Carolina State University, led by Detlef Knappe, had discovered GenX both in the Cape Fear River and in the finished drinking water leaving the Sweeney plant, at an alarmingly high concentration of 631 parts per trillion. CFPUA maintained their water met all state and federal standards, yet Wilmington's mayor, Bill Saffo, compared the situation to the crisis in Flint, Michigan.

In the beginning, all we knew was that we knew very little. What little we did know, however, raised eyebrows in alarm. The chemical was relatively new, and was classified as an “emerging contaminant;” this meant that very little research had been conducted, and the government didn't yet have regulations in place about how much could safely be in the water. But DuPont, which had originally manufactured GenX at the Fayetteville Works plant before transferring production to its spin-off corporation the Chemours Company, had filed 16 reports to the EPA under section 8 of the Toxic Substances Control Act between April 2006 and January 2013. These reports stated that GenX “posed a substantial risk to human health or the environment.” The EPA consent report, the document that allowed Chemours to manufacture GenX in Fayetteville, stressed that “the company should make every effort to minimize or prevent any release into the environment of these substances.” Concerns were raised about the “persistence and toxicity” of the chemical, as well as the potential for cancer.

In the beginning, all we knew was that we knew very little. What little we did know, however, raised eyebrows in alarm.

GenX was being manufactured by Chemours as a replacement for another perfluorinated chemical compound, known as PFOA or C8, a key ingredient in the manufacture of Teflon. The link between PFOA and disease was already well-established. In studies which exposed rats to PFOA, the animals exhibited changes in the sizes and weights of internal organs like livers and kidneys, an alteration of immune responses and cholesterol levels, weight gain, reproductive problems, and cancer. DuPont and Chemours were already the defendants of a class-action lawsuit in Parkersburg, West Virginia for dumping PFOA into the Ohio River under similarly shady circumstances as those upstream from us. That suit found them to be at fault for contaminating the air and water around that plant, and DuPont and Chemours were made to pay $670 million dollars in damages to around 3,550 personal injury claims from residents – the largest settlement of its type in American legal history. GenX had been spun as a safer substitute to PFOA, but in an Intercept article published last year, retired EPA toxicologist Deb Rice described the effects of GenX as being “in the same constellation of effects as PFOA,” and said that “there was no way to call this a safe substitute.”

My editor for the Wilmington independent weekly publication I contribute to – Shea Carver of encore magazine – put me on the story just after the news broke. Down the rabbit hole I went. The first scientist I spoke with was Larry Cahoon, a biologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. GenX, he explained, is an endocrine disrupter, meaning it interferes with proper hormone function. “In the environment we find that endocrine disrupters frequently affect the sexual development of amphibians, fishes, stuff like that,” he said. “And they frequently act at extremely low concentrations.” GenX has a reasonably strong affinity for lipids – the fats in the body which make up your cell membranes. It can soak into body tissues and accumulate over time. “The longer you're exposed,” he said, “the more it can build. So [the problem] is not one daily dose. It's the sum of the daily doses. You drink water every day, right? So you're adding to the pile.” Drinking the water is a risk, he added, and some people – older people, pregnant women, small children, people with a family history of cancer – are more at risk than others.

I also spoke with Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear riverkeeper, who works with local environmental advocacy group Cape Fear River Watch. Tanned from years in the sun, with eyes as brown and deep as the waters he defends, Kemp is tasked with the Loraxian job of speaking for the river. He told me about the precautionary principle in risk management: you try to analyze risks before you do something, rather than after you've done it and it's too late. Currently, that's not how our system works. “Until something is found to be harmful,” he said, “it's not regulated.” This is the big-picture problem with the way we are doing things, he says. By the time pollutants have entered the river, it's already too late. Preventative measures work far better than retroactive cleanup.

In the weeks that followed, more facts surfaced. We learned from Knappe that GenX makes up only one half of one percent of the total load of perfluorinated compounds found in the Cape Fear. GenX is a small part of an enormous problem, and may have only been the focus because it has the sexiest name (Who but organic chemistry majors can remember something like perfluoro-2-methoxyacetic acid?). The compounding effects of these chemicals are unknown. We also learned that we were not alone. The city of Dordrecht, in the Netherlands, was grappling with our exact situation – Chemours had been dumping GenX into their Merwede river silently for years – only the Dutch discovered their contamination in March, not June. This put them a few months ahead of our timeline, and by reading the Dutch newspapers, I could predict events that were eventually found to be happening on our side of the Atlantic. In both the Netherlands and North Carolina, the chemical went airborne and mingled with the rain, extensive ground and groundwater contamination was discovered near the plant, and there were concerns that the chemical lurked in vegetables grown in backyard gardens.

The poetic truth of the science of ecology is that everything is connected. Many of the molecules in my flesh and blood once flowed in the Cape Fear. I drank them in like communion wine. Everyone who drinks the water is, in the same way, part of the river.

Our government, to their credit, reacted as swiftly as they could. A week after the news broke, members of Wilmington's City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners met with Chemours representatives Kathy O'Keefe, Mike Johnson, and Gary Cambre, demanding to “see the faucet turned off.” O'Keefe, Chemours' product sustainability director, maintained that “the GenX level in the drinking water... is safe and does not pose any harm to human health.”

At the state level, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality worked to set a health goal of 140 parts per trillion, and implemented monitoring programs on the Cape Fear. They required Chemours to stop dumping its wastewater, mandating instead that the company truck it elsewhere for disposal. DEQ Secretary Michael Regan spoke at a meeting of the department's Science Advisory Board, calling the emerging contaminants in the Cape Fear river “chief among the threats” facing the state's public health. The city sighed in relief as the tests showed GenX levels dropping as autumn arrived.

Yet in early October, a surge of GenX was discovered in the waters near the plant, at a concentration peaking at 3700 parts per trillion. Chemours called it an accidental “spill.” CEO Mark Vergnano said in an earlier statement that his company has been “very transparent and open” while working with state and federal regulators. “[Fayetteville Works] is a very normal chemical operation,” he said, adding that his company stopped discharge of GenX as a “good faith effort for folks in the community.” He still maintained that his company “does not believe there are health effects of [GenX] in the drinking water.” But North Carolina governor Roy Cooper condemned Chemours, calling the spill “completely unacceptable.” In mid-November, Regan said his department was “moving to permanently revoke [Chemours' wastewater discharge permit] because the company has repeatedly failed to follow the law,” effective at the end of that month.

But the damage has already been done. At an April forum held at University of North Carolina Wilmington, Knappe acknowledged that, while cessation of discharge at the source was the priority, the challenge now is that the residual amount of GenX still present in the water is “not so much contamination that is actively discharged into the river, but is essentially non-point-source pollution, where contaminated groundwater or runoff from the site contaminates the river.” Chemours has already created such a mess that shutting off the discharge pipe is like putting the cap back on a tube of toothpaste – after it’s been squeezed out.

Protesters at the New Hanover County Government Center demand real solutions to the water crisis. Photo by John Wolfe.

Almost a year has passed since my community first learned of the sins upstream. In that time, we have gotten a better picture of what exactly is leaving our faucets, even if we still don’t know the amount of these chemicals loose in the wider world. Last November, 198 households in New Hanover County participated in a research study, led by Jane Hoppin at North Carolina State University, which collected tap water samples from kitchen sinks. I was one of them. I can tell you with confidence that there are 32 parts per trillion of GenX leaving my faucet, as well as 15 ppt of PFOA and 10 ppt of PFOS. Three other emerging contaminants and four other legacy compounds were also detected. And I’m one of the lucky ones: my home came in under the median amount for every substance they measured.

Even though the measured level of GenX is under the state’s health goal, the chemical is still present. All of these compounds came from Chemours; no one else nearby manufactures anything like them. If I want truly clean drinking water, I will have to buy bottled water, or else install an expensive reverse osmosis or activated carbon block filtration system for underneath my sink. All thanks to an irresponsible multinational corporation based in Delaware, which abused the public trust and made a net profit of $746 million last year.

The NC State researchers also took samples of my blood and urine, and are working to figure out how much is in me. But while I wait for those results, I still have other questions. For example: why should we citizens have to pay for a reverse osmosis system to filter our water? Is it responsible to keep serving tap water to the tourists who visit this town, they who gorge on locally brewed beer, or drink coffee or sweet tea in our cafes? What will this do to our tourism economy when word gets out? Visitors will probably be alright, since it’s the cumulative effect that’s the problem. But what will be the long-term effects on the locals? I’ve only been here for a decade, but I have friends and neighbors who have lived here longer. Chief among them is the woman I love, who has lived here her entire life. What have the chemicals done to her reproductive system? Will we be able to start a family? It sickens me to think that everyone I know has taken a swallow of the Chemours Kool-Aid.

The NC State researchers also took samples of my blood and urine, and are working to figure out how much is in me.

My thoughts, as they often do, drift back to the river. I get angry when I think about what has happened, the anger that comes from the deep love of a place. I know the Cape Fear River to be magical from firsthand experience, spending almost as much of my life on the water as off. For two years I made my home atop her in the little cabin of my sailboat, and for a year and a half now my work on her as a captain has provided the roof over my head. I have traveled up and down her enough times that I no longer need charts. Often I dream of her. She was the golden path I traveled down when I first went to sea and saw big waves and hard storms and what the sunset looks like from atop the swaying mast of a sailing ship. I have seen the Cape Fear at her calmest, when no wind disturbs her; she is so peaceful that the whole sheet of cloudless sky melts perfectly into her sepia water, and you can't tell where the river ends and heaven begins. And I have seen her in a hurricane fury, when the wind drove spray in thick white sheets and her rising waters swallowed her banks. I have seen her in the hot summer sun, and under the pure white light of a full winter moon, on cold nights with Orion high above and the phragmites grass ghostly on the banks. She is beautiful, my river, and full of life: alligators and egrets, heron and osprey, drum and trout and sturgeon and crabs.

My thoughts, as they often do, drift back to the river. I get angry when I think about what has happened, the anger that comes from the deep love of a place.

I owe my own life to the river, too. The poetic truth of the science of ecology is that everything is connected. Many of the molecules in my flesh and blood once flowed in the Cape Fear. I drank them in like communion wine. Everyone who drinks the water is, in the same way, part of the river. It is from that part of ourselves that I write these final words.

We are the Cape Fear River, and we have been wronged.
We will not forget.
We demand justice.

  • About

    John Wolfe is a writer and mariner who lives on North Carolina’s southern coast. His writing, which focuses on humanity’s changing relationship with nature in the digital age, regularly appears in two Wilmington-based independent publications, encore and Salt. He holds a BFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a master captain’s license (with sailing endorsement).