‘Forever chemicals’ in Fayetteville water sparks renewed concern

By Taylor Barnhill

About three years ago, someone knocked on Theresa Striblin’s door and asked to test her water. 

Striblin, who lives just outside of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, assumed this testing was part of regular maintenance, so she let them inside. And, thankfully, her water tested clean. 

But Striblin — like so many others in her community — wasn’t initially told why this testing was happening, nor about the toxic chemicals that had so quickly inundated her community. It was much later, she said, when residents read news articles that brought the contamination to light.

“It was concerning,” she said. “I mean, you bathe in the water. You cook with it.”

Chemours LLC, a chemical manufacturer with a plant in Fayetteville, has faced several legal battles in the last six years related to releasing various chemicals from its Fayetteville Works plant.

Researchers are still uncovering the extent of toxic pollution in Fayetteville and beyond, stretching at least as far as Wilmington, N.C. Yet, Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility doesn’t want to slow production; instead, in an air permit application from October 2022, they outlined plans to expand. 

The chemicals of concern are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS. They are used to manufacture anything from nonstick cookware and rain jackets to cosmetics and cleaning products — and they’re known to stick around.

PFAS decompose slowly, earning the moniker of ‘forever chemicals.’ Because of this, environmental groups are concerned about how they can build up in the bodies of humans and animals over time. 

Their persistence also means they can travel. So far, researchers have measured PFAS in every continent except Antarctica, most recently discovering them in the blood of polar bears.

Scientists still aren’t exactly sure about the extent of PFAS’ effects on human health. However, they have been linked to a host of problems: reproductive issues, developmental delays, various cancers and immune harm all correlate with high levels of PFAS exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 2017 article by the Wilmington Star-News put PFAS in the public eye. The piece reported that GenX, a form of PFAS manufactured by Fayetteville Works, had contaminated over 300,000 people’s drinking water in the Cape Fear Region since local municipalities could not filter it out. 

But pollutants weren’t limited to the river. As PFAS were released into the air surrounding the facility, they contaminated rainwater — which later polluted rivers and seeped into wells all across the state’s southeast.

A string of legal actions followed this discovery, culminating in a November 2018 Consent Order signed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Chemours LLC. The order required that Fayetteville Works adopt strict control measures to prevent PFAS from entering the environment.

And, on paper, the order has been followed. 

Chemours boasts that PFAS emissions in released air and water have gone down by over 99%. The company reports that thermal air filters, installed in December 2019, are close to completely effective. 

Still, this figure is somewhat ambiguous. EPA air testing isn’t yet “subject to the Federal rulemaking process,” according to its website — and independent researchers are discovering new kinds of PFAS in the area. 

 A recent study led by postdoctoral researcher Jiaqi Zhou at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health collected air samples near Fayetteville Works. It spanned six months, from September 2019 to March 2020.  

What the team discovered, Zhou said, was that overall airborne PFAS concentrations in the space around Chemours’ facility were much higher on average than quantities measured in other parts of North Carolina. This indicated that the facility was a likely source for such contamination, especially for newly-discovered types of PFAS. 

Zhou’s study was one of the first to measure both emerging and legacy PFAS. Emerging PFAS, she said, are those which could not be measured before, as technology was not yet advanced enough — an implication that could complicate control and reporting measures for toxic substances.

Zhou’s team kept seeing PFAS at high levels even after thermal filters were installed — likely because the factory’s testing couldn’t detect every type of PFAS it released. And, as the fitting ‘forever chemical’ name implies, any pollution pumped out before December 2019 likely still lingers in the community’s atmosphere.

“The interesting point is that what we found in the air actually matches what was found in the (Cape Fear) River,” Zhou said — a further indicator that the area’s air pollution resulted from Chemours’ manufacturing.  

Jean Zhuang, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that agencies are still in the process of discovering the extent of air pollution, as it is often hard to measure. Zhuang has worked to litigate action against PFAS-polluting facilities since 2017.

“Chemours has to keep testing further and further out from their facility as long as they’re continuing to find contamination,” she said. “And they just haven’t found the end of it.”

Why do they want to grow? 

Zhuang said a large concern of members of the SELC is that Fayetteville Works is not only continuing to manufacture PFAS — it’s that they want to get bigger. 

Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility applied for an expansion permit last year. The expansion would allow increased production of fluoropolymer monomers — a chemical building block for PFAS-related substances. 

 Though fluoropolymers and known-harmful PFAS are not identical, they have similar structures; like PFAS, they are a very persistent ‘forever chemical.’ And, as recent research explains, their use and production correlate with exposure to harmful PFAS.  

Chemours’ permit application says that emissions increases will be negligible. Activists and residents, however, are not satisfied.

“(Fayetteville Works) shouldn’t be allowed to expand when they’ve contaminated probably close to 100 square miles of southeastern North Carolina with PFAS,” Zhuang said. “And that contamination is only continuing. They still haven’t installed alternative drinking water supplies for everybody.” 

Zhuang said that the SELC’s focus is to encourage local agencies to more heavily impose the guidelines in the federal Clean Water Act, which has not, she said, been enforced broadly with relation to PFAS.  

“Our goal throughout the whole region is to make sure that these chemicals get controlled and that they don’t continue to expose our communities to toxic contamination,” she said.  

Where are we now?  

For many North Carolinians, including Striblin, uncertainty about safety prevails.  

“(Water testing) was like three years ago,” Striblin said. “We don’t know what it is now.”

Over 1,000 residents of Pender County, down the Cape Fear River from the Chemours facility, qualify for — and have not yet received — alternative water sources due to contamination in their own wells. Many residents of Fayetteville are still reliant on bottled water to meet their needs. 

Yet, testing measures for wells across the state only measure 12 types of PFAS, less than the 22 types detected by Zhou’s team and far short of the 54 distinct types found in the Cape Fear River so far.

And despite the banner message on Chemours’ Fayetteville Works website, which reiterates a commitment “to taking a leadership role in environmental stewardship,” activists are not persuaded. Fayetteville Works’ permit application remains incomplete.

“This company really doesn’t understand what they’ve done to this community,” Zhuang said. 

Edited by Preston Fore and Lauren Fichten