'It's terrible': Fight for clean water in Cumberland County extends into its 6th year

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Thursday, April 20, 2023
Fight for clean water in Cumberland County extends into its 6th year
"Are we poisoning someone if we sell them our honey? Are we poisoning someone if we give them our chicken eggs or blueberries?" Mullins questioned.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- When Vickie Mullins hauls nearly a dozen gallon-water jugs into her house each week, it's more than just a chore. For the Cumberland County resident, it's a reminder of the dangers that threaten her family.

"It's terrible," Mullins admitted. "We are doing all we can to keep this going but it's getting tiring."

Six years ago, Mullins' private water well in Cumberland County tested positive for chemicals. Today, her property still does not have clean and safe access to water.

The chemicals in Mullins well were per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS; a group of man-made chemicals that have been used for decades to make products resistant to stains, grease, and water. PFAS are often referred to as forever chemicals because it is hard for them to break down.

"They were byproducts of production. So they just got discharged directly to the river or into the air," explained North Carolina State University environmental epidemiologist Dr. Jane Hoppin. "The requirements of testing of byproducts is so much less than something that's an active ingredient, so we know very little."

In 2017, it was publicly revealed that the Fayetteville chemical plant Chemours and its predecessor company, Dupont, had been dumping PFAS into the Cape Fear River for decades.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality estimates nearly 7,000 residential wells have tested positive for levels of PFAS above the acceptable amount across Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties.

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Mullins lived just less than 10 miles from the Chemours plant for more than three decades. She and her family raised chickens, were beekeepers and maintained a large garden, but after news of the contamination broke, they had to change their way of life.

"A lot of people were testing the food or testing the animals. We're testing the soil itself. So far from what I've heard, it's all showing up everywhere," Mullins said speaking about PFAS. "Everyone is changing their life around."

Her family's beehives have been reduced and they grow most of their crops out of pots now.

"Are we poisoning someone if we sell them our honey? Are we poisoning someone if we give them our chicken eggs or blueberries?" Mullins questioned.

Hoppin and a team of researchers at NC State have been studying PFAS since 2016. She recalled when they first started they quickly discovered the scope of the contamination as every person's blood they tested came back positive for these brand-new chemicals.

"It's not just one source, but the whole Cape Fear region is probably contaminated with PFAS," Hopping said. "That's alarming, it provides drinking water for like over a million people."

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"Our America: Trouble on Tap" is a three-part documentary series produced in partnership with ABC News and National Geographic to raise awareness around access to safe drinking water in the United States.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality explained the issue of PFAS is "larger than one company or one compound." Beyond the Chemours investigation, DEQ found 42 of the 50 public water systems it sampled tested positive for some types of PFAS. DEQ said these water systems impact three million North Carolinians.

Hoppins said the full impact of long-term exposure to PFAS on individuals' health isn't known yet.

"We don't know what all these chemicals mean for your health," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pointed to a number of studies that suggest that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to higher cholesterol levels, an increased risk for certain types of cancer and changes in the liver.

Hoppin explained trying to measure historic exposure to PFAS and its connection to current health effects can be challenging,

"We know that before the discharge stopped to the Cape Fear River that people were probably drinking 700 parts per trillion of GenX potentially every day for 40 years. But we can't measure that in people's bodies today, because that chemical has a half-life of three days." Hopping said. "So just like if you were to drink alcohol on Saturday night, on Thursday we can't measure it in your body. But we know that a lifetime of drinking on Saturday night can have health consequences."

Mullins said she can't help but worry and wonder what decades of exposure to contamination has had on the health of her community.

"I have so many friends with cancer right now; couples. I have a couple right down the road here. They both have cancer," Mullins said.

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While Mullins is still bathing and cleaning with her contaminated well water, corrective steps have started to be taken.

Since 2019, Chemours has been required by a consent order to determine the extent of the PFAS contamination related to its Fayetteville site and provide replacement water supplies from bottled water to filtration systems to some residents. Some homes have recently received a granulated activated carbon system, or a GAC system, that filters PFAS and GenX out of the home's water.

The state's consent order also requires Chemours to reduce GenX air emissions by 99.9%.

In a statement to ABC, Chemours said, "We have and continue to implement state-of-the-art technologies, including a thermal oxidizer completed in December 2019 that destroys over 99.99% of PFAS air emissions. In addition, our remediation work includes systems to intercept, collect, and treat legacy PFAS compounds in groundwater and surface water discharges from the site. These systems reduce PFAS compounds reaching the Cape Fear River and follow efforts previously taken by Chemours that reduced HFPO-DA process discharges and emissions by 97%."

The company is also working on an underground barrier wall that will work to capture and treat groundwater and reduce PFAS by at least 99%.

"Chemours' products are vital to advancing technologies for the energy transition and the next generation of sustainable innovations. The world depends on our products, and we are committed to manufacturing these essential chemistries responsibly," the company said in a statement.

In past years, Cumberland County officials have said they want to build a public water system and committed $21 million to run water lines to affected areas, including over 1,000 homes and two public schools. Those plans have not started, but in March 2023, the county was awarded $15 million to help build that system. It's estimated the project will cost $28 million.

In March 2022, the county filed a lawsuit against Chemours and Dupont that alleged their products caused contamination.

The Complaint alleged that the companies discharged these toxic chemicals into Cumberland County's air, groundwater and surface water for decades, "in blatant disregard" for the effects on Cumberland County and its residents. That case is still active and pending in North Carolina's Supreme Court.

Mullins is also one of nearly 2,000 homeowners who are seeking legal action against Chemours.

A spokesperson for Chemours declined to comment on pending litigation.

Mullins, along with other residents, acknowledges the work that's been done but continues to press for more accountability and action from both Chemours and local leaders.

"It's just scary. You know?" she said. "Not knowing when we're going to get water is making it even worse."

She is concerned about county officials allowing new construction on and near land that tested positive for PFAS. She is also concerned that Chemours plans to expand its Fayetteville facility.

"There comes a time when this has got to stop," she said.

Mullins said she won't stop speaking out and fighting for the fair changes she'd like to see in the county.

"I'm going to protect my family and my friends the best I can," she said.

For a deeper dive into PFAS in North Carolina and the fight to reduce them, tune in on April 21 to ABC's 'Trouble on Tap' special highlighting more voices fighting for clean, safe water in the Cape Fear Valley.