By Ivey Schofield
Ashley Lomboy isn’t afraid to dig in her neighbors’ yards.
She’s trying to gather at least 50 soil samples from eastern Columbus County, where the Cape Fear River – known to be contaminated – runs through. It’s also home to her Native American tribe, the Waccamaw Siouan.
Lomboy’s organization, Waccamaw Siouan STEM Studio, recently received a $25,000 Community Collaborative Research Grant that will allow the tribe’s children to work with local scientists. The goal is to test the soil in the area, home to about 2,600 tribal members, for a variety of toxic elements and chemicals, including PFAS, a group of at least 5,000 “forever” chemical compounds linked to adverse health effects.
Five years ago, when reports emerged about pollution in the Cape Fear River near the chemical plant Chemours at the border of Cumberland and Bladen counties, many in Columbus County thought they had nothing to worry about.
But in the last month, families across Columbus County have received letters from Chemours, which is known for making non-stick Teflon pans. The letters ask residents to test their wells for PFAS.
Last spring, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality required Chemours to expand its well testing area – originally established in 2019 – from Bladen, Cumberland, New Hanover, Sampson and Robeson counties to include Brunswick, Columbus and Pender.
“Everybody else around us has had testing,” said Steve Camlin, chief of Acme-Delco Riegelwood Fire-Rescue in eastern Columbus County. “They ain’t told us squat.”
Now residents of Columbus County are wondering: Has it been safe for them to drink and bathe in the water that comes from their wells?
Beyond the Cape Fear River
For at least five years, residents in northwestern Bladen County and western New Hanover County have known their water is contaminated.
Officials from Chemours, a spinoff of DuPont, told state officials in 2017 that the company was responsible for polluting the Cape Fear River with GenX, a newer type of PFAS whose full impact on humans remains unknown. As a “forever” chemical, it stays in the body, accumulating decade after decade.
About 1.5 million people get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River, which spans about 190 miles in south central and southeastern North Carolina, according to the Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS at N.C. State University.
The state began testing the water near the Chemours plant and found GenX upstream of the facility. That meant that the compound was spreading not only by river, but also by air – leaching into groundwater that private wells tapped into miles away, scientists say.
Robeson County Health Director William Smith said he found bees and private wells contaminated with GenX in the town of St. Pauls, about 12 miles west of the Chemours Fayetteville Works site.
“Ours has nothing to do with the Cape Fear River,” he said.
In 2019, a Bladen County Superior Court judge ordered Chemours to reduce its air emissions of PFAS by 99.9%. The company has reduced the emissions by 97% so far, spokesperson Lisa Randall told the Border Belt Independent this month.
“Chemours has made significant investments in emissions control technology and remediation activity at its Fayetteville Works site,” Randall said. “These actions have addressed the vast majority of PFAS releases from active manufacturing.”
The court also required Chemours to test private wells nearby, expanding by a quarter-mile each time a well tests positive. Three years later, the company is still broadening its testing range deeper into Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties.
For wells that test positive for high levels of PFAS, including GenX, the company must provide bottled water to residents or install filtration systems.
The Waccamaw Siouan tribe was nine miles away from the court-drawn testing territory.
Within the testing site, many households several years ago received letters from Chemours asking to test their private wells. The free testing was conducted by Parsons, an independent company.
Since then, more than 2,700 households have received bottled water from Chemours, and more than 3,200 residents have gotten reverse osmosis systems for water filtration, according to a recent sampling report from the company.
Between January and March, Parsons tested 67 private wells in Bladen County and 27 in Robeson County, according to the report. One well, in Bladen, tested positive for GenX at above 140 parts per trillion.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency slashed its guidelines for GenX from 140 ppt to 10 ppt. It also cut its advisory level for other PFAS compounds like PFOA and PFOS from 70 ppt to 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt, respectively.
More than 400 studies have shown that many PFAS compounds are more dangerous to human health than previously thought, Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, told The News & Observer in June.
Last week, Chemours challenged the EPA guidelines in the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia.
Bladen County Manager Greg Martin said that Chemours, one of the top 10 employers for the county, is addressing its river and air pollution.
“We all hate that this issue exists,” he said. “However, we hope that steps can be taken to help remediate the issue going forward.”
Bladen County has also been taking steps of its own: expanding its water lines, adding filtration systems, conducting random tests and constructing a new well away from the river.
“Water is a necessity of life, and we take it very seriously,” said Kip McClary, general services manager in Bladen County.
Columbus County catching up
Columbus County officials say they didn’t know they needed to take steps to remediate the impacts of potential PFAS contamination until letters from Chemours started showing up in residents’ mailboxes.
“Bladen has been addressing this since the beginning,” said Columbus County Manager Eddie Madden. “It’s only been in recent weeks Columbus has been involved in this.”
But some residents on the east end of the county were drinking water from the Cape Fear River until at least 2019 – when the county took over the water from the Riegelwood Sanitary District Board.
That year the county worked with the state to conduct PFAS testing and found traces of GenX – “so small it’s nothing to worry about,” said Chris Nobles, assistant director for the county’s public utilities. But that was on the west end near Tabor City, about 50 miles from the Cape Fear River.
The state didn’t find any traces in eastern Columbus County, Nobles said.
But some in the Waccamaw Siouan tribe are skeptical. That’s why they went after a grant to test their soil for several legacy chemicals, including PFAS.
“The community has been screaming and trying to get help for decades and decades,” Maya Miller of the Cape Fear Water Assembly said at the Waccamaw Siouan informational meeting on July 18. “We’re trying to do what you’ve been asking for.”
Dr. Marie Campbell, a primary care physician with Columbus Regional Healthcare System, said during the meeting that for years she has noticed disproportionate rates of health problems in the county, especially among Native Americans.
James Hammond, chair of the Riegelwood Sanitary District Board and former healthcare worker, also said that he has seen an “unusual” number of residents with cancer in eastern Columbus County.
Between 2016 and 2020, about 177 per 100,000 residents in Columbus County died from cancer, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s higher than the state’s average rate of 155 per 100,000 residents.
“It all comes back to the environment,” Campbell said.
Now, Hammond says, Columbus County residents are starting to talk about joining the class action lawsuit against Chemours. But the lawsuit, filed in 2018, only alleges property damage, not personal injury from health issues like cancer.
Madden, the county manager, said he expects to hear more stories about cancer locally. “I’m not sure it’s related, but it seems unusual,” he said. “Whether you can really tie it back, they’ll suspect that no matter what.”
Beth Kline-Markesino of Wilmington says she believes that drinking the water at her home caused her to lose her son during pregnancy in 2016. Less than a year later, she heard the news of PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River.
So Kline-Markesino established North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water, a nonprofit group active on Facebook that strives to share information and advocate for affected individuals.
Kline-Markesino didn’t know that Columbus residents might have been impacted by PFAS contamination – but now she’s promising to be their advocate as well.
“We should’ve tested these wells five years ago,” she said. “And I’m going to fight like hell for Pender and Columbus now that I know.”
What to do now
For residents of Columbus County with private wells, the recommendation from experts and local officials is clear: Get the water tested.
“Whatever is in those letters, they need to follow up on,” Nobles said. “Because if Chemours is willing to give you something, I would take it.”
Testing for high levels of GenX or other PFAS compounds could mean that the chemical company would provide bottled water, install filtration systems, fund public water line extensions and pay water bills – what residents of Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties have had access to for three years.
(To request free well testing, go to https://edataroom.uspioneer.com/chemoursnc. For more information, call 910-678-1100.)
Columbus County has also begun to work with the state in hopes of ramping up its own testing of public water lines.
These lines connect to deeper aquifers than private wells, Nobles says, so county officials are hopeful that PFAS compounds haven’t seeped deep enough into the soil to reach public water.
The county is also working on extending its public water lines to the east end, so residents with shallow, private wells could potentially have access to cleaner, public water.
Madden said it was “incumbent” on the county to hold a community meeting that would explain what the chemicals are and what they mean for families.
In the meantime, there’s not much residents can do to stop ingesting PFAS, Dr. Britt Moore, an environmental science professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington, said at the informational meeting on July 18.
That’s why it’s important to teach children how to test their own soil, he said. Then they can make the best decisions for themselves and their future families.
Next month, children of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe will begin collecting soil samples to test for compounds like PFAS. They’ll talk with members of their community about the water they drink, the crops they eat and the health issues they face.
By March, the children will have the results from the soil samples. They’ll share it with members of the tribe and then with the rest of the world. For the first time, they’ll be in charge of the narrative.
“It’s going to be passed down to our kids,” Lomboy said. “This is their story.”
Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey