On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a handful of activists and concerned residents gathered on the grassy roadside a few yards from the winding road to the Fayetteville Works plant, waving flags and holding up signs to passing cars. Behind them stood a display of boards with data outlining the toxic effects of PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, on the environment and human body.
The 10 or so protestors, mostly middle-aged adults and seniors, have spent the last six years advocating for safe drinking water. Some wore bright orange shirts representing their advocacy group, Gray’s Creek Residents United Against PFAS — one of the core organizers of the protest along with Wilmington-based advocacy group North Carolina Stop GenX. Passing cars honked in solidarity every so often.
The groups were protesting the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to allow North Carolina-based chemical company Chemours to import up to 4.4 million pounds of GenX chemical waste from its plant in the Netherlands to the Fayetteville facility.
Chemours recently agreed to the EPA’s request to pause the shipments until Dec. 1, NC Newsline reported. The approval comes after Gov. Roy Cooper sent a letter to the EPA urging it to reverse its decision to allow shipments to resume. The EPA has said the agency is taking the governor’s and other local stakeholder concerns seriously.
Still, residents in the Cape Fear River Basin, many of whom say they only learned that the shipments had resumed through reading news accounts, believe there is no guarantee that state and federal agencies have a safe plan for regulating the shipments, which the EPA has not yet labeled as hazardous waste.
Many locals say they are still dealing with ongoing issues in accessing safe water and from chronic health problems, many of which are linked to exposure to PFAS, a class of harmful chemicals that can cause damage to a wide range of bodily systems and is linked to increased risk of various cancers.
Beth Kline-Markesino, the founder of the nonprofit advocacy group North Carolina Stop GenX, was the main organizer of the protest, alongside Mike Watters, who lives just over a mile from the Fayetteville Works plant and leads Gray’s Creek Residents United Against PFAS in our Wells and Rivers.
For the few in attendance at Saturday’s protest, the low turnout was nothing new — but it was frustrating.
“The news that we're hearing is so alarming that, what is it going to take for more people to show up and raise their voices?” Kline-Markesino said. “To find out more GenX is coming in here, that infuriated me more than I was already infuriated.”
Gray’s Creek resident Art Bell, who previously attended two protests against Chemours in Fayetteville, said the dwindling number of grassroots activists protesting the environmental contaminants demonstrates a kind of activism fatigue.
“This is my third one, and it seems like every time we have one, these numbers get lowered,” Bell said of the protest. “I think people are getting tired of hearing about it. There's nothing being done.”
“I don't understand why people ain't out here just beating the ground,” he added.
David Edwards is a local resident who describes himself as “dangerously trained” in earth sciences, having previously worked with and transported chemicals used for firefighter gear — which contains PFAS — that required him to wear full hazmat gear. Edwards emphasized the magnitude of the 4.4 million pounds of GenX waste that Chemours has been allowed to import. (The company has said the imports will likely be much lower than that.)
The daily lifetime health advisory limit of GenX set by the EPA is 0.000003 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. Though the chemicals are not regulated as hazardous waste, in recent years, assessments by the EPA have found that GenX is far more toxic than originally thought.
Still, Edwards blames the EPA for not acting decisively to ban the chemicals.
“How many people do you want to kill with this stuff?” Ewards said. “What's an acceptable threshold for dead bodies?”
Kline-Markesino has been working with a member of parliament in the Netherlands, Sandra Beckerman — who represents the area where the Chemours plant is located in Dordrecht, Netherlands — to advocate for regulating the imports of GenX and other PFAS from Europe to the U.S. She said she’s been assured by the support from overseas advocates who are fighting similar battles.
“It was very profound because it's like we're zillions of miles apart from the Netherlands here, but we're fighting the same polluter, the same company, and we want the same outcome,” Kline-Markesino said. “We want to ban PFAS, we want to regulate it.”
“But talking to everybody in the Netherlands, it was the feeling that we're not alone,” she added. “We have each other. And it takes comfort in knowing that I have people that are around the world fighting the same thing I am. And they support us just as much as we support them.”
Despite the low protest turnout, core activists say they don’t plan to stop protesting the toxic chemicals anytime soon.
“All we can do is do what we can to try to help,” Bell said.
Still, Watters expressed disappointment over the “pitiful” numbers at Saturday’s protest, voicing his frustration in a Facebook post to the Gray’s Creek group after the protest.
“Very tiring to fight for individuals, get lab results for a community to help, but (in) reality it is only one-sided,” Watters wrote. “When we need the help at attendance, people are just too occupied to help by attending.”
Contact Evey Weisblat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-527-3608.