Cumberland County has filed a lawsuit against the Chemours and DuPont chemical companies, saying they caused severe groundwater contamination in the county.
The lawsuit, which also names Corteva Inc. as a defendant, was filed Friday by the national environmental law firms Crueger Dickinson LLC of Wisconsin and Baron & Budd of Washington, D.C. The county hired those firms, along with Seagle Law of Asheville, in June to advise the county on whether to take legal action.
“Hopefully the thousands of Cumberland County residents with contaminated wells can finally receive their long overdue relief and compensation that they deserve,” county Commissioner Larry Lancaster said.
More than 6,200 private wells in Cumberland, Bladen, Robeson and Sampson counties have been contaminated with potentially carcinogenic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS or forever chemicals.
Much of the contamination is in the Gray’s Creek community, which lies nearest to the Chemours plant just across the border in neighboring Bladen County. But the contamination leaving Chemours’ vent stacks was recently found to have polluted wells as far as 25 miles away, in an area between the towns of Wade and Falcon.
The contamination had been blown by the wind and fallen with the rain at least since the early 1980s. Chemours spent $100 million on a thermal oxidizer - basically a huge incinerator – that the company says has stopped 99.9 percent of GenX and other PFAS from leaving the plant. The thermal oxidizer began operating in December 2019.
But Chemours has done little on its own to help the thousands of people with contaminated wells, from Cumberland County to the coast. Cumberland County tried to get help from Chemours to pay for a system that would provide public water to Gray’s Creek, including two elementary schools.
When Chemours backed out of those negotiations, the county retained the law firms to offer advice on how to proceed. The lawsuit filed Friday is the result. CityView TODAY is trying to get a copy of the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Chemours said the company hasn’t received a copy of it yet, either.
“These companies have used the environment surrounding the Fayetteville Works facility as a dumping ground for hundreds of chemicals while assuring the EPA and state agencies that they were doing no such thing,” the lawsuit alleges, according to a statement from the county.
DuPont began operating the Fayetteville Works plant in the early 1970s. The contamination didn’t become public knowledge until the Wilmington StarNews first reported on it in June 2017, after researchers discovered it in the Cape Fear River.
In February 2019, Chemours entered a consent order with the state Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch. Among many other things, the consent order forces Chemours to provide replacement water systems to people with well contamination. It also required the thermal oxidizer and for the company to stop discharging its wastes into the Cape Fear River. A mile-long retaining wall is now being built along the river at Chemours to prevent groundwater contaminated with PFAS from reaching the river.
Residents join class-action lawsuits
Hundreds of residents have joined class-action lawsuits against Chemours, including one being handled by Baron & Budd, which is nationally recognized for litigation over PFAS and other environmental health issues. Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015.
Mike Watters, founder of Grays Creek Residents United against PFAS in our Wells and Rivers, is among those with contaminated wells who have joined a lawsuit.
“I am Happy to see Cumberland County has filed action,” Watters said in an email. “Reality the County just did NC DEQs Duty. NC DEQ is charged with enforcing the NC Groundwater Quality Standards.”
For years, Watters has hounded the DEQ to enforce its groundwater standards. Watters argues that under state statute, the standard – called a practical quantitation limit – is far lower than what the DEQ typically adheres to unless the department cites Chemours with a violation.
Watters said Monday afternoon he is trying to get a copy of the lawsuit.
“I will know the full impact after seeing the actual filing, but if it will cover the cost of running the lines in this small affected area and pay for the connections as well as cost of water bills for like 20 years as was done for the Coal Ash contamination areas then it will be a good thing,” he wrote in his email.
The county Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet Monday night to discuss the bulk water system for the Gray’s Creek community. The system was estimated to cost $64 million in 2020. If the county and the Fayetteville Public Works Commission can agree, public water lines would be extended to the Gray’s Creek area.
What is PFAS?
A variety of everyday goods contain PFAS, including pizza boxes, fast-food wrappers, non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpet and waterproof clothing. They are called forever chemicals because they don’t break down easily in the environment, if at all. More than 5,000 types of PFAS are known to exist.
Almost everyone has some level of PFAS in their system. At high levels, some of the compounds have been associated with kidney, thyroid and testicular cancers, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, liver disease, low birth weight and other diseases.
Researchers at N.C. State University have taken blood samples from residents of Gray’s Creek and Wilmington. They found that the residents who were tested had significantly higher concentrations of some types of PFAS than the U.S. as a whole.
County officials and representatives of the law firms that filed the lawsuits could not immediately be reached for comment.
Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at email@example.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.