Tyler Newman, President & CEO, Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, contributed to this Insights article
Over the past several weeks, our community has had a robust discussion about the health of the Cape Fear River.
Historically, the river has served as critical infrastructure supporting shipping, the port, power generation, jobs and water needs, while also enabling a thriving recreational function and serving as a centerpiece for Wilmington's downtown.
Among its many benefits, the Cape Fear River provides a crucial water source for our region and is vital to our future prosperity. Due to numerous technological advances, regulatory oversight and millions in infrastructure investment, our waterways and drinking water are the healthiest in our history.
The revelation regarding the presence of the perfluorochemical compound known as GenX in the Cape Fear River has understandably raised questions. Until more is known about this compound, we are pleased that Chemours announced the company will capture, remove and safely dispose of wastewater containing the byproduct GenX.
In addition, the EPA, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have taken quick action regarding this matter. We applaud these actions and have asked Gov. Roy Cooper to ensure that the agencies involved maintain a rigorous, yet urgent, process to drive improved clarity as quickly as possible.
We support the community’s quest for a better understanding of the issue at hand. Unfortunately, the public nature of our community discussion means potential investors, buyers and job creators have immediate access to media coverage and headlines that are written before the questions have been fully answered. While the “toxic” narrative has dominated headlines, we want to ensure a more comprehensive picture emerges about the health of the people and water resources in our community.
We encourage everyone to rely on the facts, as they become available, to assess the situation and take appropriate actions.
Here are some facts that bear repeating:
- The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said the levels of GenX discovered in the Cape Fear River in 2013 posed a “low risk to human health.”
- At the federal level, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) sets the standard regarding pollutants discharged into navigable waters and charges the EPA to regulate contaminants. At the state level, the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) controls discharges through the NPDES permitting program and regulates drinking water providers such as CFPUA. Further, the N.C. Drinking Water Act dictates what can be released into water.
- CFPUA routinely monitors 150 substances in the drinking water according to Federal and State laws. There is an additional list of unregulated contaminants, which is updated every five years (on which you’ll find compounds like GenX, etc.).
- CFPUA participated in a study with N.C. State University regarding Cape Fear River testing and it was during this study that the information on GenX came to light. Once new samples are gathered and tested, the scientific community can determine what the data means and what actions, if any, need to be taken. Unfortunately, the process takes time and study to develop the best information that is required to make the best decisions.
- Initial information from DHHS shows that “we are not seeing any noticeable or statistically significant trends within the cancer registry for our region compared with the state. There is still more information to be gained through the state and federal investigations as it relates to GenX, but this is valuable data as we work to understand the public health effects.”
We will continue to be reliant on NCDEQ, the EPA and DHHS to provide knowledge and expertise. Their rules and permitting infrastructure are the governing law related to environmental protections. We rely on their experiences across the United States to determine potential threats to our water supply.
There are numerous potential contaminants in most, if not all, water sources. Geographically, we will continue to be at the end of the line of the Cape Fear River that supports millions of upstream users. There are checks and balances in place to permit and regulate the other government and industry uses which have valid intake and discharge permits upriver. Through regulations like the Clean Water Act, our watersheds are much healthier than they were just a generation ago. Our regional utilities follow strict guidelines on the treatment and distribution of millions of gallons a day of clean, reliable drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people.
To grow and diversify our regional economy, having an industrial and manufacturing component is necessary. The State of North Carolina, through the budget adopted by the N.C. General Assembly, continues to support regional economic development through investment in N.C. Ports, ILM and rail and road infrastructure. Locally, New Hanover County has initiated a $16.7 million project, aimed for completion in mid-2019, to extend water and sewer service to the entire length of the U.S. 421 corridor in New Hanover County, from the Isabel Holmes Bridge to the Pender County line. Adequate water and sewer lines for industrial sites will further the county’s ability to recruit and retain high-quality jobs for all our citizens and advance the County’s vision for economic growth.
As we move forward, we encourage the discussion regarding the Cape Fear River to be based on facts, answering the questions at hand, and ensuring that our community’s future is not negatively impacted by potential contaminants or toxic headlines.
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is the largest membership-based business association in Southeastern North Carolina. The Chamber’s mission is to ensure economic prosperity throughout our region. This is accomplished by: creating a diverse, inclusive organization that serves as a strong voice for businesses in the Greater Wilmington area; offering unique membership benefits, services and education; and challenging government officials to address long-term community and business interests.