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With State Funding Approved, UNCW Moves Forward With GenX Studies

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Oct 27, 2017
The University of North Carolina Wilmington is working on several projects to research GenX, now that funds have been made available through a law passed this month.

The university aims to work on several projects to learn more about how GenX behaves in the river, said Ron Vetter, UNCW's associate provost for research. The series of projects are funded under House Bill 56.

The bill, containing a series of environmental laws, also included $435,000 in funding to UNCW and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) for research into GenX in the Cape Fear River.

For CFPUA, executive director Jim Flechtner said, the state money would be used to help offset costs for the utility, which in combination with future efforts, will exceed what’s in the agency's $675,000 contingency fund. CFPUA budgeted just over $1 million for the GenX issue this fiscal year, he added.

University researchers are gearing up for an analysis of sediments in the Cape Fear River and biosolids, Vetter said. Preliminary cost estimates for that project is between $30,000 and $40,000, including faculty and researchers' time, a technician, supplies, travel and graduate students that will be involved in the research.

“What we intend to do is look at the Cape Fear River [is] the idea is that GenX could have seeped into or settled down into the bottom. And so even though you would test water say, on the surface of the river, you may see levels going down. But whenever there's some turbulence or the water gets excited, the chemicals from the bottom could come back up through the water column. And so the question is how much is settling at the bottom and how long could it be there for long period of time? ” Vetter said.

In addition to the studies under HB 56, UNCW plans to fund its own studies through public surveys that look at local economic impacts of the water-quality issue and a research study identifying and testing residential water filtration systems. That research is set to be led by Chris Dumas, an economics professor.

Another set of research the university aims to conduct with HB 56 funds, is an analysis to see if traces of GenX can be found in of fish or shellfish.

"There was some discussion about -- so is GenX accumulating in the environment, whether it be in organisms like fish or possibly shellfish, oysters, things like that?” Vetter said. “So what's the bioaccumulation that's actually occurring in these species?"

Vetter said that study would be conducted by people within the UNCW chemistry and biochemistry departments, as well as marine biology and biology departments.

"That by itself could be a large $250,000 project. This will be something small to see if we can detect anything. And if we did that might be a follow-up project,” he said.

"With this House Bill, with passing this budget for both money for us as well as the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, we both know that this is the first step, and there's probably going to have to be additional funding, whether it comes to us or other agencies within North Carolina. But this problem is a longer-term issue. So that's probably the thing important thing to take away from this. We're not going to have all the answers within the next 12 months," Vetter said.

UNCW is also working with CFPUA on researching GenX compounds in the Cape Fear River. That contract is at $75,000, Flechtner said. For CFPUA, HB 56 allocated $185,000 for testing, monitoring and deployment of water treatment technology to remove GenX from the public water supply, among other water-quality measures.

"From my perspective, a lot of what we are doing isn't just for CFPUA. It's going to help the entire region and other parts of the state that may be dealing with similar issues. So, it makes sense that this wouldn't be fully our expense,” he said.

CFPUA is working to pilot test various water filtration mediums to help the utility know and understand whether there are other ways its water treatment plant can be modified to filter GenX and other compounds out, Flechtner said.

"[The plant] wasn't designed in its current design to filter these compounds," he said. "That's what we are still trying to figure out. In other words, can we use the existing infrastructure at the plant and just use a different filter media? Or do we need to add a new treatment process to the plant that would involve significant construction and capital expense?"

CFPUA is working with Black & Veatch, which helped design the Sweeny Water Treatment Plant, and Calgon, a company that specializes in water filtration and purification, to determine if there are steps the utility can take to filter out the unregulated compounds being identified in the river, he said.

"A key part of this is that GenX and these other compounds are unregulated … and absent guidance from EPA on this, there's no standard for these compounds from a drinking water perspective, which is why we're doing a lot of this work ourselves," Flechtner said. "And this will help, not just CFPUA, it's going to help the region, and it's also going to expand the body of knowledge in the utility industry."
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