[Postcard] In the Drink, by Elizabeth Bryant | Harper's Magazine
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Known unknowns in the Cape Fear River

A sign inside The Opera Room, a bar in Wilmington, North Carolina. All photographs by the author.

At 11 p.m. on New Year’s Day, the Palm Room in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, was mostly deserted. A few guys in flip-flops huddled under the lights outside in sherbet-colored tourist tees, cracking themselves up as holiday stragglers began to drift in. A couple hunched and leaned at the pool table, idly twirling their cues. Across from them, a humongous husky sat sphinxlike beneath a barstool, paws crossed. When “Folsom Prison Blues” cut out early, those singing along shouted “What happened to Johnny? Johnny!”

“Do you filter your ice cubes?” I asked the bartender as she sat a fingerprint-blurred glass in front of me.

“Yes,” she said, curt. The bar had installed a filtration system and, personally, she used a Brita pitcher.

The tap water for the 1.5 million North Carolinians in the greater Wilmington area comes from the Cape Fear River basin, a watershed into which the chemical company DuPont and their spin-off the Chemours Company have been dumping a toxic chemical named GenX for nearly forty years. They ceased in June 2017 after N.C. State researchers discovered GenX downstream from the plant. The consequences of human exposure are still unknown because the only tests that have been performed were conducted on animals, and by DuPont themselves. The outlook is grim. A 1963 study that DuPont only made the EPA aware of in 2006 demonstrates that rats given a high dosage of GenX died violently within three hours. Studies performed on animals since have revealed that GenX causes a variety of cancers: pancreatic, liver, kidney, testicular. Last fall, a friend who lives in town told me that nobody around here drinks the water anymore.        

To my right, a woman and two guys bemoaned their New Year’s Eve antics and depleted reserves. I asked for their thoughts on the water.

“The dogs like it,” said one guy. “The trees like it.” He shrugged. “I’m from Greenville.”

“It makes my hair flat,” said the woman as she smooshed her bangs down to demonstrate. “I don’t drink tap. With the salination, the water tastes terrible already.”

Later, the Greek-life crowd trickled in, wearing cocktail frocks and club-wear jumpsuits. Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid” was playing. The students clustered on the dance floor beneath the blue and purple lighting like impassive tropical fish. The U.N.C. Wilmington students, many of whose moms were particularly adamant on the subject, all said they drank bottled water, though several admitted to brushing their teeth with tap. A few mentioned a filtered fountain on campus.

“I don’t know what will happen to me, because it’s not immediate,” said Avery, a tall, broad-shouldered kid, at ease with his beer. “What about the effects in thirty years?”

“We don’t know if the water is clean or not,” said a young woman named Julia.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” added her friend, Caitlyn. “Scientists have said that in thirty years we’ll be out of fresh water.”

Caitlyn’s parents, like many of the students with whom I spoke, had installed a several-thousand-dollar filtration system in their house.

“Our generation is aware that the last generation fucked a lot up for us,” said Caitlyn, prickling. “All we can do is move forward and try to progress and make it better for our kids,” she continued. “My generation has been focused on sustainability—”

I asked Caitlyn her major.

“Fashion and textile management,” said Caitlyn. “Even though I’m not majoring in it, I’m open to it.”

“We’re in an age right now where it’s all incredibly interesting,” she continued. “We have to teach innovation. Speak the truth.”

Whatever the truth was, no one at the Palm Room seemed to have it pinned down.

The next morning’s sky was milky, washing out the salt-beaten pastel houses of Harbor Island, brightening the decorative seahorses, mermaids, and crabs hanging off utility poles. I drove back to Wilmington proper, where boats level with your car on the road, the water’s edge a few feet from your tires. The river itself was black-green, its flatness sucking down the daylight.

            I found the river-keeper, Kemp Burdette, a fit man with a salt-and-pepper buzz cut, inside a mint-green and cream cinder-block house along the shore. The building belonged to the Cape Fear River Watch, a grassroots nonprofit that works to protect the water quality of the Cape Fear River basin. Inside, the toilet was full of dark urine, and next to the sink sat a tchotchke of a country sign reading no dumpin! In late November, the River Watch had joined the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in releasing a consent order with Chemours to resolve their respective suits against the company. The order requires the company to clean and contain the groundwater it has contaminated with GenX and other fluorochemicals (a category known as PFAS). Further, they were ordered to cease 92 percent of discharges from the stacks by December 31, 2018, and 99 percent by the same day the following year. Although the first phase of the order was supposed to go into effect two days prior to my meeting with Burdette, on New Year’s Eve, the public commentary period had been extended into January 2019.

Burdette and I settled into fold-up chairs at their plastic conference table. “Whether it’s an oil spill or a sewer spill or a carton of milk sitting on the counter that has a little hole in the bottom of it, the first thing you don’t do is start cleaning up the milk and leave the container on the counter continuing to spill. You cut off the source of the contamination,” he said. “That’s what this consent order does.”

Chemours will also be required to provide reverse-osmosis filtered water to those with private wells near the chemical plant property if contamination exceeds 140 nanograms per liter. Reverse-osmosis filtration systems had been popular with the college students at the Palm Room, or at least their parents, so I asked Burdette about their efficacy.

“We pushed back pretty hard against that idea from the very beginning,” he said. Citizens shouldn’t have to clean their own water, he argued, and these filtration systems cost thousands of dollars, leaving the majority of the public, including those in subsidized housing who cannot alter their plumbing, to drink contaminated water.

“If you’re making something and the byproduct of whatever that thing that you’re making is is unclear, then you should do a ton of tests to figure out what it is. And if you do a ton of tests and you find out that that substance can be harmful to humans, then you should do a ton of work to make sure that you capture all of it,” Burdette told me. “And if you can’t capture it, then you shouldn’t be allowed to continue dumping it into the water.”

This precautionary principle should apply “whether it’s GenX, or coal ash, or hog waste,” said Burdette. “But we don’t do that in this country.” As early as 1961, DuPont’s own chief of toxicology had alerted the company to the dangers of PFOA, a relative of GenX in the PFAS family, which the company decades later proceeded to dump into the Ohio River and discharge into the air, ground, and water in Parkersburg, West Virginia. A 1999 lawsuit filed on behalf of the Parkersburg victims revealed that beginning around 1981, DuPont had been studying their pregnant employees to determine whether PFOA travels from mother to fetus via the placenta. It does, though DuPont chose to withhold that information from the EPA. When the company’s clandestine testing found PFOA in the Ohio drinking water in 1984, as with West Virginia, they opted not to inform the residents or the EPA. This knowledge only surfaced to the public in 2002 via court documents related to the Parkersburg case. Despite this decades-long history, the EPA still chooses to label PFAS “emerging contaminants.” In fact, the EPA hasn’t banned a synthetic chemical in decades.

At the moment, the consent order doesn’t address any sort of major reparations for the residents. “We could hem and haw and we could sit here like they did in Parkersburg,” said Burdette, “and spend fifteen or twenty years litigating, and for those fifteen or twenty years we could continue to see that stuff going into the groundwater or service water. And that wasn’t what we were interested in.”

Burdette and I left the river-keeper’s office to take a walk along the water. The wind was damp and the river mirrored the dirty winter sky. We passed through a group of homeless men milling about beneath the overhang of a vacant seasonal waterfront restaurant. The far end of the river walk was deafening with ongoing construction for a towering parking garage.           

“See,” said Burdette at one of the construction sites, pointing through the chain-link fence towards an entwined set of ribbed orange and black drainpipes. “That’s a sediment control system. They’re pumping water out, they’re pumping it into these huge filter bags, and by and large, all the water that’s going in there is crystal clear. Which means it’s working.”

“And it’s coming through this? To clean it?” I asked.

“Yeah. But I’ve been down here before, you know, when this thing wasn’t working at all, and there was this ton of chocolate-milk dirty water running down the street. It’s because one of these filter bags wasn’t set up properly. And you can see it coming into the river. It drains into the storm drain.”

On the docks, we ran into Burdette’s predecessor, Doug Springer, who now runs a water-taxi service on the Cape Fear. On the roof of one of his boats, there was a smaller decorative boat holding a fisherman Santa Claus. Above us, a bald eagle reeled around and around, powerful and directionless.

“Who let you out?” Springer asked Burdette.

“I hear you were the river-keeper before Kemp,” I said.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Springer laughed. “We had a good one then.”

A sign inside Lovey’s Market.

That evening, I drew up to Johnson Grocery on Dawson and South 10th Street, a bright little stand-alone store in a neighborhood of small block-like houses, many with big satellite dishes in the grass out front. A couple exited the store. The man was older and looked weary. The young woman, in a gray hoodie with glittery script, beamed as though she recognized me.

“You’re really pretty,” she said, close to my face.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I don’t drink tap,” said the man. “I drink bottled water.”

“I don’t drink water,” said the woman. “I drink bottled juice.”

The man, whose name was Lonnie, had lived in the neighborhood his whole life.

“Were you people in Flint?” asked the woman. Her eyes flashed. “That stuff was crazy.”

“A lot of people with health issues, and they can’t say if it’s related to GenX because they don’t know how,” said Lonnie, leaning back to check behind him. His companion muttered her agreement.

I asked Lonnie if he, or anyone in his family, suffered health problems that they suspected might be related to GenX.

“I’m pretty sure, I’m pretty sure, even myself. I can’t, you know, say what my conditions are.” Again, Lonnie glanced over his shoulder.

“Do you use tap water to brush your teeth?” I asked him.

“I’m kind of in a rush, dear,” said the woman, eyes flashing again.

“Bottled water,” answered Lonnie.

“Could I get a phone number from you?” I asked.

“I don’t have a phone,” said Lonnie.

Inside Johnson Grocery, a wall-mounted television tuned to M.S.N.B.C. played an interview with Nancy Pelosi. High on dark-wooded shelves leaned a collection of antique malt liquor signs—Schlitz, Colt 45, Magnum—and a Budweiser digital clock. I found Rodney Moore sitting low in a burnt orange office chair and wearing a porkpie hat, congressional pin affixed to his lapel. Above him his friend Bob Johnson, the proprietor, leaned out over the counter on crossed arms.

“Bottled water mostly for me, yeah, bottled water,” said Mr. Johnson.

“I actually voted for the legislation for that,” said Moore, speaking up to me from the rolling chair. He was referring to a bill that passed the state House in January 2018 which allocated $2.34 million to address GenX contamination. It failed in the Senate.

“Look at what’s happening in Flint, in Denmark, South Carolina,” said the former state Congressman who grew up in this neighborhood and who represented Charlotte’s ninety-ninth district until he was primaried out of office last year by Nasif Majeed. “We don’t know how long this GenX carcinogen or other carcinogens—we haven’t even talked about what’s worse than GenX—how long they’ve been in the water supply,” he continued. “You’re drinking poison water for the last fifteen or twenty years, that’s how long the compound has been in the water. GenX is a very subdued compound compared to some of the other things that they could have expelled.

“I grew up in this area, so I don’t know if this was a problem when I was growing up drinking the water, how this might affect my health in the future, or how it may have affected my health in the past,” said Moore. “If you get cancer, you already know the national tone is now to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They won’t expand Medicaid in North Carolina.”

“Even with the incentives,” I said.

“It’s almost like you’re sentencing people to death. Because they can’t provide health care for them. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s a double-edged sword.”

We bid each other a happy New Year. I bought a bag of chips from Mr. Johnson and hit the road. On my way out I noticed that several shelves were empty, as though a storm were approaching. All the bottled water was sold out.

Nearly two months later, a judge approved a revised version of the consent order. New requirements dictate that Chemours submit sediment contamination analysis and monthly reports of GenX compound emissions, treat water fountains and sinks in public buildings, and provide downstream utilities with a plan to reduce PFAS contamination. The company was also fined $12 million, barely over one percent of its net income last year, a cost neither punitive nor prohibitive. On the signing of the new consent order, North Carolina’s secretary of the DEQ rhapsodized: “Profits may not come before people.”

I called up Detlef Knappe, the N.C. State professor who led the team of researchers that discovered GenX downstream from the Chemours plant, to ask if the order would solve anything. He noted that the presence of PFOA in the blood of Cape Fear River basin residents was already higher than the national average, and that even the new limit recommended by the EPA’s health advisory—seventy nanograms per liter for both PFOA and PFOS (another PFAS)—is probably too high. And while the new consent order addresses the GenX originating at the plant, Knappe pointed out that other PFAS compounds are present “throughout the entire watershed, from Pittsboro on the Haw River all the way down to Wilmington.” We just don’t know where these compounds are coming from.

“It’s kind of an epic failure of the system in that way, that we’re stuck in 1970s or 1980s rule-making,” he said of the EPA’s inability to regulate fluorochemicals. “On a practical level,” he added, “the public needs to understand how we’re exposed to PFAS by all different means, whether that’s fast-food contact paper, or whether it’s dental floss or carpet treatment. And so we can’t just focus on the water and demand zero in the water when we want our stain-resistant carpet.”

Back when I was at the Palm Room, in a moment between rallying cries, Caitlyn stopped to stare down into her drink and said, “It kinda feels like we’re screwed.”

“It kinda does,” I said.

She looked up at me. “They’ve known what they’ve known,” she said. “They’ve done what they’ve done to prosper.”

The Cape Fear River in July 2019.

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