Earlier this month, I awoke with my neighbors in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the news that DuPont may have spent decades poisoning our water.
As it turns out, officials at our pubic water authority have known about this for at least six months. But it took the Wilmington Star-News to reveal that they hushed up those details.
Since then, everyone here has become sickeningly familiar with the details of Teflon, and how a benign-sounding chemical named GenX, which is essential to its manufacture, seeped into our water supply. This week, CBS News weighed in with a story that introduced the nation to our concerns.
Last week, I sat in on a meeting of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. The purpose of the meeting was to unveil an investigation that Jennifer Adams, its vice chairman, conducted into who knew what and when.
To Ms. Adams credit, she released a timeline that had considerable information. It showed that utility officials knew as early as November 2016 that they had troubled waters. That was when a report from a North Carolina State University scientist, which was partially funded by the CFPUA, began circulating.
As its author summed up in an email: “A large number of people are exposed to high levels of [GenX] through their drinking water.”
Right here is where we can get lost in a discussion of “high levels.” All sorts of numbers are being thrown around —none of them very definitive.
Ms. Adams, who spent more than a decade working for DuPont, managed to shrewdly mine that uncertainty. In her presentation, she repeatedly pointed out that GenX is such a new compound that even the EPA hasn’t had time to issue drinking water standards. And that’s freaking people here out. It’s hard to imagine Scott Pruitt’s anti-science EPA rushing in to get us any quick answers. And the folks at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality are franticly playing catch-up.
So we’re left on our own to figure out how panicked to get.
I was in the low-burn panic camp — the kind where, say, you hear that Stryker is reforming, and then realize, whew, it’s just Striker. But then I listened to the top staffer of the utility, a man named Jim Flechtner, answer questions last week, and I upgraded to Code Orange.
In fairness to Mr. Flechtner, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of man who ever expected to find his face on a placard. He oozes blandness and caution, which would be fine if he also oozed competence. Alas…
The reason GenX has caused such a stir is that it’s a close cousin of a famously toxic carcinogen called C-8.
I say close cousin because the two have the same lineage: C-8 is so named because it’s the produce of eight successive carbon molecules. Gen-X has six carbon molecules with some oxygen spliced in.
All of this was explained by the biologist Madison Palera on WWAY-TV here in Wilmington. She showed how the new compound should break down more easily in the body, creating what the EPA has called a more “favorable toxicological profile.”
This would be a good thing for someone like Mr. Flechtner to know — not least because it’s somewhat calming. But when I asked him if he could explain the difference between C-8 and GenX to a confused public, he said, “No, that’s not something I’ve looked into.”
No? If you’re running an agency with a $75 million annual budget that just raised rates on its customers, wouldn’t that be a good thing to know?
He wasn’t any more reassuring when I asked if he’d done any research on C-8. He said he hadn’t, but it was the way he said it — with fifteen layers of dead in his eyes.
Maybe, in the best of worlds, this will turn out to be a tempest in a teapot that serves water to more than 200,000 people. But amount of sanctimonious self-congratulating going on at the CFPUA right now is striking.
The report Ms. Adams co-authored concluded: “It is our opinion that CFPUA staff acted in an appropriate, professional, timely and scientific manner.” Asked about that afterwards, Mr. Flechtner added: “At this point, I don’t know what I would have done differently.”
They all have to stop drinking the same Kool-Aid. Especially since it’s made with Cape Fear water.