For years, statewide, regional and local groups have fought to hold an area chemical plant accountable for its alleged groundwater contamination. On Friday, Cumberland County joined the fight, filing a lawsuit against Chemours and its parent company, DuPont.
The lawsuit, filed by Crueger Dickson LLC. and Baron & Budd PC, alleges that Chemours knowingly contaminated water sources throughout the county with “forever chemicals” called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, like GenX. In high levels, the chemicals can cause health issues like cancer in animals. The effect of GenX on humans is unknown.
“The companies discharged these toxic chemicals in Cumberland County air, groundwater and surface water for decades in blatant disregard for the effects on Cumberland County and its residents, despite knowing the dangers these chemicals possess,” according to a county press release Friday.
North Carolina environmental regulators have been investigating the Chemours company since June 2017 when the Wilmington StarNews first reported that researchers had published a study the previous year showing they had found GenX and similar compounds in the river. GenX has since been discovered in hundreds of private wells near the plant.
Well owners near the facility have filed a lawsuit against Chemours. Residents who live in communities near the Cape Fear River downstream from the facility also are suing the company.
“These companies have used the environment surrounding the Fayetteville Works facility as a dumping ground for hundreds of chemicals while assuring the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and state agencies that they were doing no such thing,” according to the Friday lawsuit.
The Chemours company did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Officials from Chemours, located near the Bladen County and Cumberland County line, have previously said that the amount of GenX in wells around the plant is not harmful.
Chemours has been advertising on television since January that it is a “good neighbor” that protects the environment.
A timeline of state involvement
In 2017, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality began requiring Chemours to “significantly reduce the release of PFAS contamination into North Carolina’s air, water and soil,” according to the state agency’s website.
Two years later, DEQ took the matter to the Bladen County Superior Court, filing a consent order that required the company to address PFAS sources and contamination by sampling private wells, providing replacement drinking water, reducing GenX air emissions by 99.9% and conducting comprehensive assessment of groundwater contamination. The company and an environmental group agreed to the order.
In August 2020, DEQ added new requirements to its original consent order that included planned benchmarks in preventing PFAS pollution.
“Chemours made an industry-leading commitment to reduce all fluorinated PFAS emissions by 99% by 2030,” said Lisa Randall, a spokeswoman for Chemours, last year.
In November 2021, DEQ determined that the company was “responsible for contamination of groundwater monitoring wells and water supply wells in New Hanover County and potentially Pender, Columbus and Brunswick counties,” according to the agency’s website.
The state agency assessed more than $199,000 in penalties against Chemours in March 2021.
However, those are not the only counties potentially affected. In May 2021, the state found potentially toxic chemicals in more than 260 homes in Bladen, Cumberland and Robeson counties – at least 16 miles from the Chemours plant. Those results were in addition to hundreds of other wells that had been found to have the compounds earlier.
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In February 2022, Chemours submitted a sampling and drinking water plan for the counties in the Wilmington area. On March 2, DEQ directed Chemours to expand the scope of the plan.
Not everyone in Cumberland County has considered DEQ’s involvement effective. Christopher Scott Leyhew, who lives in a house with a well that posted positive for GenX, told The Fayetteville Observer in 2020 that the consent order only required the company to install filters under sinks in some houses. That meant that people were still taking showers in contaminated water.
Mike Watters, who lives about a mile from the plant and has a contaminated well, also has been critical of DEQ.
In January 2020, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners decided to allocate $10.5 million to run water lines in the area affected by GenX contamination. Some residents, including children at two local elementary schools, had been drinking bottle water since the discovery of GenX in a nearby well.
The county has not yet completed its goal of developing a public water system in Gray’s Creek. The board was expected to consider on Monday entering a bulk water purchase agreement with Fayetteville Public Works Commission to supply water in that district.
During this time, the county has moved forward on other initiatives. In May 2021, it allocated $2 million for a water feasibly study of the whole county, not just Gray’s Creek.
In addition, in June 2021, the board of commissioners hired three law firms: Wisconsin-based Crueger Dickinson LLC.; Washington, DC-based Baron & Budd, PC; and Asheville-based Seagle Law to determine if the county should file a lawsuit .
Ten months later, Cumberland County did just that.
However, Seagle Law was not a part of the lawsuit filed on Friday. County Attorney Rick Moorefield did not respond to immediate request for comment.
Moorefield in 2021 said Crueger and Baron & Budd had filed 90% of environmental contamination cases across the country. They have won several environmental cases with multi-million dollar settlements.
More:Which environmental cases taken on by newly hired Cumberland lawyers have been successful?
Under the contract, the attorneys will get 25% of any potential recovery due to the lawsuit. Fees also would be reimbursed if there’s recovery.
Commissioner Jeannette Council previously said that the county would be willing to go to court over the issue.