Friday, April 19, 2024

Brunswick minority communities fight to address PFAS contamination

Ms. Evelyn Johnson spoke at Democracy Green’s press conference on PFAS contamination in Shallotte. (Courtesy of Democracy Green)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — A week before Thanksgiving, Floyd Road community member Evelyn Johnson held up a glass of water from her sink. Though clear, it was filled with PFAS contaminants, including GenX.

READ MORE: UN calls out Chemours, partner companies for human rights violations associated with PFAS

“It is time-up that we are the dumping ground for everybody else,” Johnson told a group of people.

She was gathered in Shallotte with environmental organizations Democracy Green and the Brunswick County Stewards of the Environment to address the disproportionate neglect of the region’s water contamination. Chemours — the spinoff of DuPont — is responsible for the 40-plus years of PFAS pollution in the Cape Fear River, dumped from its Fayetteville Works facility upstream. 

The perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances have seeped into the water, air and ground for decades and have been coined “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down in the environment.

“Our priority has been Brunswick County,” Democracy Green president La’Meshia Whittington told Port City Daily. “Because it has been ground zero, nationally and internationally.”

Whittington was referring to a 2020 study, which found Brunswick County to be the most PFAS-contaminated area out of 44 metropolitan areas tested in the nation. Of the county’s 153,064 residents, 9.3% are African American. Despite the area’s rapid pace of development, Black communities remain disproportionately unconnected to county water infrastructure. Brunswick County is working to create a low pressure reverse osmosis system to filtrate PFAS and unconnected residents are seeking treatment for their water.

Brunswick NAACP president Carl Parker Sr. told PCD he estimates “at least half” of the county’s African Americans rely on well water. Johnson is one. She said she repeatedly asked the county for assistance and was told she would have to pay $4,000 to install a mainline to her home.

“Nobody had bothered to offer us any information or any means to remediate this,” Johnson said.

She added she and other community members suffer from kidney disease, a health issue linked to PFAS. She said the problem is compounded by the county landfill, half a mile away from her residence; PFAS has been shown to accumulate in landfills.

Whittington’s organization has sponsored community education workshops on the issue, PFAS testing, and advocacy with local, state, and the federal governments for African American communities. Last week’s demonstration took place on Floyd Road, a community of nine homes and approximately 16 residents. 

Parker has been working with Earth Rights to map Brunswick County’s minority access to water infrastructure and indicated 15,000 to 20,000 African Americans in the area use wells as their water source. Whittington suspects at least thousands of African American residents are not connected to the county’s water infrastructure. 

Brunswick County spokesperson Meagan Kascsak could not give Port City Daily data on specific races or ethnic backgrounds connected to the county’s water supply and said it would be “difficult and/or impossible” to collect. PCD asked for the total number of county residents not connected to water infrastructure but did not receive an answer by press.

Parker frequently attends commissioner meetings to urge the county to extend infrastructure; he helped organize a petition on the issue earlier this year; of its 376 signatories, many lived in unincorporated parts of the county near Navassa, Winnabow, and Supply. Well-users, Parker said, contribute taxes for county water and he believes the county’s unresponsiveness to minority water scarcity is rooted in racism.

“When Blacks will go down there and begin to ask for water and try to ask for help many years back,” he said, “They have been ignored, marginalized, and overlooked.”

Kascsak said the county has projects underway to extend water access to underserved communities. These include an engineering study to provide a water transmission line from the Leland water storage tank to Bell Swamp through a $2,631,250 EPA grant, the Mid-Atlantic Industrial Rail Park water tank funded with a $3 million Golden LEAF grant, and planned water projects in Shallotte that have not yet received funding.

Parker said he has asked commissioners to apply for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund grant, but they have not taken sufficient action. He noted he has had a contentious history with the commissioners; at a Sept. 20 meeting of residents expressing opposition to the Ash Farm development, commissioner Mike Forte told the NAACP leader to “shut the hell up!”

Commissioners who responded to PCD suggested county staff answer questions regarding the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Kascsak said the county has had difficulty receiving the grant in the past due to financial and demographic requirements; Brunswick ranks as a tier 3 county, meaning it’s the least economically distressed.

“However, the state has adjusted its criteria in recent years that allows grants to be considered for projects even in higher ranked counties depending on certain factors such as the demographics of the specific area/community that project serves,” Kascsak said.

She noted the county recently applied and received approval for a $15 million grant from the state revolving fund to bring wastewater service to an underserved area near Longwood Road in Boiling Springs, which already has water infrastructure. The board of commissioners will consider approval of the grant at its Dec. 4 meeting. The county also received a $2,218,967 grant for Navassa’s water system.

Beyond the lack of connectivity to county water infrastructure, Brunswick residents have endured repeated delays to PFAS treatment; the Northwest Water Treatment Plant’s low pressure reverse osmosis system, originally scheduled for completion in December 2021, is now expected to wrap in December 2024.

While Parker continues to advocate for better infrastructure in Brunswick communities, NAACP is also partnering with NC State University, East Carolina University and nonprofit Cape Fear River Watch to test for PFAS in the bloodstreams of more members from underserved communities.

Research assistant Sarah Collins told Port City Daily two GenX Exposure Study events in Navassa and Wilmington had a turnout of more than 100 people throughout the weekend of Nov. 18. Participants filled out questionnaires as blood and urine samples were collected.

“We will report back participants’ individual PFAS and clinical results in the next six months, and we will host a community meeting afterward to further discuss and contextualize these results,” Collins said.

The study was the first of its kind in Navassa, a majority African American town of about 1,735 residents. It included about 50 people who were previously enrolled in a former GenX study and around 50 newbies.

Leland council member Veronica Carter helped coordinate the GenX study with its lead researcher, Dr. Jane Hoppin, and statewide NAACP president Deborah Dicks Maxwell. Carter said she believes the difficulty in expanding the study to African American communities is partly rooted in historical distrust based on events like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. From 1932 to 1972, it was conducted on 600 African American men in Alabama. It consisted of a control group of 201 men and 399 men who had latent syphilis and were not informed of their condition or given penicillin treatment despite its availability.

“Historically, in the African American community there’s some fear, if not suspicion, of when you say ‘testing,’” Carter said.

The study’s organizers factored in these concerns to make the GenX study accessible and actionable for Navassa residents. Hence, hosting it at a place of common ground: the AME Zion Church in Wilmington and the Navassa Community Center in Brunswick County.

“This particular study is perfect because it’s a long-term study,” she said. “And so, you’re going to be involved. They’re going to send you a questionnaire after you do the initial intake and you find out what your numbers are. You can take that to the doctor, whoever and say: ‘Hey, what does this mean?’”

Carter and Whittington — both members of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board — have witnessed high levels of adverse health effects among Brunswick’s minority communities. A North Carolina panel of scientists called for investigation into thyroid cancer clusters in counties including Brunswick and New Hanover, but did not determine causality and said it may be linked to coal ash exposure. 

Whittington said she is pushing for more comprehensive scientific research in the region to better identify the dangers of PFAS. In the meantime she is working to expand testing.

“That’s actively what we’re having to do ourselves, in the absence of data,” Whittington said.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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