Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Filmmaker’s six-month documentary reveals GenX is just a fraction of the problem

Video: Catch a 1-minute trailer for a new documentary on GenX – and the many other pollutants in the Cape Fear – filmed and produced by Dogma Cape Fear members.

WILMINGTON — Like a lot of people in the Cape Fear area, Robert Cummins has spent the last six months trying to wrap his head around GenX. Shortly after it was revealed that the chemical – incapable of being filtered by local water suppliers – was in the drinking water, Cummins began asking questions of scientists, politicians and public utilities.

But Cummins isn’t a reporter, he’s a filmmaker.

“A lot of this came from being frustrated, confused, from the fact that we basically knew nothing about GenX. I wanted to know more, but I didn’t not know exactly how to do that,” Cummins said. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not a politician. I’m not ‘with the media.’”

Cummins documentary started as an attempt to learn more about the mysterious chemical that “had everyone freaked out.” With a team assembled from the Dogma Cape Fear filmmaking collective, Cummins went to the meetings, protests and forums held throughout the summer, logging hours of interviews.

In the early, frenzied days, many of the questions centered around perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid (PFPrOPrA), the Chemours byproduct that came to be known as GenX. Like many in the official news media, Cummins asked for interviews with major players. But as an outsider, Cummins wasn’t sure how much headway he’d be able to make.

To Cummins’ surprise, some stakeholders in the GenX drama responded to his requests for interviews.

“We met with (CFPUA Board member) Jennifer Adams, and we asked her just question after question, and she was very direct and open,” Cummins said. “That’s one thing we can say for CFPUA, Adams and Brown were happy to talk to us.”

New Hanover County Chairman of the Board of Commissioners addressed the media during a press conference on GenX. (Michael Praats/Port City Daily)
Commissioner Woody White addressing the press after a closed-door meeting with Chemours officials. To Robert Cummins surprise, White met with him for an interview, giving him a ‘blow by blow’ account of that meeting.
(Michael Praats/Port City Daily)

After officials from Chemours met with local leaders in a closed-door meeting, Cummins called New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White.

“After that meeting, we just called and left a message, White called us right back. He walked us through the meeting point by point… he definitely helped us with some of the legal understanding of things,” Cummins said.

Not everyone responded as quickly, or at all. Cummins said he repeatedly emailed Mark Benton, deputy secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. Cummins was eventually directed to the Department of Environment Quality, but still got no response. Officials forwarded Cummins’ emails to other officials, some of them who were out of the office.

Cummins submitted a list of the questions he wanted to ask.

“They were nothing aggressive, they were the simplest, most basic questions,” Cummins said.

In the end, Cummins never heard back from the DHHS or the DEQ. He also never heard back from Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

While these dead ends were frustrating, Cummins could at least take some comfort in knowing that while Gary Cambre, spokesman for the Chemours Company, refused to talk, he frequently declined to comment to journalists, as well.

“He was probably not responding to a lot of requests, so…” Cummins joked.

(From left) Robert Cummins and Joshua Stowe edit footage of UNCW Professor Larry Cahoon. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
(From left) Robert Cummins and Joshua Stowe edit footage of UNCW Professor Larry Cahoon. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Cummins and his team had much more luck with the scientific community, interviewing Professor Detlef Knappe – whose research brought GenX to the public’s attention – and UNCW Professor Larry Cahoon.

Cummins came away with a complicated understanding of the GenX issue: a story with tangled political, legal and scientific threads. Having set out to create a short documentary, there were a lot of angles Cummins and his team had to cut from the final film — although Cummins didn’t rule out using the material in a longer version down the line.

Cummins wanted his documentary to boil down the GenX issue to its essence. Ironically, the takeaway lesson of Cummins’ GenX is that GenX was never the main problem.

“There was a lot of hype around it,” Cummins said. “But one of the things we learned, really one of the main points was that GenX was less than 2 percent of the perfluorinated chemicals… there is a little bit of ‘the GenX is gone, we’re okay now,’ but really this is just the beginning.”

Josh Stowe, holding his script and crouching by the camera, working on Dogma Cape Fear's first film. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Josh Stowe, holding his script and crouching by the camera, working on Dogma Cape Fear’s first film. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Josh Stowe, who handled sound and audio editing for the project, was there for the majority of the interviews. Stowe added, “(GenX) was 2 percent of this kind of chemical in the Cape Fear, but that’s not including the other chemicals from years of manufacturing and pollution.”

One of the film’s main points is about how industrial corporations – including but not limited to Chemours – have been allowed to pollute the Cape Fear, and by extension the region’s drinking water, for decades.

“It’s fundamentally illegal to pollute the water,” Stowe said. “But over the years, the law’s just been bastardized.”

Cummins said the process of making the film opened his eyes to the issue.

Theatrical poster for Robert Cummins' GenX documentary. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY ROBERT CUMMINS)
Theatrical poster for Robert Cummins’ GenX documentary. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY ROBERT CUMMINS)

“Maybe I was naïve, but I growing up, you assume the drinking water is OK, people – someone, the government –  they’re going to take care of that. But that’s just not the case,” Cummins said.

Cummins and his team spent the last week rushing against the deadline to enter the Full Frame documentary film festival. They are also planning to enter the Cape Fear Independent Film festival. Cummins hopes the exposure will help share what he’s learned about the extent of pollution.

“When I started this, it was just for my own education, but as I went on people kept asking me what my goal was… so I would say that, shining a spotlight on the issue, that would be the goal,” Cummins said.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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