By Mike McGill | For StarNews Media
Posted Aug 18, 2017 at 5:01 AM
It’s been just over two months since we learned that an unregulated toxin is making its way down the Cape Fear River from near Fayetteville and into the water supply of roughly 300,000 people. Folks who never gave turning on the tap a second thought are apprehensive -- even fearful -- about their water, leading some to switch to bottles.
As GenX fades some from the news, it’s a good time to review what we’ve learned.
First, we’ve learned how a powerful company can get away with dumping a possibly cancer-causing chemical into a major waterway that is a primary source for drinking water.
DuPont and Chemours announced in February that they are jointly paying more than $600 million to people they poisoned with C8, a chemical similar to GenX, yet Chemours remains largely on the honor system with what it discharges into the Cape Fear. With GenX, the companies parsed regulations with a “what the meaning of ‘is’ is” approach, pumping their “new” chemical into the river for nearly four decades, apparently without fear of punishment.
We’ve also learned that the river we ultimately drink from but also eat by, boat on, and fish in is endangered -- as some scientists and activists have long said -- and in desperate need of protection.
Thanks to the work of scientists and water experts focused on protecting public health, the type of warnings that once were written off will now get our attention. After all, while GenX may eventually be gone, “new” contaminants will continue to be discovered, and we know others already exist in the river.
We’ve learned what concerted leadership looks like. For the most part, our elected representatives came together in a way seldom seen. The R’s and D’s after their names seemed to disappear when the crisis hit. As a direct result of their actions, Chemours has stopped discharging GenX, and levels in the river are dropping.
Unfortunately, as GenX levels have dropped, partisanship has risen, especially at the state level. Let’s hope that their eyes stay on the prize -- safe drinking water for everyone.
Erin Brockovich said that during her nearly three decades of consumer advocacy, she’s learned that it is essential for a community to remain united and vigilant, and for the media to stay on the story. News of GenX brought activists, ordinary citizens and elected officials together to force accountability upon a giant chemical company -- not an easy task, to say the least.
That success, however, will be short-lived if we don’t apply what she’s learned. The safe-water issue isn’t going away. In fact, we’re likely to hear about more unregulated chemicals in our water. But if we use a cooperative approach and tone designed to encourage -- not simply ensnare -- our leaders, we will increase the likelihood that our water is made safe and our rivers are protected.
We’ve learned, too, about the importance of crisis communication, or lack thereof. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority cooperated with researchers to identify the presence of GenX in the water, and followed regulatory procedures, only to be viewed by many as Public Enemy No. 2 -- behind only Chemours. How? Because CFPUA’s top management chose not to communicate with customers and the media, even after it had weeks of notice that the StarNews was about to do what the utility should have done -- inform the public about the presence of GenX in the water.
For the first crucial weeks, CFPUA left its customers to believe it had something to hide. Customers couldn’t get answers to basic questions, and phone calls from the media went unreturned. When interviews finally were held, some CFPUA leaders clearly came off as combative or evasive, taking cover behind a slapped-together internal investigation. As a result, key questions went unanswered, the public trust was broken, and now that CFPUA is taking proper and thorough actions, the effort is falling on deaf ears among many people.
Finally, we’ve learned that GenX likely won’t be the last discovery of an unknown and unregulated chemical in our water. But by applying what we’ve learned, and holding elected officials accountable for ensuring we have effective regulatory systems in place, we can avoid becoming another city with permanent questions about the safety of its drinking water.
Mike McGill is president of WaterPIO, a Wilmington firm providing communications services for water and sewer utilities. From October 2012-April 2017, he was chief communications officer for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.