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Editorial: If only forever chemical source had been shut down faster

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A drainage pipe drips water into the South Fork Roanoke River at Eastern Montgomery Park across the street from ProChem Incorporated at 5003 Enterprise Drive Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, in Lafayette.

The culprit responsible for a high amount of a hazardous “forever chemical” detected in Roanoke County’s Spring Hollow Reservoir turned out, when unmasked, to be a notorious repeat offender.

While it’s a relief that the source of the problem has been identified, hopefully preventing the kind of public health problems these chemicals have caused in other communities, the length of time between discovery and revelation underscores that there is room for improvement.

The compounds referred to as forever chemicals degrade very slowly over time, such that wherever they might be released by a processing plant, they will remain for decades, building up not just in the environment but in animals and people who drink from contaminated water sources. Prolonged exposure has been linked to health problems including low birth weights, thyroid and liver disorders, kidney and testicular cancers and compromised immune systems.

To recap excellent reporting by Roanoke Times journalist Laurence Hammack, the type of forever chemical detected in Spring Hollow is often referred to by the trademark name GenX, used in a variety of products, such as cookware with nonstick coating, firefighting foam and food packaging. Though forever chemicals are not new, studies of the health effects of GenX by the Environmental Protection Agency are relatively recent.

The GenX trade name belongs to a company called Chemours which was spun off from DuPont in 2015. Consider that foreshadowing.

Unwanted No. 1 ranking

GenX was first detected in Spring Hollow in 2020. In 2021, as part of a statewide study by the Virginia Department of Health, tests at Spring Hollow found GenX at levels of 51 and 57 parts per trillion, the highest concentration of forever chemicals in the 45 public water sources tested statewide.

In June, the EPA issued a new advisory — which is not enforceable and carries no penalties for violations — raising health concerns about levels of GenX above 10 parts per trillion. The concentration in Spring Hollow was considerably higher. The Western Virginia Water Authority made plans to send an advisory letter to 14,000 customers served by Spring Hollow. The plans were sped up when Hammack contacted the water authority about the GenX problem in August.

In September, the water authority approved $13.5 million in filtration improvements and facility upgrades to reduce the GenX levels in Spring Hollow. In the meantime, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality worked with the water authority to find the source of the forever chemical.

On Nov. 10, the water authority identified ProChem Inc., a Elliston company that specializes in servicing water treatment equipment, as the source of the GenX contamination. Yet ProChem was not creating the compound as a product of a manufacturing process — apparently, when ProChem performed cleanings of industrial machinery sent from a West Virginia plant, GenX sloughed off that machinery into wastewater that eventually entered the Roanoke River, then Spring Hollow.

The water authority said that Chemours was the provider of the contaminated machinery that ProChem washed.

Nothing gained by waiting

A Chemours plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was found to have been releasing GenX and other forever chemical pollutants into the Cape Fear River, and thus the local water supply, for decades. In 2019, two years after the investigation by the North Carolina Departments of Environmental Quality and of Health and Human Services began, Chemours entered into a legal agreement requiring the company to take measures to stop and/or reduce the release of forever chemicals into the air and water, and provide alternate drinking water supplies to residents with contaminated wells.

A study conducted by the North Carolina State University Center for Human Health and the Environment that tested more than 1,000 people living in the Cape Fear River Basin found four types of forever chemicals in higher concentration than the national average in the blood of almost every person sampled. (The tests did not find GenX, which administrators said does not last long in blood.)

Chemours has disputed the EPA’s findings on the toxicity of GenX, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit over the health advisory that sparked the public revelation of the contamination in Spring Hollow.

That protest by Chemours didn’t resonate here in Southwest Virginia. ProChem told Hammack that they were unaware of the forever chemical contaminants on the equipment they were cleaning and that as soon as they were notified, they terminated the contract with the company (identified as Chemours by the water authority).

Given how ProChem responded, one can’t help but imagine that they would have ended the relationship with Chemours sooner had they been notified sooner, and perhaps Spring Hollow wouldn’t have ranked first in the state for the presence of forever chemicals.

While the consensus on the health hazards posed by GenX and other forever chemicals continues to evolve, had officials aware of the problem taken action before government warnings and public exposure forced them to do so, everyone involved, especially water authority customers, would have been better off.

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