North Carolina and Its Ongoing Struggle With Water Contamination

Having quality water for consumption is one of the main challenges of the 21st-century world. According to UNESCO, one in nine people are forced to use water from unsafe sources. Plus, one of the most considerable forms of water pollution is a lack of sanitation.

As much as water contamination is a worldwide issue, it is particularly so for the US state of North Carolina. Currently, at least 20 public water systems across 11 counties are dealing with the issue of toxic water.

Residents are living under constant fear of health issues, with some contaminants known to cause cancer. From a bird’s eye view, North Carolina’s problem is not a recent one. The state has been notorious for water contamination for some decades now.

In this article, we will discuss North Carolina’s water toxicity problem in detail.

The Infamous Camp Lejeune Tragedy

Perhaps the most significant or disastrous case of water contamination in North Carolina took place between 1953 and 1987. With the establishment of Camp Lejeune Base, veterans and their families were excited to begin a new chapter of their lives.

Meanwhile, a silent killer lurked in three water tanks across the Camp – Hadnot Point, Tarawa Terrace, and Holcomb Boulevard. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) had wreaked havoc in the water, rendering it unfit for consumption. The problem was detected in 1982, but the contaminated wells were shut down only three years later (1985).

The Camp’s residents had consumed hazardous water that surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety limits a hundred times. Naturally, there were horrible repercussions.

Cases of cancer, infertility, Parkinson’s disease, etc., started emerging in the years that followed the closing of the wells. The US Department of Veterans Affairs later published a long list of physical illnesses associated with the Camp’s toxic water. These included –

  • Aplastic anemia
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Adult leukemia
  • Multiple myeloma, among others

Under President Obama, victims were only eligible for free healthcare. After over three decades of struggle, they were able to secure hopes of legal justice. Under the Biden administration, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) came into being in August 2022. 

With a statute of limitations valid till August 2024, the Camp’s one million affected residents could file for compensation. It is expected that the Camp Lejeune water contamination settlement amounts may range from $25,000 to $1 million depending on the injuries and their severity. 

However, a little over a year has passed and plaintiffs are still waiting for claims resolution. The Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) attributed the delays to staffing and funding shortages.

According to TorHoerman Law, only recently some significant movement has been seen in the litigation. The first-ever Bellwether trial is proposed to take place in the first quarter of 2024. Depending on the trial outcomes, victims will be compensated on a case-to-case basis.

However, 1,100 lawsuits have already been filed given the deadline for administrative claims (six months). Sadly, many plaintiffs have already succumbed to their injuries or age due to the timeline of the litigation.

Camp Lejeune went down, not just in North Carolina, but in US history as the worst-ever public water contamination tragedy. Between 1992 and 2001, the US Navy completed its cleanup efforts by discarding contaminated soil, storage tanks, waste materials, etc. It also treated the soil and groundwater to make it safe for irrigation and consumption, respectively.

History Repeating Itself with Cape Fear River Contamination

It is rightfully said that those who learn nothing from history are bound to repeat it. This holds true in the case of North Carolina where another tragic news broke out in 2017. The Cape Fear River watershed, responsible for supplying water to Wilmington’s 350,000 residents, was contaminated with PFAS.

Short for per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS is a group of thousands of synthetic chemicals. Of this group, PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic acid has been widely studied and called a possible human carcinogenic. The chemical polluting the Cape Fear River is called ‘GenX,’ believed to have been dumped for four decades by DuPont and Chemours.

The main issue with these chemicals is not just their health hazards. They’re also known to stay in the soil or human body indefinitely (forever chemicals). Tom Kennedy, a Wilmington resident, was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer, which quickly escalated into brain metastasis. He is certain that his cancer was caused due to PFAS, even if the same is never proven.

Another grim story is that of Kara Kenan, who lives in Leland (just a few miles from Wilmington). She has been battling breast cancer since 2013. Even her stepfather and mother developed rare forms of cancer around the same time the water contamination was discovered.

Resident after resident has come forward to share their story, yet the EPA doesn’t seem to take action. This was the typical response during the Camp Lejeune crisis. Besides urging the UN to investigate the issue, residents are also pleading for a ban on PFAS dumping in water bodies.

The Cape Fear River Watch sued Chemours for violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Clean Water Act. A lawsuit was also filed against the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for a lack of quicker action.

Efforts to Provide Residents with the Confidence to Open Their Taps

As a result of the lawsuits, a Consent Order was signed by the three parties involved on February 25, 2019. The Order lists several actions Chemours must take to reduce PFAS release into North Carolina’s soil, water, and air.

By 2022, a barrier wall was under construction and treatment methods were underway to remediate PFAS contamination. The granular activated carbon or GAC method was chosen to filter out as much as 90% of the GenX.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) has urged residents to limit fish consumption from the River’s lower and middle parts. PFAS concentration was highest in species like bluegill, flathead catfish, and largemouth bass.

At the individual level, residents must install in-home water treatment facilities like an activated carbon or reverse osmosis filter. These filters can remove PFAS, and their water can be used for activities like cooking, brushing teeth, preparing baby formulas, etc.

Final Thoughts

Are rigorous efforts underway to free North Carolina’s water from an ongoing onslaught of contaminants? At least in pen and paper. When looked closely, the cleanup efforts may take up to a decade before the issue is completely resolved.

Though the Camp Lejeune crisis is in the past, its aftermath has stolen lives, health, livelihoods, and so much more. With Wilmington’s growing health issues, only time will reveal the full extent of the damages.

Until the government and chemical companies decide to keep people over profits, North Carolina’s water contamination struggle may pause, but it won’t stop. 

You may also like...