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Gray’s Creek community, elementary schools to get PWC water

City water to replace well water tainted with PFAS/GenX ‘forever chemicals’


GRAY’S CREEK — Cumberland County and the Fayetteville Public Works Commission are partnering to bring public water to Gray’s Creek and two elementary schools where residents have used specialized filters and bottled water for years to avoid exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals.

The news on Friday came two days after Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, came to Fayetteville and announced that the federal government would regulate PFAS in tap water for the first time.

At a press conference Friday, county and PWC officials announced the plan to build the water lines in the district and Gray’s Creek and Alderman Road elementary schools. Students at both schools drink bottled water because of the PFAS levels in the schools’ water.

The officials, who made the announcement from Gray’s Creek Elementary School, said engineers at the county and PWC will begin work on the expansion with an initial planning meeting on April 17.

“Wednesday was a good day for the entire nation as Regan announced new standards for PFAS, GenX and forever chemicals,” said Glenn Adams, chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners. “That was a good day — but today is a great day.”

Cumberland County Manager Clarence Grier said approximately 75,000 residents are expected to receive city water under the expansion of PWC’s services to the community. The water lines will be supported with an initial $12 million in funding from the state legislature, Adams said. 

PWC CEO Tim Bryant said the entire project of installing and hooking up water lines in the Gray’s Creek area and elementary schools could cost up to $100 million. Adams said the county hopes to fund the public water expansion with additional money from litigation with chemical companies Chemours and DuPont, as well as American Rescue Plan Act funds. DuPont used to own and operate the Chemours plant.

“It is our intent that Chemours and DuPont pay for all of this, and that's why we sued them,” Adams said. “The citizens should not have to bear the brunt of this disaster, and we're going to make sure and try to make sure that it doesn't happen.”

Gray’s Creek resident Mike Watters — whose community advocacy was recognized by county officials at Friday’s press conference — expressed cautious optimism about the water-line expansion. His only concern, he said, was the expense.

“The elderly people, they will not be able to afford out-of-city rates,” Watters said. 

Cumberland County Commissioners Chairman Glenn Adams, center, takes a question during a news conference at Gray's Creek Elementary School on Friday, April 12, 2024, announcing a plan to extend public water to Gray's Creek. With Adams are (left) County Manager Clarence Grier, and Fayetteville Public Works Commission CEO Tim Bryant. Drinking water wells in the Gray's Creek area are contaminated with PFAS "forever chemicals."
Cumberland County Commissioners Chairman Glenn Adams, center, takes a question during a news conference at Gray's Creek Elementary School on Friday, …

When will the water reach the residents and schools?

County and PWC officials declined to give a specific timeframe about the water lines’ installation, saying the process of obtaining easements, installing lines and hooking them up would be extensive and take time.

“We’re going to meet with the state, we’re going to meet with our federal representatives, and we're going to try to get this moving forward,” Grier said. “We don’t have a timeline, but we’re going to move very quickly and correctly to make sure that we get this settled. We’re not going to wait another 10 years to move forward.”

Gray’s Creek resident Ron Ross has been furious for years about the GenX contamination, and was dissatisfied with Friday’s announcement. He said it is wrong that the county is pursuing a new performing arts center in Fayetteville while he and his neighbors have been living with contaminated wells for years.

The new Crown Event Center is estimated at $145 million, and a parking deck to support it is $33 million.

“What makes me mad is: The project downtown is more important than these two schools,” Ross told CityView.

Ross, who ran unsuccessfully this year for the county board of commissioners, questioned PWC CEO Bryant on how soon the schools and residents would get water.

“You’re looking at eight to 10 years down the road,” Ross told Bryant.

“It could be,” Bryant told CityView afterward. It will take time to work with property owners to negotiate easements, he said. And now that the EPA’s PFAS rules have been announced, water providers nationwide are all seeking supplies and contractors to meet the new standards.

There will be a supply chain crunch, he said.

Gray’s Creek residents have waited years

Located in the southern edge of the county, Gray’s Creek borders the Cape Fear River and is near the Fayetteville Works Plant. The plant is owned by Chemours, the chemical company responsible for dumping GenX and other toxic PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, into the Cape Fear River.

The residents learned of the contamination in 2017.

Residents in Gray’s Creek have been among the most outspoken clean water advocates in the Cape Fear River basin, with the group Gray’s Creek Residents United Against PFAS holding multiple forums and protests over the years. 

The county has been having conversations about providing public water to Gray’s Creek since as early as 2018, but no official line project has been initiated until now. Four years ago, the county said it would spend $10.5 million to provide public water to homes in Gray’s Creek and the two elementary schools, but the project stalled. The county also received $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to build out the water lines in 2023. 

County Commissioner Toni Stewart, who said she worked to make the partnership with PWC possible, said the county was prioritizing providing clean water to communities like Gray’s Creek that have been most affected by groundwater PFAS contamination. Many residents in the community with private wells that are highly-contaminated with PFAS rely on bottled water, though a few have been able to get well-filtration systems as per the Chemours consent order

“I know people think that when you live out here in the rural community that people aren't listening, that the commissioners aren't listening, they think that the only thing that we hear is Fayetteville,” Stewart said. “But I'm here to say, as one who is not a resident of Fayetteville, that we are concerned and we care about our rural community as well, especially Gray’s Creek and indeed Cedar Creek and everywhere east of the river.”

The water fountains at Gray's Creek Elementary School in Cumberland County are shut down because the water supply is contaminated with PFAS "forever chemicals." County officials announced on Friday, April 12, 2024, a plan to extend public water to the Gray's Creek community because of the PFAS in residents' drinking water wells.
The water fountains at Gray's Creek Elementary School in Cumberland County are shut down because the water supply is contaminated with PFAS "forever …

Many Gray’s Creek advocates are motivated by their own personal struggles with chronic health conditions associated with drinking the contaminated water. 

Debra Stevens-Stewart, a Gray’s Creek resident and community advocate, described having mixed emotions after the announcement Friday. 

“This is bittersweet for me, and I'll tell you why: My son went to school here,” Stevens-Stewart said, standing outside Gray’s Creek Elementary School. 

Her son had died unexpectedly last October, she said, with extremely-high levels of PFAS in his blood, as well as an enlarged heart and liver. “So all those years ago — because he was only 45 when he died — he was drinking contaminated water.” 

Speaking at the press conference, Jennifer Green, the county’s health department director, said bringing city water to the area was a “critical step to advancing the health of our citizens in Cumberland County and specifically in Grays Creek.”

County and PWC officials said they hope to eventually expand the water lines to other areas in the county with water heavily-contaminated by PFAS, such as in parts of Hope Mills or the Cedar Creek and Arlington Plantation residential communities.

“This is the first step,” Adams said. “This is where it started. This is where we've already got a water system that we can tie into. But we have not forgotten about the residents of Plantation, Cedar Creek, and all of those … all the way up to Stedman.”

Contact Evey Weisblat at eweisblat@cityviewnc.com or 216-527-3608. 

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PFAS, Gray's Creek, water, PWC