SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The Fayetteville-based company found to have been polluting the Cape Fear River for decades has missed not one, but two state-imposed deadlines for construction of a groundwater treatment system.
Under a consent order with North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours was mandated to build a barrier wall that collects and treats toxic PFAS before it enters the river.
Originally required to be done by March 15, the construction began in December but has faced multiple delays. In a letter dated March 1 and sent to the state agency, Fayetteville Works plant manager Dawn Hughes blames mechanical breakdowns with trenching equipment and the time needed to obtain necessary permits as the reason for delay.
The NCDEQ agreed to a two-month extension, with a new deadline of May 31. The wall is still not complete. PCD sent an email to the environmental agency asking what its next steps are to hold Chemours accountable; a response was not received by press.
“Shocking to no one, they missed their deadline,” Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent said during Thursday’s State of the River event. “Chemours said they’re delayed because DEQ forced them to redo their plans because they had to make their permit protective.”
However, had the company not challenged the permit in an appeal, it may have been on schedule, she added.
Chemours spokesperson Sarah Saxon said the company expects work to be done this month.
“At the time Chemours proposed the project, the company and DEQ recognized that various factors could impact and lengthen the projected completion date of March 15, 2023, including adjusting the start of construction to allow time for DEQ approval of the project and appropriate permitting,” Saxon wrote to Port City Daily. “Chemours has also worked with our contract partners to resolve construction challenges, such as supply of materials and mechanical breakdowns of equipment, and the company and our partners have adjusted staffing to mitigate the impact to timing of these challenges.”
She said the groundwater extraction and treatment system has been installed and is capturing water at a rate of 500 gallons per minute.
Based on initial monitoring, Saxon said, the system is operating “well and meeting current and future discharge limits.”
Sargent said the Southern Environmental Law Center, which partners with CFRW often on legal matters, is looking into the missed deadline and preparing to take action if necessary.
In September 2022, NCDEQ issued a permit that increased restrictions on the chemical company by almost 1% than originally outlined in the 2019 consent order. The discharge permit mandated 99.9% of PFAS be removed, up from 99%.
The National Discharge Pollutant Elimination System permit issued was “the strongest in the country,” Sargent said Thursday.
It was mainly due to public comment and feedback; more than 300 comments were received by the state.
The barrier wall will extend 60- to 80-feet deep, roughly 2.5-feet thick, to block groundwater from escaping into the waterway. From there, more than 70 extraction wells will capture the water, averaging 2.4 million gallons per day, then treat it through the granular activated carbon filters.
The agency also issued a letter in September approving the 1-mile-long barrier wall’s design, which includes additional monitoring wells and sampling of extraction wells.
One month after the permit was issued, Chemours submitted an appeal, claiming it could not comply with the stricter guidelines in the timeline given.
The finalized NCDEQ permit imposes limits on three indicator compounds, totaling 540 ppt — 54 times more than the EPA’s advisory for GenX, and interim advisories for PFOA and PFOS combined (the EPA released interim health advisories for PFOA and PFOS to 0.004 and 0.02 ppt, respectively, in June). After 180 days, parameters will drop significantly to a combined 40 ppt, as stated in the permit.
Chemours and NCDEQ, as well as Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Cape Fear River Watch, which both submitted motions to intervene, settled the appeal in November. The company is required to follow the restrictions outlined.
The settlement document states if Chemours can prove that reaching 99.9% pollutant limits is not “technologically feasible,” the company may submit an application for a modification to the permit. However, it also states, NCDEQ is not required to agree to any modifications.
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