WILMINGTON — Make no mistake: Geoff Gisler is not pleased that Chemours recently violated a judge’s order to keep toxic chemicals out of the Cape Fear River.
Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), won’t be satisfied until the substances known as PFAS — including Genx — are no longer escaping from the Chemours plant near Fayetteville. Compared to several years ago, when there was little being done to stop high levels of PFAS from flowing into the river, Gisler believes the recent violations are a good problem to have.
A 2019 consent order — the result of legal action filed by attorneys with the SELC on the behalf of Cape Fear River Watch — required Chemours to install treatment systems at discharge sites by Sept. 30, 2020, that would remove 99% of the PFAS from the water before it entered the Cape Fear River.
That water comes primarily from contaminated streams and groundwater at the plant, which sits along the Bladen-Cumberland county line, adjacent to the Cape Fear River. Water used in the production process is shipped to an out-of-state disposal facility.
On Jan. 26, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) noting design and operational problems with the water-treatment system at one site that resulted in what effectively was a 98% removal rate. The notice, among other things, cited Chemours for exceeding the limit on how much water it can discharge into the river each day, improper operation and maintenance of the system and “a failure to take the steps necessary to ensure that the treatment system would perform adequately during storm events.”
For Gisler, both the fact that the violation was related to such a small amount of PFAS and that the terms of the order were quickly enforced are both positive signs. Previously none of the water flowing off the site into the river was being treated.
“If where we are now is that we’re penalizing them from going from 99% to 98% removal, that’s a big step in the right direction,” Gisler said in an interview Wednesday.
A hundred miles downstream, however, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the provider most affected by the contaminated water, remains concerned about the levels of PFAS it continues to see in the Cape Fear River, its biggest source of raw water.
“CFPUA applauds our partners at NCDEQ for their prompt action on Monday regarding Chemours’ failure to meet its obligations under the Consent Order to address the damage its years of PFAS releases continue to cause to the environment and downstream water users,” CFPUA wrote in a statement Wednesday.
The statement, however, went on to question the effectiveness of the new treatment system at the Chemours discharge site known as Old Outfall 002.
CFPUA, the statement said, has been monitoring the levels of PFAS in the water at its intake site to determine if the mitigation measures are helping.
“So far, our data indicate no meaningful change in the (levels of) either total PFAS or for individual compounds,” the statement said, adding that levels of one of the compounds from the Chemours plant – PFMOAA – actually had increased since the Old Outfall treatment system went online Oct. 1.
CFPUA wants Chemours to pay
In June 2017, Wilmington-area residents learned that high levels of a chemical known as GenX had been found in the water supply and that the source was the Chemours plant, a Dupont spinoff located 100 miles away. Brunswick County also gets its raw water from the same Cape Fear River intake, about 30 miles northwest of Wilmington.
While local utilities could filter out most impurities from the river water, they could not remove GenX and other PFAS. CFPUA ultimately determined that the only way to guarantee a safe water supply was upgrading its Sweeney Water Treatment Plant with filters that can remove 90% of PFAS, a system that is expected to be online in early 2022. Meanwhile, the utility has taken intermediate steps that can remove a limited amount of the chemicals.
“Monday’s Notice of Violation demonstrates the enormous magnitude of the mess Chemours and DuPont created during their decades of profitable operation at the Fayetteville Works,” the statement said. “PFAS is embedded in sediment between Chemours’ discharge outfall and the raw water intakes at Kings Bluff.”
In October 2017, CFPUA filed a lawsuit against Chemours and Dupont in federal district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The complaint seeking compensation for the “millions of dollars” the utility and its customers have spent — and will spend — on measures to address the contamination.
“CFPUA believes Chemours and DuPont, rather than our customers, should pay for (the) costs and damages related to the companies’ actions,” a statement on the CFPUA website says. “So far though, neither company has stepped up to this responsibility. Until that occurs, we will proceed with the lawsuit.”
The lawsuit calls for damages to be determined at the trial, which has yet to be scheduled.
Meanwhile, Brunswick County is expanding the capacity of its Northwest Water Treatment Plant and adding a filtration system that can remove GenX and other PFAS. H2GO, another Brunswick water provider, is building a reverse-osmosis water-treatment plant capable of removing PFAS, but it will draw its water from deep aquifers, which should be free of the chemicals. The primary purpose of the RO system is to remove salt from the brackish water pumped up from the aquifers. H2GO currently buys its water from Brunswick County.
Gisler said he understands the frustrations of the people downriver. Measures like the ones taken at Old Outfall are early steps, he said, adding that the work will eventually result in cleaner water at King’s Buff intake site.
He remains confident that the consent order provides the tools and enforcement ability necessary to stop the flow of GenX and other PFAS into the river. The order, he said, mandates an aggressive schedule for Chemours to get its mitigation efforts operational. He believes that in a few years no PFAS will be leaving the plant site.
“Obviously it’s not good enough when people are drinking the water downstream,” Gisler said. “But I think we’re making some real gains and those are really starting to come into play now.”
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