SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Downstream communities of the Cape Fear River, including New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, and Pender counties, will receive more protection against Chemours, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) determined Wednesday.
NCDEQ mandated in November 2021 the chemical company put together an interim sampling and drinking water plan after it was found responsible for groundwater contamination affecting private wells.
The move came four years after it was revealed the Fayetteville Works manufacturing plant dumped per-and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals into the Cape Fear River for decades. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS — more than 4,000 chemicals that don’t break down in the body — are used to make stick-proof and stain-resistant products, often found in pizza boxes, food wrappers, take-out containers, non-stick pans, and other household products, as well as clothing, furniture and adhesives. It’s also used in firefighting foam.
The chemicals have been linked to increased risks of cancer, decreased fertility, high blood pressure, developmental effects, and high cholesterol, among other health effects.
In 2017, the NCDEQ ordered Chemours to stop dumping wastewater into the Cape Fear River. Two years later, the company entered a consent order with the state and Cape Fear River Watch to reduce emissions, with a treatment system put in place to address residual PFAS seeping into the ground on the plant’s property in Fayetteville. The chemical company has been fined by the state multiple times for violating the order.
NCDEQ expanded the consent order last fall to also cover affected private wells. Chemours had 90 days to submit strategies in its interim plan to address groundwater contamination; it turned over its plan Feb. 1 for state review.
The first draft included specifics on drawing samples from drinking water wells and providing replacement water to residents whose wells tested at or above 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for an individual compound or 70 ppt combined. However, local officials from New Hanover County and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority wrote to the NCDEQ last month saying Chemours’ mapped-out suggestions didn’t go far enough.
New Hanover Health and Human Services director David Howard wrote in a letter there are around 20,000 wells permitted by the county health department. Chemours suggested only testing “up to” 200, within a half-mile of the river, in effect providing a “sample less than 0.1%.”
Howard also expressed concern over testing private wells only, excluding schools, residential healthcare homes, day cares, and other businesses potentially serving contaminated water that produces a risk to public health. Howard reprimanded Chemours’ lack of properly informing community members about testing availability, as well as the timeline in which the chemical company suggested to begin sampling — six months after the plan’s approval.
“This is a blatant disregard for the health and welfare of our residents and visitors,” Howard wrote. “Sampling should begin within two months, as happened for other counties where sampling began within two months after the discovery of PFAS in the groundwater near the plant.”
Upon extensive review, NCDEQ ultimately agreed and called Chemours’ strategy “insufficient.”
“Chemours must contact residents directly, sample more wells and proceed more quickly to address contaminated drinking water,” NCDEQ secretary Elizabeth S. Biser said in a release.
Though it could include more revisions, NCDEQ explicitly addressed seven areas for Chemours to edit in its interim corrective plan, which include:
- Expanding eligibility criteria of private wells to be sampled
- Starting sampling within 45 days of receipt of the DEQ letter
- Directly contacting eligible private well owners
- Using a data-driven approach to broaden private well sampling, not limited to 200 per county and not limited to residents who have requested sampling
- Including other property types for sampling where a private well is used as the primary source of drinking water, including schools, day care centers, churches, mobile home parks and others
- Providing bottled water to impacted residents within three days of receipt of sampling results and providing replacement drinking water supplies as required by the consent order
- Describing a systematic approach to drinking water sampling based on the received results — meaning “if sampling near the river finds contamination, Chemours should describe an approach for conducting sampling to determine the extent of the contamination,” DEQ described
Chemours has 30 days to revise and resubmit, according to the state. The interim plan is the first step in forming a comprehensive blueprint.
“The revisions they are requiring for Chemours’ sampling plan in New Hanover County will help ensure our residents receive similar protections as those close to the plant who are already under the consent order,” NHC commissioner chair Julia Olson-Boseman said in a release. “It’s what our community deserves, so this is a positive step forward.”
Residents in New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick and Columbus counties can request well sampling by calling 910-678-1100.
Information from the NCDEQ about Chemours’ interim sampling plan, including the letter from the secretary, can be found here.
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