SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — State and local officials converged Tuesday to discuss progress in clearing PFAS from area drinking water. They joined together to speak out against chemical company Chemours, largely responsible for toxic contaminants found in the Cape Fear River.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) assistant secretary for environment, Shushma Masemore, called it “the greatest environmental challenge of our generation.”
NCDEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser was in attendance, along with officials from New Hanover and Brunswick counties and the City of Wilmington. They took a united stand to advocate for residents’ clean drinking water.
“DEQ, under your leadership Madame Secretary Biser, is holding Chemours responsible as are all the people standing behind me and in this room,” New Hanover County commissioners vice chair Deb Hays said.
PFAS compounds were found in the Cape Fear River in 2017 and traced back to The Chemours Company plant in Fayetteville. The health effects of these toxic chemicals, including GenX, PFOS and PFOA are still being studied but have been linked to kidney disease, development effects of fetuses, and some forms of cancer, according to NCDEQ.
There are currently no state or federal regulations for these compounds, but NCDEQ has taken action to prevent the further spread and also find solutions for residents impacted by contaminated water.
A consent order, effective 2019 and amended in 2020, calls for Chemours to permanently reduce emissions and discharges by 99% and provide alternative drinking water supplies to affected residents.
“In November, DEQ directed Chemours to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the groundwater contamination in communities downstream of their facility,” Biser told the audience, “including New Hanover, Pender, Columbus and Brunswick counties.”
The company resubmitted its plan Feb. 1, and earlier this month, DEQ told Chemours it was not sufficient, testing too few wells in a too-short time span. Monday, Chemours was directed again, after further review from NCDEQ, to expand its scope and resubmit a plan by mid May, including additional wells near the Cape Fear River.
NCDEQ Division of Waste Management director Michael Scott iterated the current consent order provides a framework for the testing of private wells. If certain “signature” compounds are detected, it can be confirmed whether they came from the Chemours plant.
“If one is detected, Chemours is required to provide filtration through reverse osmosis,” Scott explained.
Six wells have been tested so far regionally — five in Wilmington and one in Hampstead — but did not result in signature compounds. Sampling continues to be done and results from additional wells will be released publicly in the coming weeks.
Chemours also must address “thousands of micrograms per liter going into the Cape Fear River.” Groundwater is the largest contributor of pollution from the site at this time, according to Biser. To do so, Chemours is required by the state to install a barrier wall that will collect and treat water before it’s released into the river.
Chemours submitted 90% design plans last week to NCDEQ for the installation of a 6,000-foot-long barrier wall at its facility along the river to address groundwater contamination. The wall will extend 60- to 80-feet deep and be roughly 2.5-feet thick to block groundwater from entering the river. From there 69 extraction wells will treat the captured water, up to 2 million gallons per day. The system should remove up to 99% of PFAS from water before it’s released into the river.
Chemours must complete construction of this wall by March 2023, per the consent order. A National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System draft permit was released last week and is open for public comment until May 2.
Officials in attendance, including New Hanover County commissioner Rob Zapple and CFPUA board member Jessica Cannon, raised concerns the draft permit was still not stringent enough.
“As an elected official, there is no greater issue than Chemours to affect our entire region,” Zapple said. “We have a watershed of more than half a million people.”
NCDEQ deputy secretary of policy and legal affairs said Chemours has produced zero process wastewater discharge since 2017 and air emissions have decreased significantly. The next step is reducing the residual contamination to other counties.
Zapple called for more protection for these communities located downstream.
The draft permits allow Chemorus to legally discharge up to 1,300 parts per trillion (ppt) PFAS into the river; when diluted, the new legal limit is 160 ppt.
“That represents a significant increase in allowable PFAS when compared to the 1,070 rule that was included in the consent order,” Zapple said. “Why in the world would DEQ draft a discharge permit that allows Chemours to increase their release of GenX and PFAS into the Cape Fear River?”
NCDEQ Division of Water Resources deputy director Julie Grzyb explained the permit requires 99% removal of indicator PFAS compounds.
“So we know if they remove those, we know they’re removing the majority of PFAS,” she said. “We are required to look at the technology because unfortunately we do not have state standards or federal standards at this point.”
Overall, the total PFAS within parameters is being reduced and NCDEQ will continue to lower those limits if the technology proves it can be done, Grzyb added.
According to the latest water quality report from Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), 76.94 parts per trillion of varying PFAS compounds were located in drinking water processed through the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. The report states this is within EPA-regulated standards.
The plant is the largest in the CFPUA system to source its water from the Cape Fear River. It provides drinking water to more than 62,000 residential and non-residential customers.
“The levels of PFAS that our testing finds in treated and raw water from the Cape Fear River throughout the year can vary for a number of reasons, including the amount of PFAS in the river, drought, and other weather conditions that can affect the amount of water flowing in the river,” CFPUA spokesperson Cammie Bellamy said. “CFPUA also periodically adds monitoring for additional PFAS contaminants as testing methods become available.”
Mayor Bill Saffo raised concerns about the contaminants already embedded in the riverbed. Scientists have reported PFAS settled in riverbed sediments can contribute to the pollution of water when stirred up by weather or dredging.
“Every time there’s a disturbance, it comes to fruition and roars back up,” he said. “I’d like to have a better idea on how we can clean that up moving forward. It’s something we’ll be contending with and dealing with for quite some time.”
Local officials pleaded with NCDEQ to provide a direct line for concerned citizens with questions about PFAS in the area.
“We’ve all gotten our butts chewed out from citizens and homeowners have spent thousands of dollars putting in water filtration systems,” Brunswick County commissioner vice chair Mike Forte said. “But Chemours continues to spill.”
According to NCDEQ, since the 2019 consent order, Chemours has been fined for environmental violations three times, including for exceeding its allowed air emissions limit and failing to meet conditions within the consent order.
Both Brunswick and New Hanover counties have taken action and are in the process of installing added filtration systems at their respective water treatment plants, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Forte said Brunswick County is spending $170 million putting a low-pressure reverse osmosis system at its treatment plant.
“We’re blessed in Brunswick County, as one of the fastest growing counties, we are able to do this but don’t think it wasn’t done without a significant loan we have to pay back,” Forte said. “We have to make our water good for the 150,000 citizens of Brunswick.”
While data and science are unprecedented, NCDEQ assured it’s doing everything in its power to combat the issue. Secretary Biser told attendees this issue remains a high priority.
“All of us have a vested stake in this and we are taking it very seriously,” she said.
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