SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The state environmental agency that’s been working with Chemours’ Fayetteville Works Facility to mitigate PFAS pollution announced a milestone in its progress Thursday. It increased restrictions on the company for releasing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances by almost 1 percent more than originally outlined in a consent order that went into effect three years ago.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality proposes reducing 99.9% of PFAS — up from 99% — in a discharge permit issued for a treatment system. It will remove contamination from groundwater at Chemours’ site.
“The massive remediation project is the largest of its kind to address PFAS,” according to NCDEQ’s Thursday release.
After gathering public input and research, NCDEQ decided upon a granular activated carbon filtration treatment system, which is only one part of a larger barrier wall remediation project Chemours is mandated to build.
The draft permit was released for public comment mid-March. It initially allowed Chemours to discharge up to 1,300 ppt of PFAS and drew concern from local officials during NCDEQ’s March visit to Wilmington.
“That represents a significant increase in allowable PFAS when compared to the 1,070 rule that was included in the consent order,” New Hanover County commissioner Rob Zapple said then. “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 explained the 99% removal indicator would address the majority of PFAS, in essence overriding the parts per trillion levels.
Zapple wasn’t alone in his concerns. More than 250 written comments were submitted to NCDEQ, as well as nearly 50 people who spoke out at in-person and virtual hearings in June.
People called for more stringent permit limits, requiring a reverse osmosis treatment system, more frequent sampling, and mandating a wall maintenance plan within the permit. They also asked for further limitations on how much PFAS would be allowed in the water.
On June 15 the EPA announced GenX — one form of PFAS detected in the Cape Fear River — would be set to 10 parts per trillion (ppt), which overrides the 140 ppt established statewide in 2018. There are currently no regulations or health advisories on any other PFAS (however, the Environmental Protection Agency took a step toward addressing additional compounds when it proposed late last month designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous chemicals”).
The finalized DEQ permit incorporated changes from the original draft and will impose limits on three indicator compounds, totaling 540 ppt. After 180 days, parameters will drop significantly to a combined 40 ppt.
- GenX will be limited to 120 ppt; then drop to less than 10 ppt
- PMPA is set to 100 ppt; then will decrease to 10 ppt
- PFMOAA is initially limited to 320 ppt; which will be reduced to less than 20 ppt after the first six months
As well, the permit will require weekly monitoring both upstream and downstream of Chemours’ site, as a 1-mile-long barrier wall is under construction.
NCDEQ told Cape Fear officials and community members during its March visit that groundwater is the largest contributor of pollution from the facility, more than 60%. The installation of the barrier wall at Fayetteville Works will collect and treat water before it’s released into the river.
The wall will extend 60- to 80-feet deep and be 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 process will remove an estimated 99.9% of PFAS compounds before being released into the Cape Fear.
Thursday, NCDEQ issued a letter approving the barrier wall’s design, which includes additional monitoring wells, sampling of extraction wells and management of contaminated groundwater during the wall’s construction.
A 401 Water Quality Certification — required before any federal permits can be issued — is also being finalized by NCDEQ. It should minimize impacts during the building of the wall in conjunction with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 404 permit — regulating dredge and fill material entering waterways during construction.
The NPDES permit will be reevaluated after one year and if needed, incorporate new data and further strengthen imposed limits. It can also be amended to add updated thresholds based on new toxicity data, the introduction of federal or state PFAS standards, or if another PFAS compound breaks through the treatment system more quickly than the current parameters allow.
The project must be operational by March 15, 2023.
Three-hundred thousand people in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties have been affected by the toxic drinking water coming out of the Cape Fear River for four decades, due to PFAS pollution.
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