Saturday, October 1, 2022

‘Dog and pony show’: State officials, some local representatives and community rally against Chemours’ latest expansion

Protestors gather at the Leland Cultural Arts Center on Wednesday outside Chemours’ public meeting for its recent expansion plans. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — “No more Chemours!” crowds were chanting outside the company’s open house Wednesday night in Leland. Over a hundred individuals stood with signs protesting the recently announced expansion of Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility.

The company, located 77 miles west of Wilmington, announced Sept. 6 plans to increase the production of a monomer building block for PFA at its manufacturing facility to meet demand of the domestic semiconductor supply chain. It also will amp up production of materials to support transportation and clean energy industries. 

READ MORE: Chemours to ramp up PFA production at Fayetteville Works site, claims emissions will not increase

Chemours, the only American producer of the PFA fluoropolymer, held two community meetings this week to relay additional information about its expansion, saying it will be done “responsibly” and with “good environmental stewardship” in mind.

Residents living in communities downstream of Fayetteville Works, recipients of the company’s pollution, are fighting to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Signage seen outside Leland Cultural Arts Center included:

“Hey Chemours, do your children drink this PFAS contaminated water?” 

“Get your PFAS out of our blood, then talk to us about expansion” 

“Good neighbors don’t poison my water”

Rep. Deb Butler at Chemours’ open house in Leland. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Local and state leaders such as Rep. Deb Butler and Leland city council member Bill McHugh were there, but New Hanover County and City of WIlmington officials did not seem to be in attendance.

The rallying cry was heard loud by area organizations, including Cape Fear River Watch and Clean Cape Fear. Both handed out talking points to consider posing to Chemours officials, provided a microphone to speak, and encouraged signatures for a petition against the expansion, which will be passed on to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. There are currently 160 signatures.

The state entity is the one that must sign off on an updated discharge permit for Chemours’ expansion plans, which the company claims will not increase contamination to the air or water.

Since a 2019 consent order by NCDEQ forced its hand, Chemours has reduced air emissions by 99% and water pollution by 97%. Greenhouse gases have been reduced by 85% at the Fayetteville plant, which sustainability technology director Sean Uhl compared to about 100,000 fewer automobiles off the road annually. Chemours has a goal to reduce greenhouse gases by 60% across its 60 global locations by 2030; by 2050, its mission is to be “net zero.”

According to Chemours’ 2022 second quarter earnings report, as of June 30 the company has spent $510 million in environmental remediation, including future funds for the next 12 months. Based on a memorandum of understanding, this cost is being shared with its predecessor DuPont, as well as Corteva, an agricultural spinoff of DuPont. 

Chemours Fayetteville Works plant manager Dawn Hughes (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Expansion plans

Chemours’ expansion will upgrade, repair or increase output for 10% of equipment on the 600-acre manufacturing site.

As media was led through a guided tour of Chemours’ information stations, headed up by five subject-matter experts, employees explained the necessity of the chemistry it produces.

“The products we manufacture are touching our everyday lives,” Chemours’ sustainability director Amber Wellman said. 

Wellman explained the “critical monomers” crafted at Fayetteville Works are the “building blocks” for larger structures, using a Duplo brick analogy to demonstrate. Products built from the monomers include specialty valves and tubes, chips in the semiconductor industry, automotive parts, lithium ion batteries and ventilators.

“The demands of the future will need these types of chemistries,” she said.

Semiconductors have been in short supply globally over the last few years, exacerbated by the pandemic. The technology is integral to everyday uses from cell phones to vehicles, computers to military aircraft, defense systems and healthcare equipment.

In July, Congress passed the CHIPS Act of 2022 to strengthen the domestic chip supply chain; U.S. production has declined from 37% in 1990 to 12% in 2022. The act will invest $52 billion in manufacturing and research grants.

It also established a 25% investment tax credit to incentivize semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. to lessen dependency on foreign producers, such as China, which makes up 53% of the semiconductor market.

“Our expansions aren’t building new assets, raw material or product,” Uhal said. 

He explained the company will increase production and enlarge its factory, yet not boost pollution.

Uhl claims that will happen by:

  • Replacing current equipment with newer versions that release less emissions in general
  • Reducing the number of piping and connections — which have the small possibility of leaching emissions — used in the manufacturing process
  • And offsetting the investment by improving destruction efficiencies and saving emissions in other places.

He also explained Chemours’ abatement technology has worked to decrease contamination by reusing or recycling compounds as often as possible. When not able, the company sends emissions through a thermal oxidizer, which destroys particles up to 99.999%. 

While fluorinated compounds — known to the public as PFAS — are destroyed by thermal oxidation almost entirely, Uhl said, “it does leave a small carbon footprint.”

Fluorinated compounds are not currently regulated. Environmental manager Cristel Compton would not share exactly how much new product the expansion will bring, saying it was “proprietary.”

“The permit we have from the state only has a requirement for GenX,” she said. “Will they ask for others to be included? We will find out in our next meeting.”

NCDEQ has to sign off on a new air emissions permit, already in the works, according to Compton.

“There will be no net increase from what is in our permit today,” she said. “And we will not ask for an increase in that limit.”

GenX discharge, in particular, will remain under Chemours’ current annual limit, which is 23 pounds, or 2 tablespoons, per day. In 2017, prior to the current consent order, Chemours discharged 2,307 pounds of GenX into the air.

“We’re growing through responsible manufacturing and continuing to support projects underway to address the legacy historic contamination at the site,” Fayetteville Plant Manager Dawn Hughes said.

Chemours has been dumping its toxic chemicals for over 40 years into the Cape Fear River, the public drinking water source for more than 300,000 people. Individuals learned of the contamination in 2017. Since, local and state leaders and organizations as well as nonprofits have been asking for more information on the health effects of the chemicals as well as trying to hold the company accountable financially.

The company is promoting the expansion as an economic benefit to the communities and state. Chemours’ officials said it will add 30 high-paying jobs and support hundreds of construction jobs during its expansion process.

“Expansion plans will make a positive economic impact to the communities surrounding the plant,” Hughes said. “Actually, across the state.”

Chemours spokesperson Lisa Randall confirmed no economic analysis had been done yet.

Hughes mentioned the war in Ukraine and how it sparked a global energy crisis, urging the U.S. to create a domestic reliance on clean energy products. To do so, Chemours’ plans to use its Nafion ion membranes, which can fuel batteries and electric vehicles.

“We’re in a unique position because of the chemistries we produce,” she said.

(Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Public reaction

Despite Chemours’ alleged testimony that its products are a necessity and its expansion will grow “responsibly,” many residents living in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties don’t believe it.

“They claim to be the best, brightest chemists,” Cape Fear River Watch Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette said Wednesday. “But they can’t come up with a better solution than PFAS?”

Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover County) called it a “dog and pony show.”

“I have filed bill after bill after bill to make Chemours accountable and make them pay for technology to clean this junk out of our water,” she shouted to the crowd. “Every time I do that, the leadership in Raleigh takes that and puts it straight into the trash can.”

She said Chemours is a member of the manufacturers’ association, which “pays politicians hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.”

Butler expressed her disappointment in how the meeting was being held, only allowing 10 people in at a time, forcing others to stand outside in the sun during a hot day.

“Here’s what I know: They’re nervous as they can be,” she said. “It’s 110 degrees out here, we’re sweating our proverbial you-know-what’s-off and not one person has left.”

“If you wanted to hear people’s fears and concerns, you’d let them in the air conditioning now, wouldn’t you?” she asked.

Leland council member Bill McHugh also spoke out to much applause:

“Until they take action to take these chemicals out of these filtration systems, like the one being built down the road by H2Go and being built by Brunswick County on the rates of taxpayers, until they take those actions, they need to stay home.Thank you for being the real good neighbors.”

Clean Cape Fear executive director Emily Donovan, in the last group to make her way through the auditorium, reminded attendees the real health risks from PFAS are still unknown.

“Often when the community had a question, they were told the next session would answer that question, so there was a lot of deflecting,” she said of the experience.

Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent echoed the statement, saying she was hearing from participants that their questions weren’t answered. Some, she added, told her Chemours representatives “were defensive and even combative with residents.”

Chemours spokesperson Randall said it welcomed the community feedback.

“Some of the concerns expressed by the public related to matters being addressed under the Consent Order with DEQ and we were glad to be able to talk through these concerns,” Randall said. “Chemours is and will continue to remediate legacy contamination, and leverage state-of-the-art technology to abate emissions at the site.”

Sargent also said the way Chemours only let in small groups at a time was a way to “control the community voice.”

“The representatives were clearly coached with a set of specific talking points centering on how responsible and sustainable they are, citing the cleanup completed and in progress; they failed, as always, to point out that any clean up done is by court order,” she said, in reference to NCDEQ’s consent order.

Wilmington resident and nurse practitioner Regina O’Donnell spoke during the event. She said her husband was diagnosed with a rare cancer, which she thinks is linked to the contaminated water. 

The health effects of PFAS are still being studied but have been linked to kidney disease, development effects of fetuses, and some forms of cancer, according to the N.C. Division of Environmental Quality.

Nonprofit organizations, including Clean Cape Fear and CFRW, requested additional health studies be funded to know the risks associated with contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency denied its petition for testing, and the group is now in ongoing litigation with the government agency.

O’Donnell urged those in attendance to divest in Chemours’ top investors: The Vanguard Group, BlackRock Fund Advisors, Fidelity Management and Research Co., SSgA Funds Management Inc., and LSV Asset Management.

“They don’t care what we think, but when it comes down to losing money, they may pay attention,” she told PCD.

According to Chemours’ financial records, the company reported record net sales of $1.9 billion, up 16% from 2021, in the second quarter of 2022. It reported an ending cash balance of $1.25 billion, up $103 million from the first quarter.

DuPont and Corteva entered into an agreement in January 2021 with Chemours to share costs of future liabilities, up to a $2 billion cap, from lawsuits accusing Chemours of contamination. They also agreed to establish a $1 billion maximum escrow account to address potential future PFAS liabilities.

Crowds gather at Chemours open house at the Leland Cultural Arts Center. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)
(Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)
(Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

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