SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The Cape Fear’s most infamous polluter is trying to push through a change to its emissions permit.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality received an application from Chemours that coincides with its plans to increase production at the site 70 miles upstream from Wilmington.
In September, Chemours announced it will expand facilities for domestic production of semiconductors, created with Teflon fluoropolymers — a perfluorinated compound, or PFA. It also will start creating materials to support transportation and clean energy industries, specifically in ionomer membranes used in water electrolysis for the production of green hydrogen.
The Fayetteville company is a Title V operator, meaning it emits air pollution of more than 100 tons per year. It’s asking to modify permitting specifically for its Vinyl Ethers North (VEN) and Vinyl Ethers South (VES) plants, as well as the IXM Membrane Process area.
Chemours stated in a 108-page document submitted to the DEQ that “these process units will continue to operate within the current permit limitations.” It added its request to make the adjustments shouldn’t warrant significant emission rates or “Prevention of Significant Deterioration,” requiring installation of the “Best Available Control Technology.”
NCDEQ’s Division of Air Quality noted Thursday it will review the request and schedule a public comment period and hearing before approval.
The submission is a starting point for experts to ask questions, according to UNCW biology and marine biology professor Lawrence Cahoon — who played a role in educating the public since 2017 about Chemours’ widespread PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River.
Cahoon reviewed the submission briefly with Port City Daily Thursday.
“They’re producing more stuff and generating more raw effluent, but it’s being routed through a better set of air pollution control devices,” he explained.
Based on Chemours’ plant modifications, the permit proposes increased volatile organic compound emissions — or chemicals that vaporize in the air. While not all chemicals are harmful, some can contribute to odors.
Potential pollutants will be treated through the nearly $100-million thermal oxidizer Chemours installed in 2019 as a result of its consent order with NCDEQ. Its main purpose is to help mitigate PFAS pollution.
Other treatments will cycle through carbon beds, similar to Cape Fear Public Utility’s recently installed granular active carbon filters.
The expected “hazardous air pollutant emissions” per the submitted permit, would be less than 25 tons per year facility-wide.
When asked if that is considered a harmful quantity, Cahoon explained it really depends on the concentration of the compounds.
“Hazard is often in the dose,” he said.
Chemours noted in its permit the newly installed plant equipment would support a 100% increase in its VEN production area and an increase of 35% to 40% in the VES area.
Vinyl ether monomers are used to manufacture various fluorochemical products, such as Teflon, created by Chemours. HFPO-DA (the chemical compound used in Chemours’ patented technology platform GenX) — one of thousands of PFAS, which are used in food packaging, nonstick coatings, and firefighting foam — is released from the vinyl ethers plant as a byproduct of the company’s other processes.
“The material itself will tear you up; destroy your lungs if you inhale it,” Cahoon added.
However, Cahoon said the amount coming out of the facility is small in comparison to what‘s being produced inside.
“Most GenX coming out of the vinyl ethers plant was actually captured by the scrubbers — basically large showers through which gas emissions percolate,” Cahoon said. “Scrubbers are not 100% efficient.”
Also in the permit, Chemours is proposing a new line to support its generation of hydrogen via water electrolysis, which results in zero greenhouse gas emissions. It will increase capacity by roughly 30%.
Air emissions are the ultimate source of most Cape Fear River pollution, Cahoon said.
The updated permit request comes as Chemours is fighting back against NCDEQ’s approved discharge permit last month. The company said it does not have the time and technology to meet the state’s more restrictive limit of 99.9% reduction of PFAS, up from 99%.
“1% is still a really big amount of stuff,” Cahoon explsined. “There is better technology to allow for it and we know it. The standard we want is non-detect.”
[Ed. note: The article has been updated to reflect HFPO-DA, a chemical compound, is used in Chemours’ patented technology platform GenX.]
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