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Monday, May 27, 2024

Lear Corp. draft permit does not limit PFAS discharges, petition calls out DEQ for stronger regulations

The Cape Fear River as seen just a few hundred feet downstream from Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

[Ed. note: After press DEQ said it had pushed public comment back to March 28.]

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A local environmental group is warning a draft permit for a company discharging PFAS in the northeast Cape Fear River would fail to regulate the substances and serve as a “bellwether” for future policy.

READ MORE: Appeals Court casts doubt on district judge’s dismissal of local groups’ PFAS testing petition

“This permit has zero limits on PFAS,” Kemp Burdette, designated as Cape Fear River Watch’s Riverkeeper, told Port City Daily Monday, adding he is “baffled” by the decision. “It just seems so dangerous and so reckless for DEQ to issue it. We know why this stuff is dangerous. We know it has clear links to human health problems.”

He expressed concern the draft permit would provide unfavorable precedent and similarly omit limitations for other PFAS-producing companies in the state.

Lear Corporation is an automotive manufacturer whose Kenansville facility releases PFAS in the northeast Cape Fear River, which drift downstream to Wilmington. The company submitted a draft national pollution discharge elimination system (NPDES) permit to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on Feb. 6. The draft permit requires Lear to monitor PFAS emissions but does not include limitations on the substances. 

“We are currently working with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) on a permit renewal that adheres strictly to state regulatory guidelines and standards governing the use and disposal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS),” Lear Corporation wrote in a statement to PCD.

The NCDEQ posted on its website on Feb. 9 a notice of intent to issue the permit with a public comment period lasting until March 14. 

Burdette said Cape Fear River Watch was not immediately informed of NCDEQ draft permit for Duplin County-based Lear Corporation. He said there was no requirement for the agency to notify him of the development, but thought it would be a “common courtesy” because he’d worked with NCDEQ on related issues over the past year and a half; Burdette previously informed NCDEQ of foam discharges from Lear’s Kenansville plant, leading the agency to issue a permit violation.

The nonprofit began a petition opposing the permit with progressive organization Action Network about two weeks ago; so far, 3,848 letters have been sent to NCDEQ about the issue through the petition.

According to the NCDEQ notice of intent, the division of water resources director Richard Rogers may hold a public hearing on the issue if it gains sufficient public interest. PCD reached out to Rogers to ask why Lear’s draft permit would allow unlimited PFAS discharges and if a public hearing will be held on the issue; this article will be updated upon response.

Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Jean Zhuang noted Chemours’ PFAS emissions attracted more public attention than other PFAS-producing companies in the state, forcing NCDEQ to “step up” on the company’s regulation.

Last February, the SELC sent a letter to NCDEQ calling for stronger PFAS enforcement of Lear Corporation’s NPDES permit. It cited EPA guidance to state permitting agencies to regulate PFAS to “the fullest extent of available under state and local law.”

“Chemours is not the only source of PFAS pollution in North Carolina,” the letter stated. “The department cannot continue to focus its enforcement efforts solely on Chemours and treat other industries that release toxic pollution with leniency.”

DEQ’s discharge permit for Chemours requires a 99% reduction in discharges. Burdette thinks it is possible that Lear could now discharge more PFAS in North Carolina than Chemours due to the difference in restrictions.

The letter noted sampling — including by Lear and Cape Fear River Watch — found PFAS concentrations thousands of times higher than amounts deemed safe by EPA health advisories. 

A 2019 sample found total PFAS concentrations in the company’s wastewater ranging from 802 parts per trillion (ppt) and 1,863 ppt; PFOA, a PFAS substance, was found as high as 30.2 ppt, whereas the EPA advisory for the level is 0.004 ppt. Burdette said Lear was the only PFOA discharger he knew of in the tested watershed.

Burdette warned of Lear’s PFAS impact on local wildlife, such as the bluegill, large mouthed bass, striped bass, catfish and the endangered Atlantic sturgeon. In 2023, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recommended limiting consumption of fish in the lower and middle Cape Fear River due to PFAS exposure.

“We’re also thinking about the writing on the wall because now it’s been seven years since DEQ has learned about PFAS chemicals in North Carolina,” Zhuang said. “They are still issuing these permits for known PFAS dischargers that have no limits.”

Zhuang mentioned a number of known and suspected PFAS-distributing companies up for permitting that could similarly avoid limitations, such as International Paper Company, which has multiple facilities in the state. The closest is 28 miles away from Wilmington in Riegelwood.

Chemours Fayetteville Works Facility’s PFAS discharges flowed over 80 miles into the local Cape Fear River, Burdette noted. He expects discharges from Lear Corporation’s Kenansville plant — about 65 miles from Wilmington — to similarly travel downstream. 

“Whatever PFAS goes in the water in Kenansville is going to get down to the estuary soon enough, because those molecules are so durable,” he said. “So they could have impact on species down here like oysters, shrimp, crabs, sturgeon, striped bass, flounder — you know, any of the species that are down here in the lower Cape Fear could potentially be impacted by PFAS up there.”

PCD reached out to Lear Corporation to ask about Cape Fear River Watch’s concerns and if the company has implemented any measures to limit PFAS discharges in the Cape Fear River. The company responded with a statement: 

“We conduct rigorous monitoring to ensure compliance and, where possible, we are reformulating our products to further minimize or completely eliminate the use of PFAS while maintaining world-class quality and performance. We are committed to working with NCDEQ and taking appropriate environmental stewardship actions. Our highest priorities are the health and safety of people, local communities, and the environment.”

Chemours filed a petition against its NPDES permit’s discharge limit before settling with NCDEQ and the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority in November 2022. CFPUA spokesperson Cammie Bellamy told PCD the organization is looking into NCDEQ’s draft permit for Lear Corporation and working to gather more information; she referred further questions to NCDEQ.

Residents interested in submitting comments on the issue can email NCDEQ through Cape River Watch’s Action Network petition or mail them to NCDEQ-DWR’s Water Quality Permitting Section,1617 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1617. The public comment period ends at 12:59 p.m on March 14.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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