SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — One month after a state agency issued a permit to Chemours to reduce PFAS contamination into the river by 99.9%, the Fayetteville chemical company submitted an appeal, claiming it cannot meet updated effluent limits required.
The move comes just three weeks after Chemours announced plans for expansion at its facility, 74 miles upstream of Wilmington.
On Sept. 15, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a finalized National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for a granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration treatment system at Chemours’ Fayetteville Works site.
Chemours has until March 15, 2023 to construct a 1-mile long barrier wall to intercept and treat contaminated groundwater, which accounts for more than 60% of PFAS flowing from Chemours’ facility, according to NCDEQ.
The system Chemours designed follows the 2019 consent order with NCDEQ and Cape Fear River Watch to eliminate only 99% of PFAS compounds coming from the Chemours plant — not 99.9%. NCDEQ’s updated permit calls for almost 1% more restrictive limits.
In an announcement Friday, Chemours claimed it cannot comply with a more stringent reduction in the timeline given. The company stated it has been working with NCDEQ for 15 months on the plans for the treatment system and barrier wall.
It submitted an initial permit application in June 2021 based on the draft of the discharge permit. Thus, Chemours states the “late changes” to the design cannot be met before its 2023 deadline.
Chemours did not respond to an inquiry from Port City Daily about exactly what challenges it faces adhering to new guidelines and why the system design would not be able to comply within the timeframe.
“We continue to pursue ambitious timelines to complete and start-up the system to reduce PFAS loading to the river,” Chemours spokesperson Lisa Randall wrote in an email to PCD. “We are hopeful that we can work with NCDEQ to quickly resolve this matter to continue realizing the significant reductions we have been achieving.”
The barrier wall will extend 60 to 80-feet deep, 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 GAC filters.
Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent told Port City Daily, to win the good graces of the community, Chemours launched a “Good Neighbor” campaign, claiming its millions in investment is “because it cares” — yet it ignores the fact the PFAS mitigation was legally mandated. Sargent accuses the company of tricking area residents into thinking 99% reduction is sufficient and would protect against the harmful chemicals.
“Once the permit was modified to do just that — improve the Cape Fear River — the people at the top in Chemours are, once again, proving that they’re actually committed to one thing: money,” she said.
The company has a legal right to file an appeal to NCDEQ’s permit decision per N.C. General Statute 150B, Article 4. Chemours submitted it with the Office of Administrative Hearings Oct. 14.
The case is assigned to a judge and can proceed to mediation. If not resolved there, it moves to a formal courtroom-like hearing where both parties can submit witnesses and exhibits.
“Pursuing litigation threatens to delay implementation beyond the Consent Order deadline of March 2023 and extend the ongoing contamination reaching the river and impacting downstream residents,” according to a statement released Monday by NCDEQ.
Local nonprofit Clean Cape Fear sent NCDEQ a petition with more than 1,000 signatures demanding a public hearing in Wilmington regarding the proposed barrier wall. The public forum was held in June as an opportunity for the 300,000 residents in the tri-county area to comment on pollutants that have contaminated their water supply over the last four decades.
“Chemours wants to expand production in North Carolina while challenging a permit designed to protect our drinking water supply,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan told Port City Daily. “These are not the actions of a responsible company concerned about good stewardship. We are tired of greenwashing and gaslighting.”
The authorized permit was updated from a draft version, released in March for public comment. It initially allowed Chemours to discharge up to 1,300 parts per trillion (ppt) — and called for 99% removal or a reduction of 643 pounds annually — of PFAS. This is 130 times more than the Environmental Protection Agency’s June health advisory limiting GenX — just one of thousands of PFAS — to 10 ppt.
The first draft drew concern from local officials, nonprofit advocacy groups and residents living downstream from the site. More than 300 comments were received by NCDEQ — from both an in-person and virtual session over the summer. The majority called for more stringent permit limits on the amount of PFAS allowed into the Cape Fear River.
The finalized DEQ permit incorporated changes that impose limits on three indicator compounds, totaling 540 ppt — 54 times more than the EPA’s advisory for GenX, and interim advisories for PFOA and PFOS combined (the EPA released interim health advisories for PFOA and PFOS to 0.004 and 0.02 ppt, respectively, in June). After 180 days, parameters will drop significantly to a combined 40 ppt.
The September-issued permit requires weekly monitoring both upstream and downstream of Chemours’ site, as the barrier wall is under construction.
NCDEQ called the project “the largest of its kind to address PFAS.”
Chemours has filed a lawsuit against the EPA’s GenX health advisory and called the advisory “scientifically unsound.” The company refutes the EPA’s process used for obtaining its recommendations and claims the government ignored peer-reviewed research supporting less strict measures.
While the chemical manufacturer challenges local and state agencies, residents downstream are paying the price. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County are both investing multi-millions into treatment facilities to prevent PFAS from leaching into drinking water. As a result, water bills for New Hanover and Brunswick residents have increased by 8% and 7%, respectively, to offset the expense.
CFPUA announced last week, with its GAC filters operational, water from its Sweeney plant is PFAS free for the first time in decades. GAC filters remain the best method to remove PFAS for CFPUA, according to a 2018 pilot study done by the authority. Water flows through the carbon and gets zapped with UV light to eliminate contaminants before being released as drinking water 24 hours later.
However, Brunswick County still reports high levels of contamination.
As of Sept. 15, Brunswick County Public Utilities released results from its water sampling showing 201 ppt combined PFAS compounds in the river and 224 ppt in finished water at its Northwest Water Treatment Plant. The county is working to install low-pressure reverse osmosis treatment, which will not be completed until 2023, at its Northwest Water Treatment Plant.
Both utility companies also filed suit against Chemours in 2017, requesting it pay for the damage caused to the water and the upgrades needed. Litigation is ongoing.
“This is one of the worst environmental and human health crimes in North Carolina,” said Donovan, also a Brunswick County resident. “Residents were overexposed to dangerous levels of chemical waste from Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility for nearly forty years. These are freaking forever chemicals known to cause serious health risks. They don’t belong on our beaches, in our local fish, or in our tap water.”
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