Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Before you go …
Thanks for reading. If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
Brian Long aimed a white-gloved hand toward six tanks standing in the sandy soil of the sprawling Fayetteville Works, site of the Chemours chemical plant he manages.
Thirty feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, each tank can hold 30,000 gallons. Each is a key component in Chemours’ race to meet pollution-control goals laid out in a proposed agreement announced in November by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
That agreement, which includes a record $12 million fine, would resolve regulatory claims stemming from Chemours’ releases of GenX and other fluorochemicals that have tainted the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents.
A few days after DEQ’s announcement, Long showed Carolina Public Press the work underway to fulfill its obligations.
“We just set the sixth tank this morning,” Long said. “When I came in, it was lying on the ground.”
As he spoke, a tanker truck rumbled by, a noisy, dusty, costly reminder of one of the chief motivations to get that work done as quickly as possible, at least from the company’s standpoint.
Before November 2017, when DEQ suspended Chemours’ discharge privilege, the plant sent process wastewater into the Cape Fear River for less than $10 a day in permit fees.
Since then, the company has commissioned an average of 10 tanker trucks a day to haul away that water for offsite disposal. Each truck has steadily contributed to the $35 million Chemours said it expected to spend last year to deal with wastewater Fayetteville Works operations generated.
“Look, it is really expensive,” Long said. “Currently all of our wastewater discharges — every bit of the process wastewater — is being captured and sent to Deer Park, Texas, for deep-well injection responsibly.
“But there’s a cost for that. We don’t want to continue to do that. So getting the water part of our projects going and effective is very, very important to us. We believe we know how to do that. And we have developed new technology to do some things that we’ve never been able to do before to address this issue.”
The six tanks are part of a $100 million project to reduce Chemours’ fluorochemical pollution to no more than 1 percent of what it was in 2017.
By some time in 2020, if all goes according to plan, the remainder of that project will go online. Instead of convoys of tankers, that technology will vaporize the wastewater and break down all but a tiny fraction of the fluorochemicals that for decades have been discharged into the Cape Fear and carried downstream from the site in Bladen County.
The result, Long promised, will be “extremely, extremely clean discharge.”
“We’re going to do that work, but at the end of the day we have to have a permit from the state to be able to release into the river,” he said. “So, we’ll have to work to get that back and we’ll have to earn that.”
Getting back to 99 percent
When it comes to corporate responsibility for controlling pollution such as GenX, few figures have held more significance than 99 percent.
In 2009, DuPont received the go-ahead from the Environmental Protection Agency to start making GenX commercially.
That agreement passed to Chemours in 2015, when DuPont formed the company from business units that included the manufacture of GenX at the Fayetteville Works.
Noting that GenX “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health and the environment,” EPA required that the companies keep 99 percent of what it made commercially from entering the environment.
In June 2017, at a meeting in Wilmington just days after news broke that GenX and other fluorochemicals contaminated drinking water sourced from the Cape Fear, Chemours representatives told incredulous local and state leaders that the 99-percent capture requirement did not apply in this case.
The GenX found in the river did not come from the manufacturing line used to make it commercially, they said. Instead, it was a byproduct of unrelated processes at the plant, a situation specifically exempted under the terms of the company’s agreement with EPA.
Now, after months of regulatory scrutiny, Chemours must reduce its emissions GenX and similar substances by 99 percent from 2017 levels by the end of this year to settle with the state.
To get there, Chemours has embarked on a number of steps. It already had whittled its GenX emissions by at least 80 percent before DEQ made the proposed settlement public.
Those terms currently require the plant to have achieved a 92 percent reduction, compared with 2017 emissions, by the end of 2018.
In November, Long said his staff would meet that deadline using equipment already installed. The company added carbon adsorption units in May that choked off 40 percent. It doubled that with technology called a secondary scrubber, which handles emissions from stacks at one of Chemours’ manufacturing units.
Chemours engineers will get to 92 percent by combining the two technologies, Long said.
“We’re going to take that vapor stream (from the secondary scrubber) and take it off the top of that process and route it through the carbon adsorption unit that we installed in May and scrub it again,” he explained.
That work is now complete and operational, the company said in late December.
‘A lot of work ahead of us’
No further reductions are expected until the end of this year, when Chemours plans to start using a thermal oxidizer to achieve the final emission goals.
Essentially a high-temperature incinerator, the thermal oxidizer is the centerpiece of Chemours’ pollution-control complex, cracking the compounds’ fluorine-carbon bonds by heating them to about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“At 92 percent we’re going to be at a standstill there until we construct and commission the thermal oxidizer,” Long said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us on this project.”
In 2020, Chemours plans to add a thermolysis unit, applying heat to vaporize its wastewater. Then, instead of being trucked away, water can be sent to the thermal oxidizer.
Long said the company may use reverse osmosis, granular activated carbon or other technology to process the remaining water before discharging it — assuming it gets DEQ approval.
The proposed agreement also lists measures to address contamination in groundwater beneath the Fayetteville Works, which regulators believe makes its way into nearby surface waters, including the Cape Fear River.
Those measures include the lining of sediment ponds and a cooling water ditch, all of which are complete, the company said. It also has been pumping out contaminated groundwater. As of late December, about 45,000 gallons have been removed and sent for offsite disposal.
Long said pollution-control efforts also have been implemented or were planned at other Chemours facilities involved in fluorochemical manufacturing.
Those include its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where contamination from perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8, tainted the drinking water of tens of thousands of people in the mid-Ohio Valley. In 2017, Chemours and DuPont agreed to a $671 million settlement with those affected.
“We’ve announced corporate responsibility goals to reduce emissions of fluorinated organic compounds by 99 percent,” Long said. “No other producer in the world has announced that goal.”
Less stringent than June proposal
A number of concerns have been raised about the proposed agreement since DEQ made it public the evening before Thanksgiving.
Officials in communities downriver that obtain drinking water from the Cape Fear said the deal would not offer their residents the same considerations given to those in counties near the plant. Instead, some have said, DEQ appeared to be leaving them to fend for themselves through civil lawsuits.
Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which serves about 200,000 people in New Hanover County, filed a motion in late December to intervene in the lawsuit filed by DEQ that the proposed consent order would settle.
That motion and any final settlement will be considered by Bladen County Superior Court Judge Douglas B. Sasser.
“CFPUA is seeking to intervene in the lawsuit because we believe the proposed order is not adequate to protect CFPUA’s interests or remedy CFPUA’s harms caused by Chemours’ PFAS releases to the Cape Fear River,” the utility wrote in a statement announcing its motion. PFAS are per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a group of compounds that includes GenX.
In comments submitted to DEQ, CFPUA asked why Chemours will be required to help owners of contaminated wells near the plant but not residents downstream, such as CFPUA’s customers. It also questioned why state regulators did not consult with CFPUA or address the costs it and its ratepayers have and will incur to deal with contamination the utility believes will continue from sources such as groundwater seepage or tainted river sediment.
“We are not against using a consent order to address this problem,” CFPUA wrote in statement. “We do believe, however, that the interests of downstream communities should be included in any action taken by the state.
“Our most recent testing indicates levels of certain PFAS compounds that, if we were located near the Fayetteville Works facility, would require Chemours to provide drinking water treatment for affected households,” according to CFPUA.
In separate projects, CFPUA and Brunswick County plan to spend almost $150 million on upgrades to filter out fluorochemicals. Both have sued DuPont and Chemours to recover those and other costs and damages they claim resulted from the companies’ pollution.
DEQ has extended the period for public comments on the consent order to Monday, Jan. 7, after which it will “fully address” them.
What that means for the terms of the agreement is unclear. Dozens of people commented on a proposed order for injunctive relief the agency filed in June.
Those comments largely supported DEQ’s steps or urged even stricter measures.
Yet, the agreement under consideration includes a number of terms that are less stringent than what the state had demanded a few months earlier.
The June proposal wanted a 97 percent reduction in GenX emissions by the end of August 2018; the one now under consideration calls for a 92 percent reduction by the end of December 2018.
A requirement that Chemours pay to study the potential toxicity of all fluorochemicals in its discharge in the June proposal has been narrowed to five compounds.
In a “fact sheet” meant to address concerns such as those CFPUA expressed, DEQ pointed to regulatory actions since June 2017 it said reduced GenX in drinking water distributed by CFPUA “from over 1,000 parts per trillion in 2017 to less than 10 ppt in recent sampling.”
“The order stops PFAS from contaminating the Cape Fear River, which stops PFAS from entering the drinking water of downstream users,” DEQ wrote.
In response to emailed questions, CFPUA wrote: “As the water provider for much of New Hanover County, we do not yet have the capability to treat for PFAS compounds and, thus, cannot provide that service for our customers.
“NCDEQ’s actions to control the source of these compounds have significantly reduced levels in our source water. However, combined levels of certain PFAS still remain above the stated levels in the proposed consent order.”
In early December, DEQ staff conducted a community meeting in Bladen County to discuss GenX-related issues, including the proposed agreement.
DEQ has not scheduled a similar event in New Hanover or Brunswick counties, though Cape Fear River Watch, which joined the proposed settlement as an intervening party, did discuss the proposal at a meeting in Wilmington.
You can strengthen independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina
Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative reporting for all North Carolinians.
Unlike many others, we aren’t owned by umbrella organizations or corporations. And we haven’t put up a paywall — we believe that fact-based, context-rich watchdog journalism is a vital public service. But we need your help. Carolina Public Press’ in-depth, investigative journalism takes a lot of money, persistence and hard work to produce. We are here because we believe in and are dedicated to the future of North Carolina.
So, if you value in-depth and investigative reporting in North Carolina, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. It only takes a minute and makes a huge difference. Thank you!