map of chemours sites, noting wind pattern, wherewhere airborne GenX may have been carried
Models are predicting that air emissions from manufacturing units at Chemours were most likely to have drifted to the northeast and southwest of the property. Source: DEQ

By Catherine Clabby

State environmental regulators are investigating how to stop the release of air emissions carrying compounds related to GenX from the Chemours manufacturing site in Bladen County that chemical giant DuPont ran for decades.

That’s because those emissions may be contributing to contamination detected in recent months in private drinking wells close to the facility, as well as in public drinking water systems downstream that draw from the Cape Fear River.

Department of Environmental Quality air specialists are researching techniques that could capture emissions of a long list of unregulated perfluorinated compounds, known as PFAS, from multiple smokestacks on the 2,200-acre site, said agency air quality division director Mike Abraczinskas.

Data that DEQ requested from Chemours suggests practically no GenX was released into the atmosphere from 2012 to 2016. But other unregulated compounds have been emitted, including one discharged at levels reaching 75,000 pounds in one year.

Figuring out whether any of those compounds pose risks to people could take a very long time. So in the shorter term, DEQ wants to guide Chemours on what pollution controls the company can use to stop the emissions, Abraczinskas said during an interview with NC Health News last week.

“We’re asking: how can we eliminate or destroy all of these before they are emitted,” he said.

Chart of Chemours' reported air emissions
The state Department of Environmental Quality wants to confirm this Chemours estimate of GenX and similar compound emissions with stack testing the company will perform with equipment and procedures DEQ endorses. Source: DEQ

Airborne concerns

It could be that air emissions that regulators don’t yet understand might be the culprit behind why Genx has been detected in private wells farther than expected from the Fayetteville Works manufacturing site.

For one thing, the chemical was detected in levels high above North Carolina’s established health goal of 140 parts per trillion in wells on land across the expanse of the Cape Fear River. Normally a river of that size would be a barrier to polluted groundwater moving from one place to another.

Meteorological data collected from 1998 to 2017 at Fayetteville Regional Airport and analyzed by DEQ shows wind patterns that cross the Chemours site. Those breezes would likely have moved any emissions to the northeast and southwest of the industrial property, and over locations where well tests are now turning up positive for GenX.

Chemours emission estimates created by DEQ with a widely accepted computer model suggests only very small amounts of GenX and very closely related compounds have been emitted from the facility.

Meteorological data from Fayetteville Regional Airport has helped state regulators predict where air emissions from Chemours are most likely to be found. Source: DEQ

But it’s also known that one of these chemicals, known as C3 dimer acid fluoride, can convert to GenX after contact with water. What’s not known is whether any of that compound released from the Chemours facility was transformed this way, Abraczinskas said.

“If you emit it as a gas, how quickly will it convert to GenX?” Abraczinskas asked. “Does it happen in the presence of water vapor, with rain, or does it have to deposit in a puddle? We’re asking universities, the EPA and the company. We don’t have answers yet.”

To confirm the Chemours estimates, the state is having the company sample for any GenX that gets past the smokestack scrubbing equipment during normal operations.

Last month DEQ Secretary Michael Regan moved to revoke a significant portion of Chemours’ permit to discharge wastewater into the Cape Fear after the company failed to report a spill that elevated its GenX discharges into the Cape Fear River. DEQ asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate if Chemours broke any criminal law by not disclosing the release.

New players

Also of interest is a long list of related compounds the facility released into the air between 2012 and 2016, data that the company recently collated for DEQ. One of particular note is hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO), whose release reached 72,500 pounds in 2015 and 42,119 pounds in 2016.

photo of several people talking
DEQ leaders Michael Scott with the waste management division, Linda Culpepper with water resources and Mike Abraczinskas with air quality speak with state Rep. Pricey Harrison, (D-Greensboro), in blue, after a meeting of the House Special Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality last week. Source: DEQ

“The question is what does that stuff do?” Abraczinskas said of the HFPO emissions. “We know it’s an essential building block to a lot of things they make. Does it have the potential to form GenX in any way? We’re trying to find out.”

A DuPont brochure says HFPO can be used to produce perfluorinated vinyl ethers which are used in the production of commercial fluoropolymers, which are used in thousands of products, including non-stick coatings such as Teflon.

Last summer, a Chemours representative told state and locals officials that GenX detected in the Cape Fear was a byproduct of one of these vinyl ether processes. But he noted that particular process was exempted from an EPA order that Chemours not release GenX into the environment due to potential health concerns.

Eager for a fix

State Rep. Ted Davis (R-Wilmington) last week said he does not agree with some people who are calling for Chemours to be shut down. At the same time, he said steps must be taken to ensure that people are not exposed to dangerous industrial chemicals originating there.

shows a headshot of an older white man
Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. has represented parts of New Hanover County since 2012. Credit: NC General Assembly

“You’ve got to weigh the safety of the people with the benefits of that industry being here,” said Davis who co-chairs a House committee on Clean Rivers, created after news of GenX contamination broke. “To me, it makes sense to let the company operate but take that stuff elsewhere.”

Neighbors to the Chemours compound are carefully watching everything state officials are doing to eliminate and, eventually, clean up any pollution close to their homes.

Many are alarmed by the results of well tests that DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman reported last week during a meeting of the House Select Committee on River Quality, which Davis co-chairs.

In a first round of testing starting in September, 51 out of 141 wells had concentrations of GenX above the state’s provisional health goal; 35 had no GenX detected. A second round begun in October expanded sampling to 450 properties within one mile of Chemours’ property line. As of last week, 34 out of 107 wells sampled had concentrations of GenX above the state’s health goal; only 25 showed no GenX.

Chemours, state officials and Bladen and Cumberland County officials have met to discuss how to best get new water supplies into homes whose wells have GenX exceeding the state health goal.

Mike Watters, a founder of Grays Creek Residents United Against GenX in our Wells and Rivers, says Chemours should pay to connect residents to municipal water supplies and compensate them for the equivalent of any property value they’ve lost.

In addition to exposure via water, Watters wondered what air emissions may have done to soils, home vegetable gardens and crops raised to feed livestock. He was disheartened by news Monday that GenX has been detected in food: in honey harvested from a beehive in Robeson County.

Long-term health monitoring of people who live near the plant is going to be vital, he argued.

“This could be cumulative,” he said.

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...