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By Catherine Clabby and India Mackinson

One year into a drive to address chemical contamination of air and water near the Cape Fear River, a chemical company and state environmental regulators don’t yet agree on what must get done when.

In their first community meeting on the problem, Chemours officials last week explained how they intend to spend $100 million to prevent GenX and other unregulated chemicals from tainting water and air.

Chemours management displayed photographs of new plant processing units during last week’s community meeting in St. Pauls. Photo credit: India Mackinson

“No other facility in the world will have this technology” all in one place, Fayetteville Works plant manager Brian Long told scores of community residents gathered about four miles from his plant at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls last Tuesday.

After the meeting, Chemours officials said they will reduce 99 percent of GenX air emissions escaping the plant by the end of 2019.

DEQ, however, wants more, faster from Chemours. In a draft of a court order request made public the day before the Chemours meeting, DEQ says it favors a 97 percent emission reduction of GenX and its chemical precursors by the end of August this year, along with that 99 percent reduction by December 2019.

“We need to ensure that Chemours moves quickly to stop the release of these chemicals and address the impacts that have already occurred,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in a press release.

From discovery to cleanup

Chemours has released GenX and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into water and air potentially for decades into and near the Cape Fear. GenX has tainted public water supplies scores of miles away in Wilmington and nearby towns.

A Chemours technician arranges a mockup of a granular-activated carbon system that can be installed to filter water from local wells which have tested positive for GenX. Photo credit: India Mackinson

The industrial chemical has also been detected in some 760 drinking water wells near the plant, according to the DEQ proposed court order. Thirty percent of those wells, all within four miles of the plant, tested above a state provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX.

Limited information exists on health risks from GenX, which is unregulated. But laboratory studies on animals have shown negative effects to the liver and blood, along with cancer of the liver, pancreas, and testicles, according to DEQ. PFAS, including GenX, persist and accumulate in the human body over time and can potentially reach a level that causes negative health effects.

Chemours maintains that a decade of scientific data on GenX shows that low levels do not pose a threat to human health. It has also asked for the state health goal to be raised to 70,000 parts per trillion.

Investing in technology

At last week’s sometimes contentious meeting, Chemours officials reported the company has already installed two granular-activated carbon “adsorption” units and have reduced GenX compounds by 40 percent in air emissions. Updates to a waste gas scrubber will further remove GenX compounds from air emissions by another 30 percent when completed this October, according to a Chemours report to DEQ.

The company also expects to install a custom-made thermal oxidizer, a unit that uses heat to decompose compounds in an airstream. That will produce clean water and extracted compounds that can be sold to industry or disposed of safely in a landfill, said Steve Uhl, Global Manufacturing Technology Manager at Chemours.

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Updates to the plant will also include a thermolysis reactor, which uses heat to “decompose” compounds in industrial wastewater that can later be destroyed in the thermal oxidizer.

Local sheriffs’ deputies escorted Wilmington resident Beth Kline-Markesino out of the TK church in St. Pauls last week during a meeting between officials from the Chemours management and community members. Photo credit: India Mackinson

Similar technology is in place in plants in West Virginia and the Netherlands but no other Chemours property has all the pollution controls planned for Fayetteville Works, company officials said in St. Pauls. They also stressed that they are aware that they must earn the trust of people worried about PFAS contamination.

“I’m not asking for your trust,” Long said at the community meeting. “I’m asking you to watch us.”

Chemours asked for written questions only at its meeting. Sheriff’s deputies ejected Jonathan Webb of Fayetteville and Beth Kline-Markesino of Wilmington after they repeatedly voiced criticisms of Chemours.

DEQ preferences

The proposed court order DEQ released last week could require more of the company. That includes paying for public water supply connections and water bills for households that have wells with GenX levels above the health goal. Households may elect to receive a water filtration system from Chemours as well.

Among other steps, DEQ also wants Chemours to:

  • Retest private drinking wells tainted by PFAS on a quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis, depending on concentrations of chemicals detected in the wells.
  • Conduct toxicity studies on PFAS chemicals in wastewater and stormwater discharged at Fayetteville Works to assess their risks to people and aquatic life.
  • Routinely test all manufacturing waste for any PFAS compounds and report the findings regularly to DEQ.
  • Notify water utilities downstream when any company on the site might discharge GenX compounds into the Cape Fear at concentrations above the provisional health goal level.

Chemours is already at work on the filtration systems. It has installed granular-activated carbon system on wells at six residences that DEQ identified near Fayetteville Works. The filtration systems have reduced GenX and other PFAS chemicals to undetectable levels in well water, said Kevin Garon, a Chemours project director who attended last week’s meeting in Bladen County.

Chemours is reviewing DEQ’s proposed court order language, Cynthia Salitsky, a global communications leader for the company, wrote in an email after the meeting. “Chemours continues to investigate every opportunity to further accelerate and expand our emission control plans,” she said.

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Catherine Clabby

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...

2 replies on “Timing, Scope of GenX Response Not Yet Clear”

  1. Does “GenX chemical precurors” include all 37+ flouro chemicals being found in the Cape Fear river?
    …97 percent emission reduction (in air or water?) of GenX and its chemical precursors by the end of August this year.

    1. Good questions Glen. We’ll work to answer them as we continue to report. For now: DEQ defines GenX compounds as HFPO dimer acid, C3 dimer acid fluoride and C3 dimer acid ammonium Salt in the proposed court order. The regulatory agency has cited Chemours for violating state standards due to the release from Fayetteville Works of more than 15 other PFAS compounds into groundwater. DEQ says it wants a “facility-wide” reductions in emissions at the Fayetteville Works industrial site.

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