By Vaughn Hagerty
A year after GenX-tainted wells triggered the first punitive measure against Chemours regarding its fluorochemical plant near Fayetteville, groundwater contamination and the air emissions believed responsible for it remain a focus of state regulators.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality expects to take major steps in October toward addressing both issues, spelled out in a draft of a revised air-quality permit governing Chemours’ operations incorporating new provisions restricting emissions to 1 percent or less of those in 2016.
At the same time, separate, ongoing investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office also are targeting the chemical company.
A history of tainted groundwater
DEQ’s scrutiny of Chemours began in June 2017, several months after regulators learned GenX and a host of similar compounds turned up in the Cape Fear River and public water systems downstream serving hundreds of thousands of people.
Chemours makes GenX, a key ingredient in Teflon, at its Fayetteville Works plant on the Bladen-Cumberland county line. However, company officials said the GenX in the river was a byproduct of a separate manufacturing line, which had been discharging wastewater to the river since about 1980.
As DEQ scrambled to define the scope of the river contamination and stem those discharges, it also turned to other potential threats.
For years, chemicals similar to GenX have been found in groundwater beneath the 2,150-acre manufacturing site. For example, C8 — the substance GenX replaced and which has been linked to cancer and other serious health problems — showed up in monitoring wells in 2003, just months after its production began.
Within days of beginning the investigation into GenX, DEQ staff already had begun considering what was happening not just in the river but beneath the plant.
Such violations may carry fines as high as $25,000. DEQ has not publicly announced a resolution and did not answer recent questions about its status.
Beginning to clear the air
DEQ has tied that groundwater contamination in large part to Chemours’ air emissions, which also have been blamed for tainting hundreds of private wells, some of them miles from the plant.
Of 823 wells tested, DEQ reported, GenX turned up in 603, including 164 at levels above the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion. Several other fluorochemicals also have been found in many of the wells.
“In April, we had notified Chemours of our intent to reopen and modify their air-quality permit,” said Michael Abraczinskas, director of DEQ’s Division of Air Quality.
“In that letter, we required that they respond with a specific plan about how they were going to reduce the air emissions that were causing and contributing to groundwater issues off-site.
“When they responded on April 27, they for the first time publicly included a plan to install this thermal oxidizer at the facility that will significantly reduce the emissions profile at Chemours.”[sponsor]
The keystone of a planned $100 million pollution-reduction project, the thermal oxidizer uses tremendous heat to break apart the fluorochemicals. The company said construction should begin in October, with the full system online by the end of 2019.
Once in place, the thermal oxidizer and other components are “going to address the total emissions profile and reduce it by a significant percentage: 99 percent relative to a 2016 baseline and then 99.99 percent total reduction for volatile organic compounds and total PFAS emissions,” Abraczinskas said.
Volatile organic compounds are substances that easily become vapors or gases. Rubbing alcohol would be a common example. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the class of chemicals to which GenX belongs.
Abraczinskas said under the current schedule, a draft of the air-quality permit should be ready for public review by mid-October. The state plans to hold two public hearings on it, one near the plant and the other in Wilmington, though no dates have been set.
“That’ll put us on track to potentially take a final action of some sort on that permit application around the end of November or somewhere in that time frame,” Abraczinskas said.
In the meantime, Chemours has taken interim steps to whittle down its air pollution, including adding two carbon adsorption beds to scrub fluorochemicals from emissions.
“Those were installed and operational in late May,” Abraczinskas said.
“We’re already realizing an emissions reduction from a portion of the emissions of the facility, which is good news. Some of those initial tests have come back from the control technology that was put in place, and they’re very promising. They’re showing slightly greater removal efficiency than what was initially estimated prior to the testing that was done.”
DEQ also has left the door open for further interim pollution-reduction measures. The agency continues to consider options outlined in a potential court order the agency shared in June, along with more than 100 comments on it submitted by the public.
Some site preparation has begun for the thermal oxidizer, Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall said.
Randall said the plant, which shut down about a day ahead of Hurricane Florence’s arrival, weathered the storm with no damage. Full operations resumed Sept. 21.
On Sept. 18, she said, “a gallon or less” of rainwater from the site leaked from an improperly closed seal on a tanker truck, which was transporting it for off-site disposal.
Randall said Chemours asked the company receiving the water to “collect a sample from this tanker truck. Both Chemours and NCDEQ will test the sample.”
Other probes continue, expand
As DEQ’s work proceeds, other state and federal agencies are looking into the operations of Chemours and DuPont, which owned the Fayetteville Works until 2015, when it created Chemours as a separate company. Here are updates of three of the most prominent of those:
U.S. Justice Department: DEQ announced in July 2017 it had been served by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina with a grand jury subpoena demanding several years’ worth of documents related to its work at the plant, from permits and inspection reports to staff notes and emails.
Asked last month about the status of its investigation, Eastern District spokeswoman Leslie S. Hiatt said, “Our office has no comment.”
Chemours and DuPont, however, have provided regular updates about its progress and expansion, detailed in financial reports to shareholders.
In its filing for the second quarter of 2018, Chemours wrote that it “is cooperating with a variety of ongoing inquiries and investigations from federal, state and local authorities, regulators and other governmental entities, including responding to federal grand jury subpoenas issued in connection with an ongoing investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.”
The Environment and Natural Resources Division “handles environmental and natural resources litigation on behalf of the United States,” according to information on its website.
“Nearly one-half of the division’s lawyers bring cases against those who violate the nation’s civil and criminal pollution-control laws.”
DuPont, now a part of DowDuPont, also updated shareholders in its second-quarter report.
“DuPont has been served with additional subpoenas relating to the same issue and, in the second quarter of 2018, received a subpoena expanding the scope to any PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) discharged from the Fayetteville Works facility into the Cape Fear River,” the company wrote.
“It is possible that these ongoing inquiries and investigations, including the grand jury subpoena, could result in penalties or sanctions, or that additional litigation will be instituted against Chemours and/or DuPont.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: On June 20, 2017, the same day Chemours first pledged to stop discharging wastewater containing GenX into the Cape Fear River, EPA announced it was looking into the company’s compliance with a consent order governing aspects of GenX manufacture.
Signed in 2009, the consent order laid out EPA’s concerns that GenX “will persist in the environment, could bioaccumulate and be toxic (“PBT”) to people, wild mammals and birds.” PBT refers to substances that persist in the environment, accumulate in the bodies of animals and are toxic.
To make GenX commercially under the consent order, DuPont and Chemours agreed to ensure that no more than 1 percent of any GenX resulting from its manufacture escaped into the environment.
The consent order, however, includes an exception to that and other restrictions for any GenX that is an unintended byproduct of unrelated production.
As it turned out, the company’s vinyl ether production line, rather than its GenX manufacture, was the chief source of GenX found by researchers in the Cape Fear and downstream public water systems, Chemours officials have said. That process created GenX as a byproduct, which was discharged into the river.
“The investigation into Chemours’ compliance with the provisions of the 2009 consent order is ongoing,” an EPA spokeswoman said last week. “EPA does not comment on ongoing investigations.”
N.C. Attorney General’s Office: State Attorney General Josh Stein said in July 2017 his office was looking into Chemours’ marketing of GenX.
“My office issued an investigative demand on Chemours about its chemical product GenX,” Stein wrote on his Facebook page.
“When something is marketed as sustainable, people think it’s safe. That’s never more important than when it is in their drinking water or the lining of the pots and pans they use to cook for their families. We need to know more about how Chemours markets GenX, its risks and its environmental sustainability — that’s what this action demands.”
Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for Stein, said last month that after initially focusing on marketing-related matters, the investigation’s scope has turned to other aspects, such as “studies, research and analysis related to safety, sustainability, health risks, environmental risks, among others.”
“Currently,” Brewer said, “we have received thousands of documents in response to most of our requests, which are in the form of emails, marketing documents, brochures, safety data sheets, correspondence and research studies.
“That investigation is still ongoing. We will have more to share as it moves forward.”