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By Greg Barnes

The chemical giant Chemours announced Tuesday that it is taking steps to further reduce GenX and other polyfluorinated compounds from reaching the Cape Fear River and drinking water downstream of its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County.

Chemours said in a news release that it has submitted reports and other information to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that include initial data and proposals to further reduce the contaminants  — known collectively as PFAS — from the river and around the plant site.

The Chemours plant in southern Cumberland County is surrounded by farms and woodland. Scientists are testing animals living and crops growing nearby for evidence of contamination by GenX and other related industrial chemicals. Image courtesy: Google maps

“The reports and information are the first piece of an emerging data set needed to determine the best approach to long-term mitigation of PFAS loading, including from groundwater, thus improving the water quality in the river,’’ Chemours said in a statement.

The next steps are required under a revised consent order approved in February by Chemours, the DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch. Among many other things, the order penalized Chemours $12 million and requires it to provide downstream public utilities with an accelerated plan to reduce PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear.

In its news release, Chemours said it has already achieved a reduction of GenX in river water by 95 percent and in air emissions by 92 percent since the contamination was discovered. The company said work to install a thermal oxidizer will be complete by the end of the year. That equipment, according to Chemours, will reduce air emissions of GenX by 99 percent.

Second phase of remediation

Chemours has been under fire in North Carolina since June 2017, when a Wilmington newspaper exposed that the company had been discharging GenX — a key ingredient in making Teflon and other non-stick and water-resistant products — into the river for decades.

Other types of PFAS were also detected in the river in much higher concentrations than GenX, which is a potential carcinogen. Little is known about the environmental and health effects of an estimated 4,700 other types of PFAS.

Hundreds of people are suing the company over the pollution.

The state has ordered Chemours to stop any discharge of waste into the river. Much of it now goes to Texas for deep-well injection, but sediment, soil and groundwater at and near the plant remains contaminated with PFAS. A study released in June by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found vegetables grown near the plant also contained high levels of PFAS.

In what the company calls its second phase of PFAS remediation, Chemours said it has submitted to DEQ seven recommended actions to be taken — four that will be completed within two years and three that will take up to five years to finish.

Although the company didn’t specify which actions would be done first, the list includes:

  • Capturing and treating water at what is known as Old Outfall 002, an older drainage channel at the plant that had once been a primary source of contaminants reaching the Cape Fear.
  • Capturing and treating groundwater that is migrating through porous areas of the subterrain and seeping to the surface in four identified places.
  • Removing sediment containing PFAS from ditch systems that flowed into Old Outfall 002.
  • Developing a stormwater pollution protection plan to reduce runoff and soil erosion.
  • Developing a targeted stormwater action plan, that includes cleaning, repairing or replacing surfaces on-site that could contain PFAS.

Chemours praises its work

Brian Long, plant manager for Chemours’ Fayetteville Works site, praised the company’s handling of the contamination. Chemours was spun off from DuPont in 2015.

“In just 24 months we have been able to capture all process water, achieve these dramatic reductions in emissions and provide clean drinking water to several hundred homes throughout the area,” Long said in the statement. “I don’t know of any other company that has accomplished so much so quickly.  Frankly, I can’t even think of another company that has tried.”

In the statement, Long said that once current PFAS emissions are addressed, experts will start to assess and “understand fully how historic air deposition and other sources have impacted groundwater.”

“You need to address the source first through emission control,” Long said. “Active emissions are the things that contribute the greatest mass. Once that’s addressed you can really start to delve into the historic issues, which still impact the river, but are a smaller contributor.”

Officials with the DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch were not immediately available for comment.

Emily Donovan, leader of the advocacy group Clean Cape Fear based in Wilmington, disagrees with Long’s portrayal of Chemours’ cleanup efforts.

“It’s our understanding Mr. Long was legally forced to take these actions,” Donovan said in an email. “We’re baffled he wants to take a victory lap for following a court order. It’s insensitive to the quarter of a million people his facility treated as human guinea pigs by poisoning our land, air, water, and food supply with decades of PFAS pollution.

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

“Chemours claims a 200-year history of expertise in chemical manufacturing. Does Mr. Long seriously expect us to believe in that 200-year history not a single scientist or engineer figured out a way to make these dangerous chemicals in a responsible and safe way?”

River still contaminated

Contamination in the Cape Fear River remains a major concern to people who get their drinking water downstream of Chemours.

In June, low water flow in the river was blamed for a PFAS spike at the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority in Wilmington. The concentration of PFAS in raw water there that month measured 262 parts per trillion, more than double the typical levels. Finished drinking water measured 119 parts per trillion.

The utility plans to upgrade its Sweeney water treatment plant, adding granular activated carbon filters at an estimated cost of $46 million. The filtration system is expected to be fully operational by 2022. Officials say it will remove up to 90 percent of PFAS contamination.

North Carolina has set a health advisory guideline for GenX at 140 parts per trillion in drinking water. The federal government has set health guidelines for two legacy types of PFAS — known as PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion, either by themselves or in combination.

There are no guidelines for the estimated 4,700 other types of PFAS. Typically, officials test for fewer than two dozen types of the contaminants.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com