By Greg Barnes
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said Tuesday that a corrective action plan submitted by the Chemours chemical company is inadequate in addressing decades of groundwater and soil contamination surrounding the plant.
The DEQ said in a news release that the plan, which Chemours submitted on a Dec. 31 due-by date, will require “extensive revisions.”
“The proposed plan is clearly deficient and fails to address the fundamental purposes of a corrective action plan,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in the release. “Chemours will not receive approval from this department until they address appropriate cleanup measures for the communities impacted by the contamination and meet the terms of the Consent Order.”
Chemours, which operates a plant near the border of Cumberland and Bladen counties, is under a consent order to clean up GenX and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS or forever chemicals — that continue to flow from groundwater into the Cape Fear River and to foul private wells surrounding the plant.
As part of the consent order, Chemours was required to submit a corrective action plan to clean up the contamination.
“Chemours feels strongly the Corrective Action Plan is robust and in full compliance with the environmental laws of North Carolina and the approved 2019 Consent Order,” Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall wrote in an email to NC Health News. “We are surprised and disappointed by the NCDEQ’s public statement given they have not yet provided Chemours with comment on the plan. We look forward to learning the details behind their comments.”
A DEQ map shows the level of GenX in groundwater at 61,300 parts per trillion in one of 14 monitoring wells on the 2,150-acre plant site. The state’s health advisory for GenX in drinking water is 140 parts per trillion. Other documents show GenX concentrations at Chemours measuring nearly 3 million parts per trillion.
Under the consent order, Chemours has been required to test residential wells near the plant for PFAS. As of March 9, it had found that nearly 3,000 wells had been contaminated to the extent that they qualify for filtration systems paid for and installed by the company.
Chemours, which spun off from DuPont in 2015, made GenX at its Fayetteville Works site for the manufacture of Teflon and other nonstick or rain-resistant consumer products.
In June 2017, the public learned that GenX and other PFAS had been found in high concentrations in the Cape Fear River and drinking water for an estimated 200,000 people.
Since then, the level of GenX in the river has been significantly below the state’s 140 parts per trillion health advisory.
But the potentially cancer-causing chemicals continue to make their way into the river through groundwater seepage and remain in soil surrounding the plant. The corrective action plan submitted by Chemours called for reducing PFAS loading into the Cape Fear by at least 75 percent.
Reactions from activists
Kemp Burdette, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, said the corrective action plan didn’t go nearly far enough in protecting public health. Cape Fear River Watch, along with Chemours and the DEQ, signed the consent order in February 2019, after the environmental group sued the company.
“Their proposed Corrective Action Plan was absurd and proposed leaving groundwater around the site contaminated, which not only fails to protect the thousands of people who live near the site but also would have allowed contaminated groundwater to flow into the Cape Fear River above the drinking water intakes for hundreds of thousands of people,” Burdette said in an email.
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and an estimated 5,000 types of PFAS, none of which are federally regulated. PFAS have been manufactured and used by industries worldwide since the 1940s, used in everything from Teflon pans to raincoats to dental floss. They are also used in firefighting foams.
The two most extensively produced and studied, PFOA and PFOS, have been phased out in the U.S., but they don’t break down easily and can accumulate in the environment and in the human body. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.
What are the health advisories for PFAS?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion, either by themselves or in combination. There is no advisory for the thousands of other PFAS, but the N.C. Policy Collaboratory uses the 70 parts per trillion standard to notify utilities when it detects any type of PFAS exceeding that level in drinking water.
In its news release, the DEQ said Chemours’ corrective action plan “lacks a thorough technical basis, including an adequate assessment of human exposure to PFAS compounds and a thorough evaluation of on- and off-site groundwater contamination. In addition, DEQ believes the plan does not provide for appropriate remediation of on-site groundwater or off-site contamination.”
Mike Watters, administrator of the Facebook group “Gray’s Creek residents united against PFAS in our wells and Rivers,” has been battling Chemours since he discovered that his private wells near the plant had been contaminated.
Watters believes the DEQ has failed to hold Chemours responsible for violating the state’s groundwater standards.
“This Corrective Action Plan is not consistent with all environmental laws nor with the State’s own Groundwater Quality Standards,” Watters said in an email. “I am happy to agree with Secretary Regan’s action as it does rebuild a little faith that NC DEQ is looking at it from our perspective.”
Emily Donovan, co-founder of the activist group Clean Cape Fear, had similar thoughts. Her group largely serves people in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties.
“This is good news and we are grateful Secretary Regan heard our concerns,” Donovan wrote. “DuPont and Chemours caused unspeakable harm to our communities and must be held accountable for their decades of irresponsible manufacturing practices.”
The DEQ announced its rejection of Chemours’ plan a day after it closed a public comment period that included more than 1,240 statements.
“The vast majority of the commenters believe the proposed plan from Chemours is not sufficient to address community concerns, the requirements of state law and the Consent Order,” the DEQ said in its statement.