By Greg Barnes
By the end of September, a treatment system the Chemours chemical company had just installed was supposed to stop 99 percent of residual contamination of “forever chemicals” from escaping an old outfall and flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Only the system did not work properly and toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS continued to flow into the river at levels exceeding the threshold.
On Tuesday, state regulators slapped Chemours with yet another notice of violation, this time for failing to abide by a 2019 consent order requiring the treatment system to be fully operational and removing 99 percent of residual PFAS by Sept. 30.
A notice of violation is a serious enforcement action that comes with civil penalties and requires a company to take immediate steps to resolve the problems. This is the third notice of violation the DEQ has issued Chemours for its treatment system, and one of many since the public became aware of the contamination from the plant.
The state Department of Environmental Quality, which issued the notice of violation, said it found several instances of noncompliance with the consent order — including design and operational problems — in September, October and November.
The DEQ said the violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s pollution permit for Chemours include “exceeding an effluent limit, failure to meet flow requirements, improper operation and maintenance and failure to mitigate during storm events.”
System now working properly
The notice of violation says the DEQ’s Division of Water Resources staff conducted site visits on Sept. 30, Nov. 6, Nov. 17 and Dec. 18. The notice says Chemours told the DEQ about some of the problems it was having.
“DWR’s review has confirmed problems with Chemours’ design of the treatment system, operation of the treatment system, failures to mitigate problems associated with the entrained sediment, and violation of an effluent limit in the Permit,” the notice says.
In a news release, the DEQ said that as of Dec. 18, inspections and data confirmed that the treatment system at what is commonly referred to as Old Outfall 002 is online and working as intended.
The treatment system pumps water from the outfall and sends it through tanks to settle the sediment. The water is then sent through ultrafiltration units to remove fine particles and then a series of three granulated activated carbon filters to remove the PFAS. After treatment, the water is discharged back into the outfall, where it flows into the river.
The outfall had been used for decades by DuPont — and by Chemours after it spun off from DuPont in 2015 — to discharge processed wastewater into the Cape Fear River.
The DEQ ordered Chemours to stop discharging its wastewater in 2017 after the public became aware that high levels of GenX and other PFAS from the plant were contaminating the drinking water for an estimated 250,000 people downstream. Blood studies of Wilmington residents found that some types of potentially cancer-causing PFAS were far higher in residents who participated in the study than the national average.
In 2019, Chemours entered into a consent order with the DEQ and the advocacy organization Cape Fear River Watch. Among many other things, the consent order set the parameters for the chemical company to stop residual PFAS from reaching the river. The contamination continues to leach from groundwater, sediment and runoff into streams near the plant and into Old Outfall 002. The treatment system Chemours just finished installing is supposed to stop that.
In a statement, Chemours said it is reviewing the notice of violation and will respond accordingly to the DEQ’s request for information. The company blamed the PFAS that continued to get into the outfall on “unordinary stresses, including excessive solids” caused by above-average rainfall. The statement went on to praise the company for its environmental stewardship, saying “we are not aware of any other company in our industry or other industries who has taken the steps we have taken.”
Other Chemours violations
In June, the DEQ cited Chemours for hauling tree stumps and other debris from the treatment system site to an unlined landfill that was not authorized to accept materials that contained PFAS. The notice of violation came after Mike Watters, an administrator of a Facebook environmental group, saw truck after truck hauling the debris to the landfill and complained to the DEQ.
In early January, the DEQ issued Chemours another notice of violation, this time saying the company had violated the N.C. Sedimentation Pollution Control Act and the EPA’s stormwater discharge permit. The notice of violation says inspectors found land disturbance outside the limits of an erosion control plan for the treatment system.
The DEQ said in its news release that it will evaluate the responses and additional information provided by Chemours in determining the civil penalties for all of the violations, as well as assess penalties stipulated under the consent order.
“DEQ is committed to holding Chemours accountable, and ensuring they meet the requirements of the Consent Order and their permit conditions at all times,” DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan said in the release. “DEQ will continue to take all appropriate actions, from increased oversight to enforcement, to ensure the company meets its obligations to prevent PFAS from entering the Cape Fear River.”
President Joe Biden has nominated Regan to head the EPA.
Beth Markesino, administrator for a Facebook group called “North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water,” said the state should hand Chemours notices of violation for each infraction of the EPA’s pollution permit.
“Our communities are tired of Chemours getting away with violating the law and polluting our river,” Markesino said in an email. “We depend on DEQ to do what is right and protect us.”
The EPA now estimates that there are 9,252 different types of PFAS. Among other things, the synthetic chemicals are used to produce non-stick and water- and grease-resistant products, including food packaging, rain gear, Teflon pans, stain-proof carpets and even dental floss.
Large consumption of PFAS over time may cause kidney, liver, thyroid, testicular and pancreatic cancer, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and immune suppression. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily and accumulate in the human body.