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By Greg Barnes

North Carolina environmental regulators have penalized Chemours nearly $200,000 for failing to meet terms of a consent order and violations related to the construction and installation of required measures to treat residual “forever chemicals” at the company’s Fayetteville Works plant.

Those treatment measures became operational in September at what is referred to as Old Outfall 002 — a drainage canal at the Bladen County chemical plant where per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS once flowed freely into the Cape Fear River.

In 2017, the Department of Environmental Quality ordered Chemours to stop discharging its wastewater into the river, but residual PFAS have continued to escape from the outfall and groundwater seeps on the company’s property.

The treatment measures are designed to stop 99 percent of the residual PFAS from flowing into the Cape Fear River, where New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties draw their drinking water. Additional corrective action is scheduled to stop other groundwater seeps.

The measures, which the DEQ says are now working as intended, are required as part of a consent order Chemours entered into with the DEQ and the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch in February 2019.

Chemours noncompliance

The DEQ said in January that it found several instances of Chemours’ noncompliance with the consent order — including design and operational problems with the treatment measures — in September, October and November.

The DEQ said Chemours also violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s pollution permit for the company by “exceeding an effluent limit, failure to meet flow requirements, improper operation and maintenance and failure to mitigate during storm events.”

“DEQ is committed to protecting communities and their water quality and ensuring that Chemours meets all its requirements and obligations, including those under the Consent Order to prevent PFAS from entering the Cape Fear River,” new DEQ Secretary Dionne Delli-Gatti said in the news release. “We will take all appropriate enforcement actions, whenever they fall short of those obligations.”

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said Cape Fear River Watch supports holding Chemours accountable for violating terms of the consent order.

“This clean up must happen on time and it must be done right,” Burdette said. “Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are counting on that, and we will continue to demand it.”

Chemours responds

Chemours released its own statement on Wednesday afternoon, saying it is reviewing the information it received from the DEQ.

“Chemours takes seriously our obligation to be a responsible manufacturer. We have reduced our overall site PFAS emissions by 97%, and we’re continuing to work hard to meet our remaining commitments,” the company said in the statement. “Throughout this entire process, we have not backed away from our responsibilities and continue to make progress with our site remediation plan, including working through operational challenges with one of the new treatment systems we installed to reduce legacy PFAS discharges to the Cape Fear River.”

According to the DEQ’s release, the department has notified Chemours of the following penalties:

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of more than 9,000 different substances used in firefighting foam and a vast array of everyday household products, including nonstick pans, raincoats, food packaging and dental floss.

Although the health effects of PFAS are still not widely known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they are believed to impact the immune system and may reduce antibody responses to vaccines, including those for COVID-19.

Studies on laboratory animals have found a link between PFAS and liver, kidney, testicular, pancreas and thyroid cancer. Studies also suggest that PFAS can cause 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.

DuPont began producing a type of PFAS called PFOA at its Bladen County plant around 2003. It switched at the EPA’s prompting to what was thought to be a more environmentally friendly chemical cousin called GenX in 2009. Debate continues on whether GenX and other newer PFAS are any safer than the older substances with longer chemical chains.

In 2016, a research team headed by N.C. State University scientist Detlef Knappe found high levels of GenX in the Cape Fear River and in Wilmington’s drinking water.

In 2017, the Wilmington Star-News reported on the issue, and the DEQ forced Chemours to stop discharging its wastewater into the river.

Chemours has been cited for other violations and penalties in the past. For a list of violations and other documents, visit https://deq.nc.gov/ChemoursConsentOrder.

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