Chemours discharging other chemicals besides GenX in Cape Fear River; EPA releases data to DEQ today

By: - August 31, 2017 1:44 pm
The Sweeney water treatment plant in Wilmington (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This is a developing story; check the Progressive Pulse blog this afternoon for a separate article about today’s House debate on HB 56, which passed 61-44 and is headed to the governor. The bill contains several controversial provisions: a plastic bag ban, looser regulations on landfills, and a $435,000 appropriation to address the GenX problem — but none of it the NC Department of Environmental Quality or NC Department of Health and Human Services, as Gov. Cooper had requested.

As the House was winding down its debate on controversial legislation regarding GenX funding, federal and state environmental officials publicly released disturbing new data about other chemicals from the Chemours plant entering the Cape Fear River and downstream drinking water supplies. The findings indicate the the company, a spinoff of DuPont, has not been forthcoming about the various chemical compounds it is discharging into the river.

A preliminary analysis conducted by the EPA in Research Triangle Park showed that concentrations of two compounds — PFESAs or Nafion byproducts, for short — have not decreased since Chemours stopped discharging GenX into the river in Fayetteville. The EPA said that these compounds are byproducts of Nafion, which was developed in the late 1960s by DuPont.

After receiving the data from EPA on Monday, the NC Department of Environmental Quality on Tuesday sent a letter to Chemours urging the company to “explore any and all options to reduce or eliminate the release of these chemicals” until the state can review their toxicology and evaluate potential health effects.

In a prepared statement, DEQ said it is “looking at all legal options including going to court to get the company to stop the discharge.”

EPA analyzed water samples over six weeks from the Chemours outfall — where it discharges into the river — and treated water from the Sweeney plant in Wilmington. Levels of the Nafion byproducts ranged from 2,900 to 73,000 parts per trillion from the Chemours outfall to 53 ppt to 7,860 ppt in finished drinking water. The concentrations varied from week to week.

Little is known about the health effects of any of the five compounds—Nafion byproducts 1 and 2 or the three other perfluourinated compounds – included in this week’s analysis from the EPA, state environmental officials said.

Chemours uses Nafion to manufacture special types of membranes used in fuel cells and other energy storage.

Larry Cahoon, a UNC Wilmington scientist who has been involved in public discussions about the compound, has repeatedly stated that a “cocktail of compounds” is in the Cape Fear. As recently as last week, Cahoon warned the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission that there were unknown chemicals in the drinking water.

[Tweet “”These discharges have to be stopped. We’re not going to be safe & secure til that happens””]
DEQ Secretary Michael Regan (left) listens to UNC Wilmington scientist Larry Cahoon (right) present information to the Environmental Review Commission about the chemicals in the Cape Fear. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

“The unfortunate thing is that we’ve been led to believe the discharges had been stopped,” Cahoon said. “These discharges have to be stopped. We’re not going to be safe and secure until that happens.”

Chemours did not list GenX or any of these recently discovered compounds in its federal discharge permit. The state oversees the permitting process.

Adding to the problem is the fact that part of the Upper Pee Dee aquifer is now contaminated with these compounds. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority tested an aquifer storage and retrieval method, as way to even out water supply and demand. The test called for the utility to filled part of the underground aquifer with treated river water in 2013, ostensibly before officials knew that these compounds survived traditional water treatment.

According to a timeline provided by the utility, NC State University scientist and professor Detlef Knappe analyzed raw water samples for GenX from June to October 2013, but he said he does not remember if he provided those sampling results to the utility at the time.

Now 48 million gallons of tainted water will have to be pumped and flushed into the sewer system and then into the river downstream of all drinking water intakes. Officials will have to try to decontaminate the aquifer, possibly through pumping and flushing.

Over time, the EPA did find that levels of three other perfluoronated compounds decreased. This indicated, the EPA said, that when Chemours stopped discharging GenX into the river, it also reduced the levels of the those compounds.

Unlike the GenX analysis, there is still some uncertainty in the accuracy of the laboratory analysis for the five chemicals included in the EPA’s preliminary results, the agency said. This is because calibration standards for these chemicals are not commercially available.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.