When the streams run orange: VinFast site pouring dirt into waterways without penalty
Even though turbidity in waterways is 1,600% above legal limit, DEQ has yet to enforce Clean Water Act
This photo shows the VinFast catchment basin in the upper left, which captures runoff from the development site near Moncure. The runoff is entering a nearby creek, which is not permitted. (Photo: Emily Sutton/Southwings)
While VinFast, the Vietnamese electric vehicle company, officially broke ground on their manufacturing plant in Chatham County last Friday, for the past seven months the company has been moving mounds of dirt around — dirt that has entered and damaged two streams and at least one wetland, but without penalty by state regulators.
Sedimentation in waterways is a serious problem. There are rules governing how much dirt can leave a development site and enter waterways, because bacteria can hitchhike on the sediment particles, entering the drinking water supply. The excess sediment can make it more difficult for utilities to treat and filter drinking water. And when too much dirt enters a waterway it can kill aquatic life, and ruin or impair its habitat.
The affected streams near the VinFast site flow into the Haw River, a tributary of Jordan Lake, and onto the Cape Fear River — all of them drinking water supplies.
Turbidity measures the cloudiness of water. The unit of measurement is “nephelometric turbidity units,” or NTUs. For most rivers and streams that feed drinking water supplies, the maximum level is 50 NTUs. High turbidity means a lot of dirt, also known as sediment, has entered the waterway. Imagine a glass of clear water. Now imagine the same glass with a lot of dirt floating in it. That’s the difference.
Emails between Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton and state officials, including Richard Rogers, Division of Water Resources director, and Toby Vinson, Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources operations chief, show the Department of Environmental Quality has known about the problem since January. However, because of puzzling legal interpretations, DWR and DEMLR say they don’t have the power to enforce the law.
The 1,300-acre VinFast project requires state and federal water quality permits, although neither has been issued while the applications are under review. DEQ officials have maintained that this stage of the project does not require water quality permits because the work would not affect waterways or sensitive areas. And if VinFast is violating the Clean Water Act by pouring sediment into the waterways, the state says that is not a permit violation of the turbidity standard– because there is no permit.
As for DEMLR, it can enforce state law on sediment impairing streams — but not for turbidity, wrote Josh Kastrinsky, division spokesman, in an email. That means if state inspectors see dirt leaving a job site and entering a waterway, they can cite the company. But once that dirt enters the stream, river or creek, DEMLR does not measure turbidity; that’s DWR’s jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, the streams are turning orange and thick with clay.
“This project has been rushed through without proper permits in the name of economic growth,” Sutton told NC Newsline via email. “VinFast touts itself as a ‘green’ company, manufacturing electric vehicle batteries, yet they have not met even the bare minimum requirements to minimize the destruction of the local environment.”
Chatham County has its own sedimentation requirements, but the state has claimed jurisdiction over the VinFast project.
- In March, NC Newsline and Sutton flew over the site, where orange clay was obviously flowing from a catchment basin into the creek. Sutton shared those photos with DEQ officials; NC Newsline reported on the incident.
On March 23, field technicians with the Haw River Assembly tested the streams for turbidity. A portion of Shaddox Creek that lies a half mile from the Haw River showed levels of 132 NTU. This figure is nearly 270% higher than the legal maximum of 50 NTU.
A tributary flowing from a VinFast parcel into Gulf Creek read 364 NTU and 383 NTU on these same dates, according to the Haw River Assembly. That’s more than 700% than legally allowed.
- On May 31, DEMLR, which is in charge of enforcing the state’s sedimentation rules, inspected the VinFast property for five hours. Emails show that 230 acres had been cleared and were being “actively graded.” Julie Coco, a state sedimentation program engineer, wrote that the basins were catching the sediment as intended, and “had not and are not failing.” These basins are designed to contain water during heavy rain and slowly release it over time. However, less than two-tenths of an inch of rain had fallen in the week leading up to the inspection, so the basins should not have been overwhelmed.
Coco acknowledged the “discoloration was obvious,” and that “despite the redundancy in sediment control measures, discharges from the basins were turbid.”
Contractors at the site agreed to try new ways to control the sediment, Coco wrote.
That same month, the Haw River Assembly again sampled Shaddox Creek. Turbidity levels were at least 800 NTU, 1,600% above levels set by state law.
- In late July, Sutton again flew over the property and photographed the dirt entering the stream. The vast pine forest was transected by an orange vein of clay in the stream.
“I’m following up once again on incredible sedimentation loss and resulting turbidity levels from the VinFast site. I’m completely dismayed that this project has been allowed to continue without permits for this long while continuing to destroy these streams and the neighboring properties for landowners surrounding it,” Sutton wrote. “Massive amounts of acreage has been completely leveled and graded.”
Kastrinsky told NC Newsline via email that the most recent inspection “revealed some site water bypassing a settling basin and some measures not installed to the specifications in the permittee’s erosion and sediment control plan. DEMLR has identified required actions be taken to address these deficiencies.”
No penalties have been assessed; another inspection is scheduled for this week.
1,300 acres — size of VinFast factory site
17 — number of streams within the site, totaling six linear miles
36 — wetland areas within the site, totaling 99 acres
7 — of those wetland areas rated as “high” quality
23 — of those wetland areas rated as “medium” quality
288 — linear feet of permanent streams that would be filled in to develop the factory site itself
6 — miles of new and upgraded roads to be built by NC DOT to serve the site
Half mile — length of stream channel filled in by those roads
23 — acres of wetlands, about the size of five Walmart Supercenters, within hardwood forests that would be destroyed by the road projects, plus one acre of pond
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