The Pulse

Chemours blew deadline to build an underground wall to keep GenX out of Cape Fear River, but gets two-month extension

By: - March 28, 2023 9:30 am

(Illustration DEQ)

Chemours missed a key deadline in building a subsurface wall at its Fayetteville Works plant that would prevent GenX and other types of toxic PFAS from entering the Cape Fear River, state documents show.

The barrier wall, more than a mile long and 60 to 80 feet deep, was supposed to be complete by March 15, according to a consent order between the company, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch.

Now the wall won’t be completed until late April or in May.

Until then, contaminated groundwater from the plant on the Bladen-Cumberland county line flows untreated directly into the Cape Fear River, the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people downstream. 

“The communities downstream from Chemours’s facility have suffered too long and the company’s delay is unacceptable,” said Geoff Gisler, attorney and program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “DEQ unfortunately agreed to forgive the delay before the public had any opportunity for involvement.”

The SELC represented Cape Fear River Watch in negotiating the 2019 consent order. Chemours has breached its terms several times, racking up $500,000 in fines related to water quality and air quality violations.

PFAS is short for per-  and polyfluoroalkyl substances, of which there are at least 10,000 types. All PFAS, including GenX, that independent scientists have studied so far have been found to be toxic to human health and the environment. They’ve been linked to thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, low birth weight and reproductive problems. Scientists have also found GenX exposure can impair liver function.

In its response to Chemours, DEQ determined that the delays are consistent with the timeline laid out in the consent order, as long as the project is completed no later than May 31. DEQ did not publicly announce its decision, which was buried in the agency’s system of hundreds of thousands of public documents.

Chemours attributed the delays to several factors, including “two significant mechanical breakdowns in trenching equipment,” according to a March 1 letter from the company to DEQ. Now that the problems have been fixed, Chemours’s contractor has added workers and adjusted its scheduling, the company wrote.

The wall, along with a groundwater extraction and treatment system, is designed to capture 99.9% of PFAS contamination. The groundwater system was installed on schedule.

The revised timetable is still allowed under the consent order and its addendum, based on several unforeseen issues, Chemours wrote, including supply chain problems related to the pandemic.

It also took longer than projected for DEQ to approve the wall design – which Chemours had to reconfigure – and to issue water discharge permits.

“Although Chemours places blame squarely on DEQ, the company’s challenge to the final permit for the treatment system contributed to that delay,” Gisler said.

DEQ issued the permit in September 2022, which required Chemours to nearly eliminate the discharge of GenX and two other compounds, PMPA and PFMOAA into the river. Chemours challenged the discharge permit in court, claiming it couldn’t guarantee the system would remove PMPA and PFMOAA at that level until the system was finished and began operating.

(Just weeks before Chemours took DEQ to court over the permit, the company announced it would expand its Fayetteville Works plant.)

DEQ and Chemours settled out of court in November 2022. The permit limits remain the same, but they don’t take effect until six months after the treatment system begins operating. During this “optimization period,” Chemours must provide DEQ monthly reports that show how well the system is working.

If Chemours can demonstrate that the limits for PMPA and PFMOAA aren’t technologically feasible, it can submit an application to DEQ to modify the permit.

A photo of Geoff Gisler, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center
Geoff Gisler, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center (Photo: SELC)

Downstream, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in Wilmington is spending millions of dollars to remove PFAS from the drinking water.
“We were disappointed to learn Chemours wasn’t able to meet the March 15 deadline to complete the barrier wall,” said utility spokesman Vaughn Hagerty. “We don’t recall hearing mention of this in any of Chemours’ TV ads about the wall, but maybe we missed something.”
Hagerty is referring to the company’s “good neighbors care” ad campaign in the Wilmington TV market. While the company fights the EPA, DEQ over health advisory goals and permit limits, its ads proclaim: “Our quality of life and environment must be protected.”
CFPUA’s new granular activated carbon filters have been effectively treating for Chemours’ PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River since October 2022, Hagerty said. Ratepayers bore the $43 million cost to build the new filters. Operating them is estimated to cost $3.7 million this fiscal year and $5 million in subsequent years, Hagerty said.
“Those operating costs depend in large part on the levels of Chemours’ PFAS we are seeing in our source water. The barrier wall is supposed to be a key component of Chemours’ obligations under the Consent Order to reduce the amount of PFAS it is sending to the river. We and our ratepayers are anxious to see Chemours meet those obligations.”

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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.