Chemours kept chemical spill a secret, faces possible fine from DEQ
Last Wednesday, Nov. 8, Michael Scott, director of the NC DEQ’s Division of Waste Management, delivered some troubling news about GenX contamination in additional private drinking water wells near the Chemours plant. “We have not found the edge of the contamination,” Scott told the Environmental Management Commission.
But even worse news, which Chemours had not disclosed for more than a month, would be announced later the next day. An unreported spill of a chemical precursor to GenX has now prompted state environmental officials to issue a Notice of Violation to Chemours. Depending on the results of DEQ’s investigation, the agency could also fine the company for violating its wastewater discharge permit.
“It is both unlawful and unacceptable for a company to fail to report a chemical spill to the state and public as soon as possible,” said Michael Regan, Secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, in a prepared statement issued this morning. “We will take all appropriate enforcement action to hold Chemours accountable for failing to comply with its permit.”
By state law, Chemours must be provided an opportunity to respond to a notice of violation before a civil penalty can be assessed. DEQ said it will review the company’s response and any additional information the company submits before determining further enforcement.
Chemours did not return calls seeking comment.
Whether a fine will deter Chemours is yet to be seen. A timeline of events over the past month shows that Chemours has flouted several conditions that the DEQ and a Bladen County judge placed on the it in order for it to keep its wastewater discharge permit.
The most recent Chemours spill occurred Oct. 6, during planned maintenance at the Fayetteville Works plant. But the company withheld vital information about the spill, acknowledging that it occurred only after the agency questioned the company after receiving alarming wastewater sampling results from the EPA.
The Chemours permit requires that DEQ be notified within 24 hours of any discharge of significant amounts of waste that are abnormal in quantity or characteristic, as well as any non-compliance that potentially threatens public health or the environment.
According to DEQ, concentrations of GenX at the Chemours outfall — the area where discharge leaves the plant — were only 69 parts per trillion on Oct. 5. The next day, they increased to 250 ppt, and at their peak, on Oct. 9, to 3,700 ppt. With a week, the levels had dropped to 380 ppt.
The wastewater is not used for drinking. However, no GenX or similar compounds are supposed to leave the plant, under a partial consent decree between DEQ and the company. Instead contaminated wastewater must be contained and then trucked offsite for incineration.
The spill and its secrecy violate a partial consent order issued by a Bladen County judge on Sept. 8. The order, which DEQ agreed to, allowed Chemours to avoid enforcement action if it complied with several conditions. Under the deal that was struck, DEQ would not revoke the company’s wastewater discharge permit as long as Chemours stopped allowing GenX and other perfluorinated compounds to flow from the plant.
A month later, the spill occurred. Yet Chemours apparently said nothing to DEQ on Oct. 24, two weeks after the spill. That’s when DEQ notified Chemours that it would not suspend the wastewater discharge permit because the company had been cooperative in its compliance. The agency did say it would “take appropriate steps” if the company failed to meet state demands.
The company said nothing to DEQ in advance of the Science Advisory Board meeting on Oct. 23, where GenX was a topic of discussion. Or the House Select Committee on River Quality meeting on Oct. 26, where GenX was the focus of the agenda. Or the Environmental Management Commission committees on Nov. 8, or the full EMC on Nov. 9, where DEQ officials gave updates on GenX that has now been detected drinking water wells, surface water, groundwater and air.
At least 50 drinking water wells are contaminated with levels of GenX above the provisional health goal of 140 ppt.
Gray’s Creek Elementary School, which is three miles from the Chemours plant, also had levels in its drinking water well, at just over 5 parts per trillion, well below the health goal of 140 ppt. Nonetheless, the school is receiving bottled water from Chemours.
Two lakes — Marsh Wood and Camp Dixie — and the drinking water well at the Hall Park ballfield also contain GenX below the health goal. The ballfield well is used for irrigation, not drinking.
DEQ has since expanded its sampling radius to one and half miles from the Chemours property boundary; it is also arranging “stack tests” — to monitor air emissions from the plant using specialized equipment. The exact mechanism of how GenX is moving from air to groundwater is still unknown. However, DEQ officials believe that GenX is entering the air, and then through atmospheric deposition, entering groundwater through the soil.[table id=8 /]
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.