The Pulse

Chemours responds to DEQ with promises of new technology sandwiched with a veiled threat to leave North Carolina

By: - May 9, 2018 2:41 pm
Map of contamination route from Chemours Outfalls to groundwater and the Cape Fear River (Illustration courtesy Southern Environmental Law Center)

This is the second of a two-part story about Chemours. Read an earlier piece, posted this morning, about a 2013 accident that injured 11 workers.

Chemours had nearly three weeks to answer to demands from state environmental officials. But not until April 27, mere minutes from the deadline, did the company send its 30-page response and more than 950 pages of attachments, thwarting significant sanctions that could have hampered the Fayetteville plant’s operations.

Chemours’s response and supporting doucments were made public this week by state environmental regulators who cautioned that the company’s filing is still under review.

In its response, Chemours said it plans to install regenerative thermal oxidizer in late 2019 or early 2020 that would reduce GenX emissions in the air by 99 percent. The cost of installing the technology is approximately $100 million, which, Chemours wrote, “is to demonstrate its commitment to operate the facility in North Carolina and to resolve community concerns.”

However, $100 million is a comparatively small amount for a company that reported $1.7 billion in net sales in just the first quarter of this year. Its fluoroproducts unit alone — which includes GenX-containing materials — is responsible for more than $725 million of those sales.

The subtext of this statement is that Chemours could withdraw from North Carolina if it feels regulations become too onerous. If Chemours left the state, it would cost Bladen County about a million dollars in tax revenue, plus jobs: 400 to 450 people from there and surrounding counties work at the Fayetteville Works plant.

[bctt tweet=”Materials produced at Fayetteville Works, including GenX, are critical to state, national economy” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

“The materials produced at Fayetteville Works, including GenX, are critical to the state’s and nation’s economy,” the response read. “Fluoropolymers are also key components of consumer electronics, semi-conductors, and life-saving medical equipment.”

If Chemours were to shut down it production, the company said, several industries, including the automobile, aerospace and the military, would be forced to buy products “from China or other foreign nations.”

There is a contingent of economic development leaders and employees who want to keep Chemours in Bladen County. However, a growing number of people in the company’s pollutant path are exasperated with both the company’s actions and state environmental regulators’ lack of meaningful action.

DAQ issued a 60-day notice of intent to modify the Chemours air quality permit, one of many citations it has sent to the company. (The department has yet to levy a fine.)  In the notice, DAQ required Chemours to show it was complying with all lawful requirements of the current terms of its permit. The notice also required that Chemours respond in writing by April 27 and demonstrate to the “division’s satisfaction: that emissions of GenX compounds from the Fayetteville Works plant  do not and will not cause or contribute to violations of the groundwater rules — under any circumstances.

Had the company failed to meet the deadline, DAQ could have revised its permit to prohibit the release of any fluorinated compounds. Since Chemours relies on these chemicals in its manufacturing, the permit would have forced the company to shut down most of its operations, at least temporarily.

The company countered that it believes DAQ does not have the power to modify the permit; to try to do so, Chemours said, it “improper and arbitrary.” For one, there is no “public health emergency,” Chemours wrote. Nor did the permit in 2016 limit or mention GenX. Moreover, Chemours claimed that a “zero-emission standard” tied to a groundwater standard of 10 parts per trillion is impossible to achieve. DAQ has not required such a rigorous standard for any other company or chemical, Chemours said. However, no other company in North Carolina is known to emit GenX.

At this point, though, resolving community concerns will be nearly impossible. As documented in a notice of intent sue filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center this week, the scope of the pollution is vast. All three layers of groundwater are contaminated with GenX, and are connected hydrologically to the Cape Fear River. In addition, the “Nafion Ditch,” an unlined channel collects as much as 8 million gallons a day of contaminated wastewater, which then infiltrates groundwater beneath the plant and flows into the river. Two large unlined sedimentation basins that are pumped with contaminated fluid that also infiltrates the groundwater and in turn, the river. An an old unlined discharge point, “Old Outfall 002,”  has eroded and now reaches deep groundwater aquifers.

Chemours said it was “surprised” to receive the notice because it reportedly had kept DAQ abreast of its plans. However, Chemours failed to mention that it failed to notify DEQ of several spikes in GenX wastewater levels near the plant. And for a year, it had hidden the true amount of GenX-related compounds it was releasing into the air. (Chemours did acknowledge that it underestimated the emissions, but even at 1 ton, represent a “tiny fraction” of the allowable amount.)

Another GenX spike reported

The Fayetteville Works plant reported yet another spike in GenX wastewater in early to mid-April. From April 5–7, the facility received about 1.5 inches of rain. Water leaving the facility and its grounds from Outfall No. 2 (it no longer goes into the Cape Fear but is contained onsite) on April 5, 9 and 12 contained concentrations of GenX of 91 parts per trillion, 1,300 ppt and 120 ppt, respectively. A sample taken onsite April 15 detected GenX at 1,981 ppt. Chemours Program Manager Christel Compton told DEQ in an email that the spike could be attributed to some clean-up work that stirred up contaminated sediment in a cooling channel.

SELC files intent to sue Chemours

Although unrelated, the release of Chemours documents coincided with a 60-day notice of intent to sue filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The notice, filed on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, alleges that Chemours has violated the Clean Water Act by discharging GenX and other fluorinated compounds into the Cape Fear. The company is also releasing nearly 100,000 pounds of fluorinated compounds from its stack emissions, which are contaminating the groundwater, soil and drinking water wells

[bctt tweet=”The company has the financial resources to keep this from happening. It’s easier to continue polluting.” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

The notice also alleges Chemours has violated the Toxic Substances Control Act. The company had agreed to a consent order with the EPA to limit and in some cases, eliminate, the release of GenX compounds. The extensive air emissions, the SELC alleges, breach the terms of the order. The violations “are causing imminent danger to human health and safety.”

Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the SELC, said the complaints are similar to those lodged by state environmental officials. DEQ has asked a Bladen County judge to force Chemours to stop all discharges of fluorinated compounds into the environment. Gisler said DEQ doesn’t have to wait for the court to act. “We’re asking DEQ to do what the court can do. They can do it quickly, and under the authority they already have.”

SELC’s litigation would be an addition to two other lawsuits, one filed by a private firm, BerlinRosen, and another by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Those suits, though, Gisler said, seek monetary damages. “We want to force Chemours to stop discharging, “Gisler said. “The company has the financial resources to keep this from happening, but it’s easier to continue polluting.”

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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.