The Pulse

Residents skeptical of Chemours’ proposed air permit; comment by Feb. 22.

By: - February 19, 2019 1:06 pm
PFAS, including GenX, flow from the plant vents into a thermal oxidizer, which uses heat to break apart the compounds. Those dismantled compounds then flow into a scrubber equipped to clean them of 99.99 percent of contaminants before entering the air. (Schematic from DEQ website)


The public comment period for Chemours’ proposed air permit is Friday, Feb. 22, at 5 p.m. The documents for the proposed air permit are on the NC Department of Environmental Quality website. Email comments to  [email protected]. Please type “Chemours 18B” in the subject line.
Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas is expected to rule on the permit in late March or early April.

Bruce Skinner was fresh out of high school when he hired on at DuPont, a good, steady job, especially for people without a college degree. In the 40 years Skinner worked there, DuPont — and then its spinoff company Chemours — discharged and emitted toxic per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS) including GenX, into the Cape Fear River, the soil, the air.

Although Skinner was never an engineer at DuPont, he nonetheless knows how the plant operates, and his comments to state environmental regulators at a public hearing in Bladen County on Monday presented valuable information that an insider would know. The hearing concerned a proposed air permit for the Fayetteville Works plant that, among other mandates, would require Chemours to reduce its emissions of GenX and all PFAS by 99.99 percent — to just 23 pounds per year — by Dec. 31. These reductions, state regulators say, will break the contamination link between air and groundwater.

[bctt tweet=”The fox is in the henhouse” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

“I believe in the technology. But it will be tough to achieve,” said Skinner, who lives a mile from the facility, which is near the Bladen-Cumberland county line. “The fox is in the henhouse. You’ve got to be on top of it.”

The 23-pound figure is calculated on the roughly 2,300 pounds of PFAS and GenX that Chemours pumped into the air in 2016. However, Chemours has often submitted inaccurate or late information to the state and federal regulators about what it’s discharging and emitting — and the amount. Originally, Chemours stated it had emitted only 66 pounds that year. In April 2018, the Division of Air Quality reviewed company data and found Chemours had not accounted for leaks, prompting regulators to revise the amount upward by more than 40 times.

As a result, DAQ notified Chemours it intended to modify the company’s air quality permit, and required Chemours to show it was complying with its current one. Facing court-ordered sanctions, including those for groundwater rule violations, Chemours then proposed installing the thermal oxidation and scrubber technology, which will cost roughly $100 million to implement. A proposed consent order filed in June 2018 required the company to achieve the 99.99 percent emissions reduction — the figure now in the proposed air permit.

The air emissions are important because when GenX compounds and other PFAS leave the stacks they can react with water — in the form of rain and humidity — which, when they fall to the earth, then contaminate the soil, surface water and groundwater. The private drinking water wells of dozens of households have been tainted with GenX because of the contaminated groundwater. Some of these homes are as far as seven miles from the plant.

The thermal oxidizer technology works by capturing the GenX and PFAS emissions before they enter the air. The oxidizer uses heat to break apart the compounds, and the scrubbers then clean them of most of the contaminants. (To simplify, imagine you’re dismantling the intricate components of a filthy food processer and then disinfecting each part before loaning it to your neighbor. )

The proposed air permit includes requirements for more frequent monitoring and locations, additional state oversight, a shutdown and malfunction plan, recordkeeping, disclosures and testing. DAQ officials said they would be at the plant when Chemours conducted its tests and would further verify the results.

“If you’re going to check them out, you need to check them 24/7,” Rick Spence said.

Skinner said that annual emissions testing — which is different from continuous air monitoring in that its purpose is to calibrate and check the equipment — should be done quarterly. “It keeps an emphasis on making sure it’s working,” Skinner said.

If the power goes out, the plant would have to immediately shut down, DAQ officials said. But Skinner countered that to do so isn’t as simple as turning off a light switch. “It has to be graded down,” he said.

Few people attended the public hearing, which was announced in three area newspapers a month ago, as well as on the DEQ website. (Several people said they had heard of the meeting only over the weekend.) But those who did attend were skeptical of both Chemours’ and the state’s ability to rein in the contamination.

Several people asked what recourse the state would have if Chemours’ emissions exceed 23 pounds or if the company doesn’t meet the 99.99 percent threshold. According to the draft permit, the state could cancel, deny or revoke the permit, as well as penalize the company. However, over the past two years, DEQ has been slow to fine or meaningfully penalized the company — a proposed $12 million fine is inconsequential for a company that generated $6.6 billion in revenue last year.

“It’s gonna be tough. You gotta show me,” Skinner said. “I wish you well, and I’m going to hold you to it.”

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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.