Global chemical manufacturer Chemours is again at odds with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority over the number of contaminants it dumps into its primary water source.
The utility authority is nearing completion of a new water filtration system to remove “forever chemicals” discharged by the Chemours’ Fayetteville plant into the Cape Fear River, roughly 50 miles downstream from the plant, to about 550,000 people in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.
CFPUA Executive Director Kenneth Waldroup said Oct. 28 he was “perplexed” by the company’s recent decision to appeal a state-issued permit for a new treatment system of its own, designed to eliminate 99.9% of pollutants discharged from the plant.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a final permit Sept. 15 to require more stringent limits on the number of pollutants Chemours is allowed to discharge into the river.
The CFPUA filed a motion Oct. 27 with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings to intervene in Chemours’ appeal.
“Chemours spends a lot of time trying to convince their neighbors that they are good neighbors, while at the same time continuing to pollute their water supplies, then celebrating an expansion of their facilities,” Waldroup said.
Efforts to reach Chemours for a response were not immediately successful. According to the company’s website, “We are working towards a new standard for essential manufacturing in North Carolina. To date, we have achieved a 95% reduction in pollutants.”
The publicly traded company has been widely scrutinized since 2017, when the Star News reported that the company’s Fayetteville Works site had for decades contaminated the Cape Fear River with GenX and other PFAS – long-lasting chemicals whose components break down slowly over time.
Pollutants from the company’s Fayetteville Works factory enter the river approximately 50 miles upstream from the Kings Bluff Pump Station, which delivers raw water to New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender Counties. From Kings Bluff, raw water flows in a pipe for roughly 25 miles before it reaches CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, just north of downtown Wilmington.
CFPUA officials said the utility authority has so far spent $43 million building its new filtration system. It estimates $3.7 million in operating costs for the fiscal year ending 2023 and about $5 million in subsequent years.
Six of eight new granular activated carbon (GAC) filters are now online. Altogether they weigh almost 3 million pounds, contributing to what is “believed to be the largest GAC public water treatment facility in North Carolina,” according to CFPUA.
On Oct. 11, the utility provider announced that all water leaving the Sweeney Plant was filtered by the six new granular activated carbon (GAC) filters, and that testing had detected no PFAS in drinking water produced at the plant.
But costs to filter the water have so far fallen on the three counties that receive water downstream from the Chemours plant.
“There is a direct relationship between Chemours’ failure to capture and treat PFAS and our cost to address that failure,” Waldroup said.
The recent dispute between Chemours and CFPUA began in mid-September, when a Fayetteville Works plant manager received a pollutant discharge permit from the DEQ containing “significant changes” from the draft permit. The state included stricter discharge limits of three polluting chemicals.
The initial limit for two of those chemicals was set at 770 parts per trillion (ppt), but the DEQ said that figure should be further reduced by 45% to 420 ppt. After a six-month “optimization period,” those parameters would then need to fall to 30 ppt. A third “indicator” compound, GenX, was restricted to 10 ppt.
Waldroup said he believes the DEQ’s final permit “captures and treats a significant portion of pollution leaving the [Fayetteville] plant today” through reasonable and manageable limits.
Chemours appealed the permit’s requirements Oct. 14 – three days after CFPUA announced its Sweeney-treated water was free of any PFAS – complaining to the DEQ that late changes to the permit included limits that “exceed the design basis of the proposed treatment system, giving rise to compliance uncertainty.”
The proposed system includes a wastewater treatment facility with its own GAC filters. The system is part of a larger project to build a mile-long underground barrier wall to capture contaminated groundwater before it enters the river.
“The massive remediation project is the largest of its kind to address PFAS,” the DEQ stated Sept. 15 after issuing its final permit. “The system involves a mile-long underground barrier wall, more than 70 extraction wells and the GAC treatment system to intercept and treat groundwater contaminated by years of pollution at the facility. The groundwater will be pumped and treated to ultimately remove an estimated 99.9% of PFAS compounds before being released into the river.”
Contaminated groundwater now flows untreated into the river. According to the DEQ, the project is designed to reduce the “largest ongoing source of PFAS contaminating the river and reaching downstream water intakes.” The agency said it must be operational by March 15, 2023.
But Chemours’ resistance against the more stringent requirements is part of a familiar pattern, according to Waldroup.
The company runs a website called Chemours Neighbors to advertise its commitment to “shaping a better world.”
“At Chemours, we’re doing our part to help improve the Cape Fear River,” according to the website.
“Our answer to that is: No, they’re not, especially if they’re opposing a permit that will clearly reduce costs on their downstream neighbors,” Waldroup said.
An Oct. 27 motion – for the CFPUA to be allowed to intervene in Chemours’ appeal – is the latest in a long set of legal maneuvers used by CFPUA against the company. It filed a federal lawsuit against Chemours and its predecessor DuPont in October 2017, four months after the contamination first came to light.
On the utility authority’s website, CFPUA officials state that the utility authority “believes Chemours and DuPont, rather than our customers, should pay for those and other costs and damages related to the companies’ actions.
“So far though, neither company has stepped up to this responsibility. Until that occurs, we will proceed with the lawsuit.”
All parties are now involved in the discovery process with a trial expected to begin in the fall of 2024. Because it is a nonprofit, government entity, CFPUA officials say any monetary award that may result from the lawsuit will “benefit CFPUA customers.”
Waldroup said at least 70% of CFPUA’s recent rate increase, and its next projected rate increase, “is directly attributable to Chemours’ pollution.”
“Our door is open for them to cooperate anytime. But if they choose not to, we will continue to litigate to get [the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of North Carolina] to force them to,” Waldroup said. “If Chemours wants to look to the future and live up to its corporate values, it needs to address the sins of the past. It needs to make things right with its downstream neighbors.
What are PFAS?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS (a simplified abbreviation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are widely used, long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time. GENX is one substance in the PFAS category.
The EPA also shares additional PFAS facts on its website: “Because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment.”
“PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe.”
“Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals.”
“There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, and they are found in many different consumer, commercial and industrial products. This makes it challenging to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks.”
Corrections: This version corrects the description of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's Sept. 15 permit, a comparison between CFPUA's PFAs filtering measures and a description of a motion filed Oct. 27 by CFPUA.