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DEQ rejects Chemours’ proposed GenX groundwater cleanup plan

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In early March, concerned citizens protested Chemours’ proposed cleanup plan that would leave elevated levels of GenX and other PFAS in the groundwater. This week DEQ rejected the plan, calling it insufficient. (Photo: Lillian Clark)

Company now says it’s too expensive to remove PFAS compounds, including GenX, to comply with consent order

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has rejected a groundwater cleanup plan proposed by Chemours, [2] which would have left at least 70 square miles contaminated with the chemical GenX.

“The proposed plan is clearly deficient,” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan in a statement released yesterday. [3] “Chemours will not receive approval from this department until they address appropriate cleanup measures for the communities impacted by the contamination and meet the terms of the Consent Order.”

DEQ received over 1,240 public comments on the plan, most of which denounced Chemours’ plan as insufficient to meet the needs of the community and the demands of the law.

Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall told Policy Watch the company “feels strongly the Corrective Action Plan is robust and in full compliance with the environmental laws of North Carolina and the approved 2019 Consent Order. We are surprised and disappointed by the NCDEQ’s public statement given they have not yet provided Chemours with comment on the plan. We look forward to learning the details behind their comments.”

In a February 2019 consent order [4] with DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours agreed to several cleanup provisions, including removing GenX [5] contamination to meet state groundwater standards — the lowest concentration level laboratories can measure, or as close to that “as is economically and technologically feasible.”

Because Chemours has estimated that the cleanup would cost the company “in the billions to tens of billions of dollars,” it says it cannot comply with the demands of the consent order, according to the proposed corrective action plan.

Since 1980, Chemours and its previous parent company, DuPont, have discharged per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — including GenX, [6] from a plant south of Fayetteville directly into the Cape Fear River. The companies allowed contaminated groundwater to seep from their Fayetteville Works plant into the waterway, a drinking supply for tens of thousands of people. 

The plant also emitted the chemicals into the air, which in turn fell to the ground, seeped into the soil and contaminated hundreds of private drinking water wells. GenX and other PFAS have been detected in groundwater as far as 10 miles from the plant.

Because of the lack of test data, the full extent of the toxicity of GenX is unclear. However, recent research has indicated that “short-chain” PFAS are as harmful to human health as their longer-chain PFAS predecessors, some of which have been phased out because of their toxicity. 

And in a draft toxicity assessment for GenX released in late 2018, the EPA said that animal studies had shown the exposure to compound through drinking water caused thyroid and liver disorders, several types of cancer, a depressed immune system and harm to a developing fetus.

“The data are suggestive of cancer,” said the EPA draft assessment [7].

Geoff Gisler, senior attorney and leader of Southern Environmental Law Center’s Clean Water Program, said that not only does Chemours’ proposed plan fail to comply with state law, it hardly commits to cleaning up any contamination at all.

“If this were a plan that were adopted, it would let contaminated groundwater stay in the ground and not be treated. Groundwater would continue to flow offsite. The groundwater that’s in the communities around the site will continue to have contamination. The plan sets the wrong goal,” Gisler said.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) submitted its public comment [8] condemning the plan last week. Rather than providing a roadmap for removing contamination from the state’s water, Chemours’ plan petitions the DEQ for an exception.

“Now, having been caught contaminating more than 70 square miles, hundreds of drinking water wells, and the river that provides water for more than 300,000 North Carolinians, Chemours makes an astonishing argument—that it should be excused from the clear requirements of the state’s groundwater rules because the harm it has caused is too vast,” SELC’s attorneys wrote in their comment.

Earlier this spring, before the COVID-19 pandemic had become widespread in North Carolina, concerned citizens protested the proposed plan at Chemours’ front entrance in Bladen County.

Two mannequins wearing white hazmat suits stood in a silver truck bed. A trailer was decked with stuffed cows, dogs, firefighter dolls, and blue barrels labeled “GenX” and “Danger.”

Protestors shared stories of leafy vegetables in their gardens unexpectedly turning brown, PFAS-contaminated peaches gone to waste, and sick parents and cousins, afraid of what their water was doing to them. 

Mike Watters, founder of the Facebook group Grays Creek Residents United Against PFAS in our Wells and Rivers wore a green polo and aviator glasses, which complemented his white beard. An outspoken critic of Chemours, Watters brought cardboard cases full of copies of letters to DEQ Secretary Regan expressing disagreement with Chemours’ plan. The letters were printed in bold red font — four pages each of legal jargon ready for people to sign and mail in.

Watters is also skeptical of DEQ; he advertised a March 12 DEQ community meeting on the Facebook group as a “Community Propaganda Session.” But in the weeks after the Fayetteville Chemours protest, PFAS research and advocacy, much like everything else, have been put on hold because of the pandemic. 

DEQ’s March 12 meeting was postponed to minimize the spread of the virus. On March 24, the agency published a video of the community presentation that had been scheduled for 12 days prior.

Sheila Holman, Assistant Secretary for the Environment at DEQ, said in the video that the department “stands ready and fully focused on implementation of the consent order.” She said it is evaluating whether to extend the comment period.

The EPA has suspended enforcement of many environmental laws because of the coronavirus crisis, but in a press release, DEQ said it will continue “to protect air quality, water quality and human health under all state environmental rules and regulations” amidst the public health crisis.

However, DEQ has granted Chemours’ request to temporarily suspend during the outbreak all private well testing and filtration system installation for households with contaminated water.

Research and chemical analyses at the university labs that are part of the NC PFAS Testing Network have also stopped. “Currently we’re all at home, socially distancing, analyzing data, writing papers, and getting ready to be back in the field once it’s safe,” said Jane Hoppin, an NC State researcher who is part of the network.

With our health systems flailing to cope with an influx of coronavirus patients, decades-old water contamination has fallen lower on the list of public priorities. But Gisler noted that those with chronic illnesses are the most vulnerable in this pandemic moment, and PFAS is part of the problem.

With “dozens of chemicals like PFAS in our drinking water,” he said, “we’re not starting from quite as healthy a place as we thought we might be. And when we are failing at keeping our water clean and keeping our air clean, that makes us more vulnerable to unusual situations like this.” 

Lillian Clark is a student at Duke University and writes for the Daily Tar Heel at UNC Chapel-Hill. She is enrolled in an environmental reporting class at UNC as part of the Robertson Scholars program.