C hemours – the billion-dollar company responsible for contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, the company that is challenging the EPA’s scientific findings that GenX is toxic, the company that after 28 months has yet to submit a revised corrective action plan to clean up polluted groundwater beneath at least seven square miles around its Fayetteville Works plant, the company that recently was fined $305,000 for environmental violations by the state of North Carolina – plans to expand.
Chemours wants to increase its production of a molecular building block for PFA, a type of fluoropolymer, at Fayetteville Works in northern Bladen County, near the Cumberland County line. This building block is also known as a monomer.
PFA stands for perfluoroalkoxy alkanes. They belong to the PFAS family but have a slightly different molecular structure. The chemical industry has claimed that PFA, the fluoropolymer, is a “polymer of low concern.”
However, a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology casts doubt on that assertion. Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology & toxicology at East Carolina University, and an expert on PFAS, is among the paper’s authors.
They concluded that based on their review of the evidence, there is not a “scientific rationale” for concluding that fluoropolymers like PFA are of low concern for environmental and human health.
Like PFAS, fluoropolymers are “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. The manufacture of fluoropolymers also can create toxic PFAS as byproducts. “Their extreme persistence and the emissions associated with their production, use, and disposal result in a high likelihood for human exposure as long as uses are not restricted,” the authors wrote, adding, “Their production and uses should be curtailed” except when essential.
None of these caveats was discussed at public meetings hosted by Chemours this week.
Instead, attendees were herded by Chemours employees into a room laid out with booths, TV screens and colorful posters, like a science fair.
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T hese meetings — one in Dublin, in Bladen County, and another in Leland, in Brunswick County — were not voluntary for Chemours, but rather were stipulated to in a consent order between the company, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch.
“They’re holding these meetings because they’re required to,” said Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch. “Not because they’re good neighbors.”
At the meeting, company brochures and posters boasted that it had reduced the amount of PFAS discharge to the Cape Fear River by 97% and air emissions by more than 99%. However, these improvements were not voluntary. They were also imposed as a condition of the consent order.
(To help comply with the discharge requirement, the company recently received a state permit for a groundwater treatment system. It is part of a larger project to keep compounds out of the river: 70 extraction wells and a one-mile long barrier wall buried six stories underground.)
As for its air emissions, Chemours emphasized that there would be no new toxics, nor an “overall increase” as a result of the plant expansion. However, that could mean larger amounts of some compounds will be emitted, but offset by smaller amounts of others.
The company is legally required as part of the consent order to emit less than 23.7 pounds of GenX per year.
The company would control air emissions by reusing or recycling the materials; routing the emissions to a thermal oxidizer, which uses intense heat to break down the compounds; or capturing the compounds using carbon systems or other technologies.
The carbon systems containing these compounds, though, must be disposed of. They are shipped to the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill, in Emelle, Alabama. That small community is 80% Black.
Current EPA regulations don’t classify perfluorinated compounds as hazardous, but the agency recently proposed that two – PFOA and PFOS – be designated as such.
Details of new air emissions estimates must be included in the company’s application to DEQ. Chemours representatives said the company has met with the Division of Air Quality about the expansion, and plans to file for a permit modification next month.
Sharon Martin, DEQ deputy secretary for public affairs, told Policy Watch in an email that the agency has not received “specific details on potential changes to emissions or discharges.”
After Chemours files its permit application, state regulators will review it. There will also be a public comment period – and given the significant interest in the proposal – at least one public meeting about the application. There is no timetable for these steps, but it will likely take at least a year.