Chemours cited for unreported October chemical spill

In October, DEQ elected not to suspend Chemours permit; now another spill is raising more questions.

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
The Cape Fear River waterfront in Wilmington is under construction on Friday

RALEIGH – The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality cited Chemours Monday with violating it’s water discharge permit after an October spill of more chemicals into the Cape Fear River. Cooper administration officials have given the company ten days to provide DEQ with details of when and how much dimer acid fluoride spilled into the Cape Fear on October 6. At this point, DEQ has not said what the penalty would be, but said it could be a fine.

At the end of October, DEQ decided not to suspend Chemours wastewater discharge permit even after it was discovered that the company had been releasing GenX, a compound chemical made as a byproduct of making non-stick coatings, into the Cape Fear. Now with a second spill, all eyes are on the state environmental agency.

DEQ found out about the second spill after receiving data last week from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that revealed another spike in the presence of GenX during the first week of October. The water was tested at the discharge site of Chemours Fayetteville Works plant.

According to DEQ, the company responded to inquiries on the spike four weeks after it happened, saying a spill had occurred Oct. 6 from a manufacturing line at the Chemours facility. The company told state officials that dimer acid fluoride, a precursor to GenX, had spilled during planned maintenance at the facility. Previously, Chemours told the state that it was capturing the plant’s wastewater to filter out GenX.

“It is both unlawful and unacceptable for a company to fail to report a chemical spill to the state and public as soon as possible,” said Michael Regan, Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “We will take all appropriate enforcement action to hold Chemours accountable for failing to comply with its permit.”

The controversy over GenX started in June when the state began investigating reports of its presence in the Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for more than 200,000 homes and businesses in eastern N.C. Chemours said it had been releasing GenX into the river for more than 30 years.

Whether or not GenX is toxic is still being studied by the Centers for Disease Control and researchers at UNC Wilmington. However, as a precaution the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has set 140 parts per trillion as the goal for maximum safe concentrations of GenX in drinking water.

According to water data provided by Chemours and released by DEQ, concentrations of GenX at Chemours’ wastewater discharge outfall increased to 250 parts per trillion on Oct. 6 and peaked at 3,700 parts per trillion on Oct. 9. By Oct. 16 the concentration had dropped to 380 parts per trillion. In the week prior to the spill, water samples showed concentrations of GenX between 35 and 69 parts per trillion.

While scientists determine the toxicity of GenX and the Cape Fear Public Utility works to find a way to filter it out, the state has tested well water for homes around the Chemours plant. Fifty wells showed high levels of GenX and the state required that Chemours provide those homes with bottled water.

Lawsuits against DuPont and its spinoff Chemours have already started. A Raleigh-based law firm filed class-action litigation against DuPont and Chemours in October asking for a jury trial, a billion dollars in damages and long-term health monitoring for all residents potentially affected. The Brunswick County government has also filed a lawsuit against Chemours.

“For nearly 40 years, defendants have been secretly releasing their persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic perfluorinated chemicals into the Cape Fear River at unsafe levels and contaminating the drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians — just as they did in the Ohio River — all the while misleading state and federal regulators and the public,” the lawsuit says.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has filed an “Urgent Public Records Request” with DEQ for all its information from Chemours, including records previously deemed “confidential.” The request renewed a previous one from the utility which says it is not getting all the information from DEQ that is needed to effectively study and mitigate GenX presence in the Cape Fear.

“The identities of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances that pollute a river that is a public water supply source are not confidential business information and should not be withheld,” CFPUA’s records request read.

If CFPUA gets the information they need, it could also be used in their own lawsuit against Chemours, filed in October. The records could possibly corner DEQ in the battle over who knew what about GenX and when.  So far, the state agency and the NC DHHS hsatold the public that they believe the water is safe to drink.

Chemours’ lawyer has already used those assurances in response to the lawsuits, saying that it is “important to note that the state of N.C. has said they believe the water to be safe.”

By law, Chemours is required to notify DEQ within 24 hours of any unusual discharge that could be considered of concern to public health. DEQ is also required to give them a chance to respond to a notice of violation. That response would be due to the state agency by Thanksgiving.