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Chemours to limit GenX air emissions, pay $305,000 fine under DEQ settlement

The DEQ last year slapped the chemical company with a notice of violation for violating GenX emissions requirements of its air permit. Chemours contested the notice, and the settlement was announced Tuesday in the DEQ’s favor.

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The Chemours chemical company has reached a settlement with the state Department of Environmental Quality that is expected to further limit GenX air emissions, as well as require the company to conduct additional testing and pay the state $305,000 in penalties.

The settlement, announced late Tuesday, comes after the DEQ’s Division of Air Quality last year found Chemours had violated the GenX emissions requirements specified in its air permit.  The permit requires Chemours to limit its total GenX emissions to 23.027 pounds per year, using a rolling 12-month calculation. The limit equates to a 99 % reduction from GenX emissions in 2017, according to a news release from the DEQ.

In March 2021, excess GenX emissions resulted in noncompliance with the rolling 12-month limits for the seven months from March through September of that year, the release said. 

“In October 2021,” the release said, “DAQ issued a written Notice of Violation and Notice of Recommendation for Enforcement to Chemours. DAQ noted the Carbon Adsorber Unit was not properly operated or maintained for 26 days following its March 9, 2021, stack tests.’’

Under the settlement, Chemours is required to reduce GenX emissions through its carbon adsorption unit in the Vinyl Ethers North manufacturing area to no more than an average of 1 pound per month between May and September of this year. The adsorption unit began operating in 2018. It is separate from the later addition of a $100 million thermal oxidizer that is also designed to keep GenX and other per- and -polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS – from escaping the plant.

In addition, the settlement requires Chemours to take additional actions this year aimed at reducing emissions, including installing new process and emission control equipment. It must also follow a rigorous schedule of stack tests to measure how well the carbon adsorption unit is controlling emissions.

In response to the notice of violation, Chemours filed a petition for a contested case hearing in Bladen County. The settlement resolves the Division of Air Quality’s civil penalty and Chemours’ petition.

In a statement, Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall said the chemical company responded proactively by quickly contacting the DEQ after learning that its emissions had exceeded air permit limits for GenX and resolved the problems. 

“Chemours continues to make progress on all requirements of the Consent Order agreement with NCDEQ and Cape Fear River Watch, and remains committed to being a leader in reducing PFAS emissions,” Randall said.

Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that although the settlement will help limit airborne PFAS from escaping the plant’s boundaries, the DEQ should do more.

As DEQ learns more about the PFAS being emitted by the facility and we generally learn more about the threat posed by PFAS, we believe the agency should act to further reduce emissions where possible,” Gisler said in an email. “The improved operational requirements in the settlement should improve the efficiency of the equipment that caused the permit violation and, therefore, result in fewer emissions.”

The DEQ has handed Chemours numerous notices of violation since June 2017, when it became publicly known that the company had contaminated the Cape Fear River with GenX and other potentially carcinogenic PFAS. Afterward, the DEQ also learned that Chemours – and before it DuPont – had for decades been releasing enormous amounts of PFAS into the air.

The airborne contamination was blown with the wind and fell with the rain, fouling the groundwater and the drinking water for more than 6,000 private wells in Cumberland, Bladen, Robeson and Sampson counties. Chemours recently discovered that wells about 25 miles from the plant - in an area between the towns of Wade and Falcon - had been polluted with PFAS.

Under a consent order signed in 2019, Chemours, among many other things, was required to stop discharging its waste into the river, to curtail airborne GenX emissions by 99 percent from 2017 levels and to provide replacement water supplies to people with contaminated wells.

An addendum to the consent order requires Chemours to reduce PFAS getting into the river by 99 percent, a figure environmental activists say is too low for some areas of the plant.

While the DEQ apparently used its authority to issue a notice of violation against Chemours for violating its air permit, Gisler said, it isn’t using its authority in the wastewater permitting process to reduce PFAS escaping from groundwater into the Cape Fear River. He noted one area of the plant where high levels of PFAS are getting into the river, called Outfall 004.

A draft permit for the plant requires Chemours to capture 99 percent of PFAS from the outfall and other areas of the plant. Environmental groups argue that the percentage should be higher for those areas because the concentrations of PFAS are so great.

“The draft permit the agency recently released for Outfall 004 would allow high levels of PFAS to be discharged directly into the Cape Fear River,” Gisler said. “That is despite extensive sampling demonstrating that the technology, if operated properly, can essentially eliminate PFAS pollution. This civil penalty and the settlement show the importance of permit limits to ensure effective operation of control technology.”

Chemours is building a subsurface retaining wall that will stretch for more than a mile along the river. The wall, along with a groundwater treatment system, is designed to stop enormous concentrations of PFAS in the groundwater from reaching the river. The groundwater is getting into the river now largely through seeps, areas where groundwater reaches the surface and escapes.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, some of which are used in many everyday household products, including fast-food packaging, nonstick pans, weatherproof clothing and stain-resistant carpets. The synthetic compounds are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment, if at all.

The substances are associated with kidney, testicular and prostate cancer, liver disease, high cholesterol, low birth weight and other illnesses. It is said that almost everyone in America has some level of PFAS in their systems. The substances have even been found in polar bears at the North Pole.

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Chemours, GenX, PFAS, Department of Environmental Quality, settlement, air emissions

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