GenX: Looking Closer At Chemours’ Plan

Chemours’ thermal oxidizer is shown during construction. Photo: Chemours

WILMINGTON – While Chemours touts the test results of its new air emission reduction equipment at its Fayetteville facility, the company is being called out for not doing enough to cut back on the amount of chemicals it releases into the Cape Fear River.

Chemours announced in late March that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at the Fayetteville Works plant are being controlled at an efficiency of more than 99%.

Results of the tests run on the plant’s thermal oxidizer, which was installed last year, were turned over to the North Carolina Division of Air Quality officials on March 30.

“We are currently reviewing the report to verify the data,” Zaynab Nasif, the division’s public information officer, said in an email. “It generally takes some time to verify the data, likely a few weeks.”

DAQ staff were on site to observe the testing process of the plant’s thermal oxidizer, she said.

A thermal oxidizer heats volatile organic compounds to the point those compounds are broken down and destroyed before entering the atmosphere.

Chemours Fayetteville Works’ thermal oxidizer in January and February “demonstrated a 99.99%” PFAS destruction efficiency, according to a company press release dated March 30.

Under the terms of a Feb. 25, 2019, consent order, the company was required to install the thermal oxidizer by Dec. 31, 2019, and control all PFAS at an efficiency of 99.99%.

“As we have said previously, we hope our progress in emissions control provides a launching point for other PFAS manufacturers to make similar commitments, and demonstrate to our neighbors how seriously we take their concerns.”

— Brian Long, Plant Manager, Chemours Fayetteville Works

Tests show the thermal oxidizer is controlling PFAS emissions at an average efficiency exceeding 99.999%, according to the company.

“These results surpass the 99.99 percent destruction of PFAS air emissions as required in our consent order agreement with the state of North Carolina and Cape Fear River Watch, and further emphasize our ongoing determination to deliver our commitments to our community, state and federal regulators and to ourselves,” Fayetteville Works Plant Manager Brian Long said in a statement. “As we have said previously, we hope our progress in emissions control provides a launching point for other PFAS manufacturers to make similar commitments, and demonstrate to our neighbors how seriously we take their concerns.”

Emissions and discharges of PFAS include the compounds that make up GenX, a chemical compound produced to make Teflon, which is used to make nonstick coating surfaces for cookware.

Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility has been discharging GenX and other PFAS into the Cape Fear River and air since the 1980s.

Larry Cahoon, a professor of biology and marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, explained in an email that there were three avenues of groundwater pollution from Fayetteville Works.

There was seepage from an unlined outfall to the Cape Fear River, which stopped after the discharge was relocated to a pipe; leaks and spills on facility grounds; and aerial discharges throughout the airshed around the plant, he said.

“When you factor in the facts that these compounds do not break down in the environment, the cumulative mass of PFAS in local groundwater can be impressive.”

— Larry Cahoon, UNCW

“Note that vegetation (tree leaves, etc.) acted to absorb and then release in rainfall runoff very high concentrations of PFAS compounds,” Cahoon said. “Inspection of the air emission reports for Fayetteville Works show that a variety of PFAS compounds were released by various processes through several pathways – direct emissions, fugitive emissions, etc. The direct emissions were generally the largest.”

One set of PFAS compounds released were those that react with water.

“Most of those dissolve in rain water and come down on the landscape, and they also adsorb to aerosols and come down as dry deposition (we can inhale those),” Cahoon said. “When I add up some numbers I get fairly big ones – in 2017 total GenX air emissions added up to about 1650 Kg or about 3600 pounds. We worry about parts per trillion in drinking water, so let the math tell you the story. When you factor in the facts that these compounds do not break down in the environment, the cumulative mass of PFAS in local groundwater can be impressive. Let me emphasize that we do NOT yet know the real geographic footprint of PFAS aerial deposition from Fayetteville Works.”

In an April 3 letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Executive Director James Flechtner wrote that the authority remains concerned about PFAS discharge into the Cape Fear River from the Chemours facility.

The letter was submitted to DEQ as part of the official public Chemours Corrective Action Plan, or CAP, record of comments.

“More than a year has passed since the approval of the consent order meant to address Chemours’ widespread PFAS contamination,” Flechtner wrote. “Our regular monitoring of raw and finished water has not shown this promised sustained decrease in PFAS. Instead, PFAS levels increased throughout most of 2019 – spiking as high as 377 parts per trillion and often remaining above concentrations that, when detected in wells in Bladen or Cumberland counties, trigger immediate, unambiguous remedies by Chemours. It’s going on Year Two of the consent order, and we’re still waiting.”

He went on to write how Chemours promises to reduce its production of PFAS into the river by 79%, but that the schedule to do so shows nearly two-thirds of that reduction will not occur for another four to five years, “at best.”

“The CAP waves away or ignores a number of important pathways for PFAS loading into the Cape Fear River,” he said. “No mitigation efforts are promised to address PFAS in the more than 50 miles of river sediment between Chemours’ outfall and CFPUA’s raw water intakes at Kings Bluff. No mitigation efforts are proposed for Willis and Georgia creeks, which carry PFAS into the Cape Fear River. No remediation efforts are proposed for the 70-plus square miles of groundwater around the Fayetteville Works that Chemours estimates it has contaminated.”

In a joint letter to DEQ, the New Hanover County and Brunswick County branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People shared similar sentiments about Chemours’ corrective action plan.

“History has clearly defined that where we live has direct bearing on our well-being,” according to a statement from those branches. “For us living in the Lower Cape Fear region it seems that our postal code will now determine the health of our citizens who live here. We know that our poorer communities will continue to bear the physical, emotional and financial brunt of Chemours harmful pollution of our drinking water source delivered by way of the Cape Fear River. Chemours’ mistreatment of marginalized communities downstream of its Fayetteville plant is unconscionable and discriminatory.”

Chemours’ disposal of PFAS into the Cape Fear River was made public in 2017 with the publication of an investigative story by the Wilmington Star-News.

Since that time, PFAS, particularly GenX, has become a household name throughout the region.

Hundreds of residents in New Hanover and Brunswick counties are part of an ongoing study headed by a group of 20 researchers from seven North Carolina universities known as the PFAST — the “T” stands for testing — Network Research Initiative.

PFAST is analyzing water samples from each drinking water source in the state, determining the risks of PFAS to private water wells, studying, which filtration methods best remove PFAS from drinking water, determining how PFAS travels through air emissions and gaining a better understanding of how these chemicals impact human health and the environment.

“As for Chemours’ installation of thermal oxidizer treatment, it’s about damn time,” Cahoon said. “I understand that Dupont was using this same technology at its Parkersburg, WV, plant years and years ago. Going forward there should be far less PFAS aerial pollution, but we are struck with what has happened there since 1980 – almost 40 years of aerial emissions.”

Calvin Cupini of Clean Air Carolina said technology like thermal oxidizers need to be implemented at the front-end by industry and regulators.

“We’ve got to do better about capturing best available control technologies before they’re a problem,” he said.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.