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DEQ Rejects Chemours’ Cleanup Plan

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has rejected the Chemours corporation’s proposed plan for dealing with their extensive GenX contamination as “clearly deficient.”

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan pointed out the purpose of Chemours’ required corrective action plan is the cleanup of toxic groundwater contamination to levels that will meet water quality rules, and to end the continuing pollution of surface waters.

“The proposed plan is clearly deficient and fails to address the fundamental purposes of a corrective action plan,” said Regan. “Chemours will not receive approval from this department until they address appropriate clean up measures for the communities impacted by the contamination and meet the terms of the Consent Order.”

The toxic contamination at issue in this case originated from Chemours’ Fayetteville chemical plant over a period of years. Its discovery in the Cape Fear River basin’s drinking water supplies in 2017, as far downriver as coastal New Hanover County, set off a national firestorm of controversy. The principal contaminant in this case, a chemical known as GenX, is one of a category of long-lived pollutants formally known as PFAS (sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they stay in the human body forever). They are being discovered in the environment and water supplies nationwide now that governments, utilities, and researchers are actively looking for them, and are known to include toxins causing cancer, liver damage, and other severe health impacts.

The Chemours plan is under attack from a broad range of local agencies and public organizations which have submitted to DEQ extensive comments criticizing its basis and adequacy. 

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) Executive Director James Flechtner wrote, “More than a year has passed since the approval of the consent order meant to address Chemours’ widespread PFAS contamination. 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.”

Flechtner continued, “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.”

Among the citizen groups criticizing the Chemours plan are the New Hanover and Brunswick County branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In a joint letter, they wrote, “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.” (PDF)

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) also emphasized that the proposed plan fails to clean up contaminated groundwater. “Chemours polluted 45,000 acres of groundwater with toxic chemicals and contaminated the public water supplies for decades, yet now it proposes to avoid doing what’s needed to protect people and communities,” said Geoff Gisler, SELC senior attorney. “Chemours must put the health of North Carolinians living near the facility, the Cape Fear River, and downstream communities ahead of its bottom line — which its proposed plan fails to do.”

An NC Policy Watch analysis points out, “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.”

The comments are a memo to Chemours, in short: it’s time to go back to the drawing board, and produce a real cleanup plan which abides by the terms of the consent order you signed in 2019.

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