Environment, Legislature

Factchecking Rep. Jimmy Dixon on water contamination (spoiler alert: he wasn’t spot on)

Rep. Jimmy Dixon

Rarely one to let the truth get in the way of a snappy quip, Rep. Jimmy Dixon is 0 for 1 in the factchecking department today.

During this morning’s meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources, Rep. Dixon responded to a question from newly elected Sen. Harper Peterson about water contamination from Hurricane Florence.

“Dilution is the solution to pollution,” Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said, using one of his favorite phrases. “The [NC Policy] Collaboratory tested the water and found nothing.”

Peterson, a New Hanover County Democrat, asked Dixon for more information. Dixon told him to contact the Collaboratory for the results.

The problem is the results aren’t public yet, said Angela Harris, an NC State University scientist involved in sampling surface water after the storm. She told Policy Watch, “I won’t be able to share [them] at this time.”

Policy Watch checked with the Collaboratory leadership, who said they haven’t seen the results, either.

As for drinking water, UNC and Virginia Tech scientists sampled 62 private drinking water wells in Robeson County after Hurricane Florence. These scientists publicly released their results last month. No E. Coli, a harmful bacteria, was detected, but total coliform was found in more than a quarter of the wells. Total coliform is generally a harmless bacteria, but its presence indicates other contaminants from surface water — like flood waters — might have entered the well.

As Dixon noted, it’s likely the trillions of gallons of water that fell on Eastern North Carolina would have diluted some of the pollution in surface waters. But to declare that the Collaboratory “found nothing” is premature. We don’t know yet.

Environment

15 years ago, a DEQ employee spoke up about groundwater contamination at DuPont. And nothing happened.

Tom McKinney, who was an inspector with the Division of Air Quality in 2004. (Photo courtesy McKinney’s website)

(Scroll down to read details of the consent order.)

For state regulators, a 46-page consent order marks the end of a decades’- long shell game that Chemours/DuPont played with the Department of Environmental Quality over the company’s secret discharges and emissions of GenX and other perfluorinated compounds.

But for some North Carolina residents who oppose the consent order, there is no closure. The remedies and penalties are inadequate, they say, for not only Chemours’ permanent damage to the environment, but also the lasting contamination in their drinking water, food supply, their bodies and those of their children.

“I feel that we are being discriminated against because we are small rural folk,” said Mike Watters, who lives in Gray’s Creek, near the Fayetteville Works plant. Many wells in that neighborhood have been contaminated with GenX and PFAS.

In many instances, Chemours hid information about what its Fayetteville Works plant was emitting and discharging into the air, groundwater and Cape Fear River. But there were also times when state regulators ignored warnings – from scientists and even an employee – about what Chemours/DuPont was up to.

It’s now widely known that in November 2016, NC State scientist Detlef Knappe advised the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and 19 DEQ officials about the presence of GenX in the river and drinking water supply.

Those officials included former Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder, who served under Secretary Donald van der Vaart, and former Division of Water Resources Director Jay Zimmerman. Neither of them alerted incoming Secretary Michael Regan about the email. (Reeder went to work for Sen. Pro Tempore Phil Berger; Zimmerman is still with the agency but now supervises the regional offices.)

But until now it wasn’t well known that DEQ – then the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources – was aware as early as at least 2004 that DuPont had a problem containing its perfluorinated compounds – PFAS — at the Fayetteville Works plant.

According to notes from an agency pre-inspection conference dated that September, Mike Johnson, the facility’s environmental manager, told DENR inspector Tom McKinney that PFOA – also known as C8 – had been detected in one of the groundwater monitoring wells. C8 exposure has been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including  low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders. It is listed as a likely carcinogen.

McKinney was an inspector in the Division of Air Quality at the time. He left the agency in 2006, but later returned and now works in the Division of Water Resources.

“This is quite surprising since the [C8] plant only began operation in December 2002,” the notes read. “Mr. Johnson indicated that they do not understand why C8 was detected in their ground water” and he speculated that it might have been formed from a chemical reaction unrelated to the C8 process.

McKinney told Policy Watch that he notified his superiors in DAQ. Shortly afterward, he said, he was “excluded from all meetings and responsibilities” – including inspections — related to the Fayetteville Works plant. He said it was never clear why he was reassigned from the DuPont case, or who ordered it. McKinney said he doesn’t know what happened to the information he provided to his supervisors.

At the time, Keith Overcash was the director of Division of Air Quality. He left the agency in 2010 and now is vice president of Carolina DreamBuilds, which constructs log cabins. Overcash did not respond to a phone call seeking more information about the events.

William Ross Jr. was DENR secretary from 2001 to 2009, during the Gov. Mike Easley administration. Ross is now an environmental attorney and consultant at the Brooks Pierce law firm in Raleigh. He did not return an email seeking comment.

According to an online archive maintained by McKinney, DuPont Fayetteville Works had tested air emissions from the C8 plant. “There has been increasing concern during the past year that the spread of C8, in the environment around the plant may have resulted in part from plant emissions of C8 into air.”

In 2004, the EPA had not completed its review of C8, and didn’t regulate it as toxic or hazardous. But C8 wasn’t a complete unknown. In 2001, Ohio Valley residents sued DuPont in a class-action suit over C8 exposure from the company’s Parkersburg, WV, plant.

And in 2002, DuPont in Fayetteville began manufacturing C8 because the 3M company, under regulatory scrutiny, had phased it out. In the same year that McKinney learned of the groundwater contamination in Fayetteville, DuPont settled a $671 million class-action suit and agreed to provide alternate water and medical monitoring to thousands of residents in the Ohio Valley.

The pre-inspection notes also show that McKinney and Johnson discussed air emissions from wastewater from the production of Nafion.  Nafion byproducts also belong to a class of PFAS.  The byproducts – fluorocarbons – are “persistent chemicals that are not degraded by wastewater microorganisms and remain unchanged as they are discharged to the river.”

Last year, the state health department conducted a small study of 30 adults living hear the plant. C8 and other PFAS (but not GenX) were found in the blood of every participant – at levels higher than the median for the US population.

Meanwhile, NC State scientists conducted a larger study of 345 people, including 56 children, in Wilmington. Nafion byproduct 2, a type of PFAS, was detected in 99 percent of the samples. While PFOA blood levels have decreased in the general US population, that trend has not occurred in Wilmington. In general, PFOA blood levels were similar to those of the general population – from 20 years ago.

These compounds will long outlive the consent order.

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Environment

Chemours, DEQ, Cape Fear River Watch hammer out final consent order on GenX, PFAS contamination

Pretty, but polluted with PFAS: The Cape Fear River (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

This is a developing story. Policy Watch has scheduled an interview with NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan later this afternoon. Look for additional coverage tomorrow.

After receiving 380 public comments on a proposed consent order with Chemours, state environmental regulators are asking a Bladen County judge to sign the final version of the document, which would put it into effect.

The consent order lays out several new requirements for Chemours to analyze monitor and report its emissions and discharges of GenX compounds and other per- and polyfluorinated compounds into the air and water, including the Cape Fear River. The document also requires the company to remove 99 percent of the contamination of the surface water and groundwater at an old outfall at the Fayetteville Works site.

Since drinking water has also been contaminated by GenX and PFAS emanating from the plant, Chemours is required to “provide effective systems to treat drinking water fountains and sinks in public buildings,” such as Gray’s Creek Elementary School. It also must “ensure that filtration systems are operating properly and are maintained for at least 20 years,” at the company’s expense.

Chemours has agreed to pay a $12 million penalty, plus $1 million in investigation costs.

Many people living near the Fayetteville Works facility as well as in Wilmington downstream, were unhappy with the draft consent order, including the comparatively small penalty amount for a company that generated $6.6 billion in revenue last year. They also were concerned that DuPont, which was the original polluter before it spun off Chemours, would escape liability. The final consent order clarifies that DuPont can be held liable for past offenses, and that it doesn’t insulate either company from third-party litigation. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the company, including one by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. CPFUA has asked to join fellow intervenor Cape Fear River Watch in the consent order, but so far that request is still pending.

Since November, when DEQ released the draft consent order the evening before Thanksgiving, the agency has incorporated some public feedback — 15 actions, total — into the final version. Now Chemours must notify downstream utilities of an “accelerated plan” to reduce PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River. DEQ says it will consult with the utilities before any plan is approved. (See document below for a full list of the additions.)

<a href=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5744802/Side-20by-20side.txt”>Side%20by%20side (Text)</a>

A draft air permit, currently up for public comment through Friday, would also be incorporated into the order. That requires Chemours to reduce GenX emissions by 99 percent and all PFAS by 99.99 percent by Dec. 31, 2019. The company is installing a $100 million thermal oxidizer and scrubber system to achieve those reductions. Over the past two months, Chemours has been scrutinized by the EPA for the company’s role in PFAS contamination. As Policy Watch reported in January, federal officials filed a temporary notice of objection to the company’s import of GenX compounds from its facility in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. And last week, the EPA cited the company with several notices of violation related to the reporting of PFAS discharges, emissions, imports and potential health effects of exposure. The EPA has yet to announce any financial penalty for those violations.

<a href=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5744803/UNSIGNED-20Final-20Revised-20Proposed-20Consent.txt”>UNSIGNED%20Final%20Revised%20Proposed%20Consent%20Order%20with%20attachments (Text)</a>

Environment

Residents skeptical of Chemours’ proposed air permit; comment by Feb. 22.

PFAS, including GenX, flow from the plant vents into a thermal oxidizer, which uses heat to break apart the compounds. Those dismantled compounds then flow into a scrubber equipped to clean them of 99.99 percent of contaminants before entering the air. (Schematic from DEQ website)

 

The public comment period for Chemours’ proposed air permit is Friday, Feb. 22, at 5 p.m. The documents for the proposed air permit are on the NC Department of Environmental Quality website. Email comments to  daq.publiccomments@ncdenr.gov. Please type “Chemours 18B” in the subject line.
Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas is expected to rule on the permit in late March or early April.

Bruce Skinner was fresh out of high school when he hired on at DuPont, a good, steady job, especially for people without a college degree. In the 40 years Skinner worked there, DuPont — and then its spinoff company Chemours — discharged and emitted toxic per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS) including GenX, into the Cape Fear River, the soil, the air.

Although Skinner was never an engineer at DuPont, he nonetheless knows how the plant operates, and his comments to state environmental regulators at a public hearing in Bladen County on Monday presented valuable information that an insider would know. The hearing concerned a proposed air permit for the Fayetteville Works plant that, among other mandates, would require Chemours to reduce its emissions of GenX and all PFAS by 99.99 percent — to just 23 pounds per year — by Dec. 31. These reductions, state regulators say, will break the contamination link between air and groundwater.

The fox is in the henhouse Click To Tweet

“I believe in the technology. But it will be tough to achieve,” said Skinner, who lives a mile from the facility, which is near the Bladen-Cumberland county line. “The fox is in the henhouse. You’ve got to be on top of it.”

The 23-pound figure is calculated on the roughly 2,300 pounds of PFAS and GenX that Chemours pumped into the air in 2016. However, Chemours has often submitted inaccurate or late information to the state and federal regulators about what it’s discharging and emitting — and the amount. Originally, Chemours stated it had emitted only 66 pounds that year. In April 2018, the Division of Air Quality reviewed company data and found Chemours had not accounted for leaks, prompting regulators to revise the amount upward by more than 40 times.

As a result, DAQ notified Chemours it intended to modify the company’s air quality permit, and required Chemours to show it was complying with its current one. Facing court-ordered sanctions, including those for groundwater rule violations, Chemours then proposed installing the thermal oxidation and scrubber technology, which will cost roughly $100 million to implement. A proposed consent order filed in June 2018 required the company to achieve the 99.99 percent emissions reduction — the figure now in the proposed air permit.

The air emissions are important because when GenX compounds and other PFAS leave the stacks they can react with water — in the form of rain and humidity — which, when they fall to the earth, then contaminate the soil, surface water and groundwater. The private drinking water wells of dozens of households have been tainted with GenX because of the contaminated groundwater. Some of these homes are as far as seven miles from the plant.

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Environment

Worried about your well water? Scientists are offering free tests this month.

Environmental scientists from Virginia Tech and UNC Chapel Hill are offering free well water testing from Feb. 20 to 27 to any resident or business using a private well. According to a press release from the scientists, the samples will be analyzed for metals such as lead, copper, arsenic and chromium. Anyone in and near Iredell County can request testing, and you do not have to live in the communities where pick up locations are available. However, limited number of kits are available, so they will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Detailed sampling instructions will be provided. Confidential water quality results will be mailed to residents’ homes.

The sampling is similar to that conducted in Robeson County after Hurricane Florence.

Questions: Contact Andrew George at andrewg@unc.edu or 919-966-7839 or Kelsey Pieper at kpieper@vt.edu or 518-928-0177.

Here is the schedule:

WHERE TO PICK UP SAMPLING BOTTLES

Feb. 20-27, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.: Iredell County Health Department, 318 Turnersburg Hwy, Statesville

Mooresville: Government Center South, 610 E. Center Ave.

Statesville: Building Standards Division, 349 N. Center St.

Feb. 27, 5-7:30 p.m.: Rocky Mount United Methodist Church, 1739 Perth Road, Mooresville

WHERE AND WHEN TO RETURN SAMPLES FOR ANALYSIS

All samples must be returned on Thursday, Feb. 28, 6-9 a.m., at Rocky Mount United Methodist Church