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

Environment

Critics pounce on the lack of urgency in EPA’s “Action Plan” on PFAS

Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker spoke at EPA’s office in Research Triangle Park to unveil the agency’s national PFAS Action Plan. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Environmental advocates and residents of contaminated communities are irate. The Cooper administration is disappointed. But 3M, a primary manufacturer of per- and polyfluorinated compounds — PFAS — is satisfied.

After receiving 120,000 written comments and holding listening sessions and a National Leadership meeting with state officials, the EPA unveiled its national PFAS Action Plan yesterday, but the most notable aspect of the 60-plus page report was its lack of action. The EPA began implementing rules and guidelines about a few of these toxic compounds nearly 20 years ago, but it has yet to establish an enforceable drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, just two of thousands of per- and polyfluorinated compounds. 

Nonetheless, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency’s “top priority is getting this action plan done quickly and right.”

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement calling the EPA’s plan “weak.”

“I am disappointed that the agency’s action plan does not commit to setting standards, lacks detail on what research is planned on specific compounds like GenX, and seems to ignore the urgency of the problem,” Gov. Cooper said. “Today’s announcement contradicts promises made in public meetings in North Carolina last summer to work swiftly to set standards and recommendations for these compounds. People deserve to have confidence in the water they drink, and this weak action by the EPA negatively impacts state efforts to protect water quality and public health.”

A 3M spokesperson said the company “supports regulation rooted in the best-available science and believe that this plan may help prevent a patchwork of state standards that could increase confusion and uncertainty for communities. 3M also urges the EPA to continue to fully engage with communities and to ensure action items in the plan are completed on a clearly-defined schedule. This will provide citizens with the highest degree of confidence in the quality of their drinking water.”

Wheeler and Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker — she held a press conference at the agency’s offices in Research Triangle Park — assured the media and public that  proposed drinking water standards are coming — at the end of the year. Even then, it could take months, well into 2020, before an official maximum contaminant level, an MCL, is established.

But these standards won’t include GenX and the thousands of other related compounds. They are on the waiting list, even for final determinations of their toxicity. That assessment is expected to occur later this year — and beyond.

Under a voluntary phaseout that ended in 2002, the industry has retired PFOA and PFOS from production. Yet because of their chemical composition, the compounds persist in the environment and people. Agency officials estimate 99 percent of people in the US have some level of these compounds in their body. Nearly 2,000 of the nation’s 151,000 public drinking water systems contain levels of PFOA and PFOS above the federal health advisory goal of a combined 70 parts per trillion. This figure doesn’t include households that rely on private wells, which are fed by groundwater.

Nor does the plan address how to dispose of the tons of these compounds that are contaminating water and land.

The EPA is known for its glacial pace in rule making, although with climate change, some glaciers calve more quickly than the agency moves. The report lays out extended timelines for meaningful progress:

  • The EPA “is considering” adding PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory. The TRI is a public database established under the Community Right-to-Know Act. Although industries voluntarily self-report the data, the TRI gives the public an inkling of who is polluting what and where.
  • The EPA “is working on” listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund program. Such a move would require responsible parties, such as Chemours, DuPont and 3M, to pay to clean up the contamination and potentially cover costs for upgrading water treatment plants.
  • Under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, the EPA will “propose” nationwide drinking water monitoring for PFAS, but not until the next round begins in 2020. And that’s merely monitoring, not regulatory action.
  • The agency is expected to develop “interim” cleanup recommendations for groundwater contaminated with PFOA and PFAS that “are protective” and call for “timely clean up.” That action is “anticipated” sometime this year.
  • It will develop testing methods for PFAS in surface water, wastewater, soil, sludge, fish and air — between 2019 and 2021.
  • Two years from now the EPA plans to determine if the science supports limiting the amount of discharges to waterbodies.
  • The agency uses “enforcement tools, when relevant and appropriate” to address PFAS exposures. Relevant and appropriate aren’t defined. (Yesterday, Policy Watch reported that the agency did cite Chemours in Fayetteville for several violations, but has yet to announce a financial penalty.)
  • And in 2022, the EPA says it will develop toxicity data to better protect aquatic life.

“EPA’s proposal for PFOA and PFOS is an empty gesture for American families and communities,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. The firm is representing Cape Fear River Watch in court to stop PFAS pollution from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville. “We know that these chemicals are only two members of a larger group of toxic pollutants already in our rivers, groundwater, and water supplies, all of which must be cleaned up. While it’s essential that polluters are forced to clean up their existing pollution, EPA must also act to prevent industry from discharging these toxins and endangering people in the first place. The agency’s plan does nothing to stop ongoing pollution, a role that this administration has abandoned.”