Chemours violated terms of consent order, DEQ cites company

This story has been updated with comments from Chemours.

Chemours’s wastewater treatment at its Fayetteville Works plant failed to adequately remove toxic PFAS — perfluorinated compounds — allowing contamination to enter the Cape Fear River, state regulators said today.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) identifying several instances when the design and operation of the plant in September, October, and November 2020 resulted in violations of a 2019 Consent Order.  The order required Chemours to implement a fully operational wastewater system that would remove 99% of the PFAS from contaminated stream waters flowing through an old outfall. The deadline for the system was Sept. 30, 2020.

Violations of the company’s wastewater discharge permit include exceeding an effluent limit, failure to meet flow requirements, improper operation and maintenance, and failure to mitigate during storm events.

Last October, levels of a type of perfluorinated compound, PFMOAA, in the discharge reached 1.2 parts per billion. The limit is 0.85 ppb.

The failure was partially caused by Chemours’s failure to fully change the activated carbon in its filters.

The company also failed to keep sediment out of the wastewater treatment system. The excessive sediment forced Chemours to shut down the treatment system on Nov. 11 and 12.

Nor did Chemours adequately maintain the structural integrity of the area surrounding the wastewater treatment plant. That allowed erosion and gullying of the slope upstream of the dam.

Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall wrote in an email that the company is reviewing the notice of violation from the state, “and will respond accordingly to their outlined request for information.”

Randall wrote that the wastewater treatment system “has experienced unordinary stresses, including excessive solids, since that time due to above average rainfall.”

According National Weather Service data for Fayetteville, September and October had below normal rainfall; the largest amount in one day fell in September, just 1.27 inches. November, though, was a very wet month, with a total rainfall 3.75 inches above average.

Chemours has already incorporated additional mitigation measures as a result of our learnings, and we are moving forward with treatment of the 002 stream, as well as addressing PFAS loading to the Cape Fear River, as approved by the state as part of our Consent Order and Consent Order Addendum..” Randall wrote.

“DEQ is committed to holding Chemours accountable, and ensuring they meet the requirements of the Consent Order and their permit conditions at all times,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan, who is expected to soon join the EPA as its administrator. “DEQ will continue to take all appropriate actions, from increased oversight to enforcement, to ensure the company meets its obligations to prevent PFAS from entering the Cape Fear River.”

As of Dec. 18, 2020, inspections and data confirmed the treatment system at Old Outfall 002 is online and working as intended to remove PFAS from the contaminated stream channel before it reaches the Cape Fear River, DEQ said in a press release.

The NPDES permit is limited to treatment of the contaminated stream waters at Old Outfall 002.  Since 2017, Chemours has been and is still prohibited from discharging process wastewater.

Beth Markesino of Stop GenX in Our Water issued a statement: “The notice of violation from DEQ to Chemours dates back September 2020 and DEQ has waited until now to enforce the law. There are four separate violations:  exceeding an effluent limit, failure to meet flow requirements, improper operation and maintenance, and failure to mitigate during storm events. I believe that Chemours should receive a NOV per violation of the NPDES permit. DEQ and Chemours are currently under a consent order, and any notice of violation would violate this order leading to fines or pulling of Chemours permits. Our communities are tired of Chemours getting away with violating the law and polluting our river. We depend on DEQ to do what is rite and protect us. “

Earlier this month, DEQ issued an NOV for land-disturbance and stormwater violations related to the installation of the Seep C treatment system under the Consent Order.  DEQ previously issued an NOV for improper disposal of excavated soil during the construction of the treatment system at Old Outfall 002.

DEQ will evaluate the responses and additional information provided by Chemours in determining the civil penalties for all of the violations cited above, as well as the assessment of the stipulated penalties under the Consent Order.

Copies of the NOVs and other documents related to the Consent Order are available here:

Federal judge to USFWS: Release captive red wolves into the wild to head off extinction

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must develop a plan by March 1 to introduce captive red wolves into the officially designated Red Wolf Recovery Area in North Carolina, a federal court ruled last Friday. The release of captive red wolves, raised in zoos and sanctuaries, is one of the last measures to keep the wild population from going extinct.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued an order that temporarily prohibits the agency from implementing its recent policy change barring release of captive wolves into the wild. As few as seven red wolves remain in the wild today.

In his order, U.S. District Court Judge Terence Boyle did not mandate a particular number of wolves to be released or a timeline for the release, only that the agency develop its plan by the deadline.

The Southern Environmental Law Center had sued USFWS on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Institute. The plaintiffs had argued that in failing to release the captive wolves, as it had for decades, the agency was violating the Endangered Species Act.

USFWS released captive wolves into the recovery area every year from 1987 to 2014, according to court documents.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman said the agency declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

In 2000, there were as many as 200 red wolves living in and around the official recovery area eastern North Carolina, primarily Dare and Hyde counties. Yet as the agency began dismantling the recovery program in 2015, the number of red wolves began to drop precipitously.

That same year USFWS announced that it would stop releasing red wolves from captivity into the wild while it reviewed the continued viability of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. The agency also began allowing private landowners to kill non-problem wolves — also known as a lethal take — and ceased sterilizing coyotes. This is important because coyotes can breed with red wolves, diluting the genetic line, jeopardizing the purity, and thus, the protection of the species.

At the time Judge Boyle ruled that USFWS could not legally authorize lethal takes and had to resume the sterilization program.

In the winter of 2019-20, USFWS did release one red wolf into the Red Wolf Recovery Area, which it transferred from the wild population of six red wolves located in St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

However, in court documents, SELC alleged that USFWS  have sterilized only eight coyotes in the Red Wolf Recovery area since 2018, and all were sterilized in February 2020. This is in contrast to 75 coyotes that were sterilized in the same area  between January 2012 and March 2014.

In essence, the SELC alleged that USFWS “have essentially ceased all active management practices aimed at supporting the red wolf population in the wild, and the result has led to near extinction of the wild population of red wolves.”

“The Red Wolf Coalition is grateful that the court saw the importance of releasing captive red wolves to the wild population,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of Red Wolf Coalition. “These additional red wolves will add genetic diversity and breeding opportunities to the wild population in northeastern North Carolina.”

Buttigieg puts greenhouse gas reduction at center of Biden transportation policy

Pete Buttigieg answers questions during his confirmation hearing as secretary of transportation on Jan. 21, 2021. Source: Screenshot/CSPAN

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg offered an unapologetic defense of President Joe Biden’s vision for improved transportation and greenhouse gas reductions during a Senate hearing to consider Buttigieg’s nomination for U.S. transportation secretary last Thursday.

“We need to build our economy back, better than ever, and the Department of Transportation can play a central role in this,” Buttigieg said.

The former Democratic presidential nominee largely enjoyed broad support from the members of both parties on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

But Republicans from Florida and Texas challenged him on the new administration’s “Green New Deal” proposals, and several senators peppered Buttigieg with questions about local initiatives or problems in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Tennessee, ranging from self-driving vehicles to bridge maintenance.

He said there was “bipartisan appetite for a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure.”

Cost of climate plans

Buttigieg’s nomination comes at a time when the incoming administration is looking to find areas of bipartisan cooperation. Such efforts could reinforce Biden’s calls to unite as a country.

But they also could help Biden’s agenda move through Congress, where Democrats have a narrow majority in the U.S. House and the Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties.

An infrastructure package could fit that bill, especially because Congress has less than a year before it must pass a new spending plan for some of the most prominent transportation concerns, including funding for transit and highways.

Still, Buttigieg, who frequently appeared on Fox News to promote Biden’s candidacy, sparred with Republican senators at the hearing over the cost of Biden’s climate plans and their potential impact on the economy.

Biden wants to spend $32 billion in the short term to help financially beleaguered transit agencies, install half a million charging stations for electric vehicles across the country, and increase fuel economy standards for new vehicles.

The transportation nominee told skeptical GOP lawmakers that the country could reduce carbon dioxide pollution while still sustaining a healthy economy.

“Ultimately, we cannot afford not to act on climate,” Buttigieg told U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who questioned Buttigieg about his support for the “Green New Deal.” “The question becomes: How can we do that in a way that creates economic benefit in the near term, as well as preventing catastrophe in the long term?” Read more

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New and alarming figures: Colonial Pipeline spilled 1.2 million gallons of gasoline in Huntersville, 17 times original estimates

This map, included in Colonial Pipeline’s comprehensive site assessment, shows the location of the underground plume of gasoline and petroleum products. Huntersville-Concord Road runs east-west; Asbury-Chapel Road runs north-south. The Oehler Nature Preserve, where the spill occurred, is in the  middle of the map, just north of Huntersville-Concord Road.

The largest gasoline spill in North Carolina history just got bigger.

Colonial Pipeline has released new figures, estimating at least 1.2 million gallons of gasoline spilled from a broken pipe in Huntersville last summer, more than 17 times the original figure. The new numbers are included in a 1,600-page Comprehensive Site Report filed with the NC Department of Environmental Quality yesterday.

In days following the Aug. 14, spill, Colonial estimated the amount at 63,000 gallons, but soon adjusted that figure to 272,000 gallons. In November, it increased that amount to 360,000. State regulators determined that the calculation still “significantly underestimated the volume of gasoline released.” 

On Dec. 9, DEQ sent a letter to the company asking for more precise figures and other information, which was due Dec. 23. Colonial subsequently asked for, and received, an extension until this week.

The spill occurred in the Oehler Nature Preserve, and was discovered by two teenage boys riding ATVs in the area.

Colonial attributed the accident to a broken 42-year-old section of pipe. A preliminary analysis identified a through-wall crack as the source of the release, the company said today, although a final determination of the cause will be made once the technical analyses are complete.

As of Jan. 20, roughly 582,000 gallons of free product and 253,000 gallons of petroleum contact water have been recovered and transported off-site for disposal, according to DEQ.

“The size and scope of this spill requires a rigorous approach to oversight and remediation,” said Division of Waste Management Director Michael Scott in a press release. “We will do a thorough review of the information provided, as it is vital to determine the full extent of the impact in order to guide the cleanup and protection of public health and the environment. DEQ will continue to hold Colonial accountable and oversee their cleanup efforts.”

Colonial has installed 81 groundwater monitoring wells and 50 recovery wells to capture the gasoline, in and near the release location. None of the drinking water wells tested within 1,500 feet of the spill has detected petroleum products above laboratory reporting limits, the company said. But monitoring well data shows groundwater — the source of drinking water for private wells — is contaminated with roughly 20 chemicals, some of them known carcinogens. This includes benzene concentrations are 966 times the state’s maximum contaminant level. Concentrations of toluene exceed three times that level, and another type of hydrocarbon associated with petroleum products, C5-C8 Aliphatics measured 100 times higher than legally allowed.

This chart shows the compounds found in groundwater monitoring wells The term “2L” refers to legally enforceable groundwater standards. Micrograms per liter is also measured as parts per billion. Gross contaminant levels are a different scientific measurement. Colonial notes that four contaminants listed at the bottom of the chart are not from the Aug. 14, 2020, spill, but their origin is unclear.

As a precaution, the company has connected two households to the Charlotte public water system. In October and November, Colonial Pipeline bought three homes near the spill.

In a statement on the Colonial website, the company said it is “committed to protecting public safety, restoring the natural environment, and meeting or exceeding all regulatory requirements. We will continue to work with local partners to remediate Oehler Nature Preserve, and we will expand area partnerships as part of our ongoing Environmental Partners Program. We also remain committed to regaining the trust of our neighbors who have been affected by this event.”

Colonial has estimated it will incur costs of at least $10 million, including $2.6 million to clean up and monitor the contaminated groundwater and soil. DEQ has cited the company for environmental violations, but has yet to assess a penalty. The federal Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has not issued violations related to the spill.

A right-of-way in Huntersville for the Colonial Pipeline. (Photo: Colonial Pipeline)