This week in pollution: Another violation for Winston Weaver fertilizer plant, plus meetings on proposed mine, coal ash

The Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant, 4440 N. Cherry St., Winston-Salem, fire burned for more than four days in early February. The NC Department of Environmental Quality recently cited the company for violations of the Clean Water Act related to a second stash of chemicals at a different location, where contaminated runoff entered a creek. (Photo: Drone footage, Winston-Salem Fire Department)

For environmental watchdogs, the new EPA notification service is better than birthday, Halloween celebrations combined. Even better than guessing the Wordle puzzle on the first try.

The EPA a free ECHO Notify, and every Monday morning your inbox will ping with a list of all the violations and enforcement actions entered into the database by state and federal regulators the previous week. (The actual violations might have occurred earlier.)

Sign up here.

For instance, this morning the North Carolina notification system reported 300 environmental violations and enforcement actions at 219 facilities. 

Among those violators was the Winston Weaver Fertilizer Plant. The facility stored 600 tons of ammonium nitrate at its facility, 4440 N. Cherry St. Winston-Salem, which caught fire in February. But the company had a second stash of chemicals at a different location, where runoff had polluted a nearby creek, a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The company also failed to document its stormwater discharge, its employee training for spill responses, and other pollution prevention plans.

According to state records, Winston Weaver’s industrial stormwater permit expired in 2017. However, the company had submitted its renewal application in September 2016, so DEQ “administratively continued” the permit beyond its expiration date — for five years.

This map shows the current location of the Chapel Hill Police Department, which sits atop tons of coal ash. The town plans to relocate the department and build apartments and commercial space on top of the ash, which will be covered. (Map: Town of Chapel Hill)

Mine near a school; homes over coal ash

Three Oaks Quarry will formally present its proposal for a mine in Hamptonville, to be built less than 1,000 feet from West Yadkin Elementary School. The Yadkin County Planning and Zoning Board will hear the company’s request for a rezoning to accommodate the project.

Hamptonville residents overwhelmingly oppose the mine; more than 300 people attended a community meeting last month to voice their concerns over water quality, noise, trucks and the mine’s impact on the school.

The company is owned by Jack Mitchell, a Wisconsin real estate developer with experiencing in mining and oil and gas leasing. It is a subsidiary of Synergy Materials. (Tonight, 6 p.m., 213 E. Elm St., Yadkinville)

Also contentious: Chapel Hill’s plan to build 200-plus apartments and 80,000-square-feet of commercial space atop ground contaminated with coal ash. The town police station is currently on the property at MLK Boulevard and Bolinwood Drive, and would relocate.

Coal ash contains hazardous compounds, including Chromium 6, arsenic, lead, radium and cadmium. Town officials say that the material poses no unacceptable risks as long as it is covered and contained. 

But state documents show there have been several instances in other areas of the state where parking lots have eroded or sinkholes have formed, exposing the ash.

Coal ash was used as structural fill on at least 70 sites in North Carolina; none of them has been redeveloped as housing, according to state records.

However that figure certainly an undercount. There is no notification requirement, usually recorded on the property deed, if the amount of ash is less than 1,000 cubic yards. Nor do state records document all of the old “legacy” sites when such activity was unregulated. 

That includes the Chapel Hill site. Town officials didn’t know coal ash had been used at the police department property until late 2013. The material dates from the 1960s and 1970s. 

In 2020, the town removed 1,000 tons of ash and soil along Bolin Creek Trail. To excavate and dispose of the rest of the ash would cost $13 million to $16 million. “If implemented it could result in significant short-term environmental impacts,” a town fact sheet reads, “including risk of exposure to coal ash to Bolin Creek and the community during excavation and on the order of 5,000 truck trips to and from the nearest suitable landfill located 40 miles from Chapel Hill.”

(Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. virtual meeting)

Chemical facility reports it’s the source of latest 1,4-Dioxane spike in Greensboro

This story has been updated with information from Pittsboro.

The City of Greensboro again violated the terms of a Special Order by Consent this week after reporting elevated levels of 1,4-Dioxane had been released from its TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant and into a drinking water supply.

Preliminary levels of toxic 1,4-Dioxane were reported at 52 parts per billion in discharge into South Buffalo Creek on April 5. The consent order and settlement agreement — among Greensboro, state regulators, Haw River Assembly and Fayetteville Public Works Commission — caps the amount of 1,4-Dioxane at 35 ppb.

Lanxess, an international chemical company with a plant in south Greensboro, discharges into the Patton trunk line, one of several that feed the wastewater treatment plant. Lanxess informed the city that self-monitoring showed it’s the source of the 1,4-Dioxane, according to a press release.

The company does not manufacture, use or store 1,4-Dioxane. However, the compound is often a byproduct of manufacturing processes, including plastics.


The samples are undergoing retesting to verify the results. (Update at 2 p.m., April  The Town of Pittsboro released a statement saying that the most current sampling information reports the Patton trunk line, the entry point for the discharge, showed a concentration of 95.1 ppb on April 4.)

As a result, Greensboro has ordered several industries to conduct further testing: In addition to Lanxess, Ecolab, Elastic Fabrics, Precision Fabrics and Vertellus.

Therese Vick, research director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, alerted Policy Watch to the exceedance. “Here we go again, Greensboro violated the Special Order by Consent,” she said. “Why did the Department of Environmental Quality not inform the public and issue a press release?”

A spokesperson for the NC Department of Environmental Quality said all Greensboro followed all notification protocols, including to the state, the public and downstream communities. The state is not required to issue a press release, the spokesperson said.

South Buffalo Creek feeds the Haw River, the drinking water supply for the town of Pittsboro; the Haw is a tributary of Jordan Lake, a major drinking water source for Raleigh, Cary and other municipalities in the Triangle. Traditional wastewater and water treatment systems do not remove the compound.

Because it has the first drinking water intake downstream, Pittsboro receives the brunt of Greensboro’s discharge. Pittsboro officials couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. [Update: Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy said in a press release that the town will continue to monitor the situation with “additional precautionary sampling.” Initial drinking water results are not yet available for the town.]

1,4-Dioxane is a toxic chemical used in degreasers that the EPA has classified as a likely carcinogen. There is no regulatory standard for 1,4-Dioxane, but the EPA has set a health advisory goal of 35 parts per billion for drinking water, which equals a 1-in-10,000 lifetime excess cancer risk. In surface water the rules are stricter: 0.35 ppb, is the legally binding standard.

This week’s release was the fourth reported exceedance from Greensboro since 2019. However levels of the compound in previous exceedances were much higher, ranging from 540 ppb to 1,210 ppb. The 2019 exceedance was traced to Shamrock Environmental, which has a facility in Browns Summit in northern Guilford County.

The sources of exceedances in 2021 are still unknown, officials from the NC Department of Environmental Quality reported last month. The City of Greensboro lists 29 Significant Industrial Users that discharge into the sewer system. Of those, six discharge into the Patton trunk line: GSO Plating, Vertellus, Elastic Fabrics, Lanxess, Precision Fabrics and Shamrock Environmental.

Greensboro officials said in the press release that they are meeting with Lanxess “to discuss next steps.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the legally binding standard of 1,4-Dioxane in surface water.

Chemours settles with DEQ over GenX emmissions

Chemours will pay a $305,000 penalty for air permit violations, as part of a settlement agreement with the NC Department of Environmental Quality that was announced late yesterday.

The Division of Air Quality fined Chemours a year ago because the company had exceeded its GenX emissions over a rolling 12-month period. The company must limit its total GenX emissions to 23 pounds per year, equivalent to a 99% reduction over 2017 levels. State regulators had found that equipment designed to control those emissions,  known as a Carbon Adsorber Unit, had not been properly operated or maintained for nearly a month.

Chemours disputed the penalty and filed a contested case with the Office of Administrative Hearings. The hearing was scheduled to begin next month.

The settlement agreement does buy Chemours some time to upgrade or replace key parts of the Carbon Adsorber Unit. Those repairs must be finished by Oct. 31. GenX emissions from that unit are limited to no more than 1 pound per month, on average, from May through September. The company must also conduct monthly stack testing and report those results to the division.

If Chemours fails to adhere to the terms of the settlement agreement, it faces additional fines of $125,000 per violation.

Chemours reported net sales of $6.3 billion for 2021, up 28% over the previous year. In the fourth quarter of 2021, the company reported net sales of $1.6 billion, according to investor reports.

Active Energy selling Lumberton wood pellet site

CoalSwitch pellets (Photo: Allenby Capital)

Active Energy Group is selling its failed wood pellet facility in Lumberton to Phoenix Investors, a Wisconsin-based commercial real estate firm, according to a press release issued today.

Proceeds from the sale will be used for the development of Active Energy’s commercial production facility in Ashland, Maine. Phoenix Investors is a commercial real estate firm focused on the revitalization of former manufacturing facilities throughout the United States.

Active Energy had purchased the former Alamac American Knits factory in 2019. The company had been awarded a $500,000 building reuse grant from the NC Department of Commerce. However, that money has not been disbursed. The funds will revert to the department’s Rural Economic Development Division.

Active Energy planned to manufacture CoalSwitch wood pellets, heralded as a “game changer” for utilities. The technology creates a wood pellet — made from timber largely cut in southeastern North Carolina — that can be burned alongside coal or as a standalone fuel in traditional power plants with no loss of heat.  Utilities that use CoalSwitch pellets wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to retrofit their facilities. And because the manufacturing process uses steam to explode the pellets to remove some contaminants, they burn cleaner at the power plant than coal.

However, the manufacturing process for wood pellets emits significant air pollution. Those emissions prompted many Lumberton residents to oppose the plant, which is located in a predominantly Native American community.

So far, the plant has never made a single pellet for sale in North Carolina. In 2021, the company altered its engineering plans and emissions estimates without permission from the state, in violation of its air permit. The company never refiled its application.

Facing a deadline to fulfill a contract for the pellets, Active Energy moved some of its pellet operations to Maine. But that plant shut down last fall because of an irreparable equipment failure.

The company also closed its sawmill business at the Lumberton site.

Active Energy has faced other legal action. The Southern Environmental Law Center threatened to sue the company earlier this year for allegedly discharging high levels of toxic PFAS into the Lumber River, a drinking water supply for 25,000 people in Robeson County. The company is also allegedly discharging the compounds into Jacob Branch, a tributary of the Lumber River. 

Active Energy did not produce the PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, but SELC alleges that the company has run afoul of the Clean Water Act, since 2019, when it purchased the property on Alamac Road in Lumberton. The Clean Water Act prohibits facility owners from discharging any pollutants — including PFAS — from their property into rivers and streams without a federal permit. Active Energy’s outdated permit does not include PFAS in the list of pollutants that can be discharged.

“AEG has a singular focus right now on accelerating commercial production to meet the increasing interest in and demand for CoalSwitch,” said Michael Rowan, CEO of Active Energy Group. “We are completing engineering and design activities and have initiated permitting for the Ashland Facility. Bringing that facility online offers us not only the chance to produce and sell CoalSwitch, but also to obtain the critical operational data that will further demonstrate the fuel’s benefits and accelerate the permitting process in other locations across the U.S.”

“We appreciate the support we have received from the community and its leaders in Lumberton and Robeson County,” said Rowan. “We still believe there is significant opportunity for CoalSwitch in the region and look forward to future collaboration with the state.”

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