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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

After 30 years of pollution, Chemours' 'neighborly' ad campaign gets an unsurprisingly icy reception in the Cape Fear

From recent promotional advertisements run in the Wilmington market.
Chemours Neighbors
From recent promotional advertisements run in the Wilmington market.

Recently, Chemours has been running a series of television ads, touting themselves as 'good neighbors' — sparking fierce pushback from local leaders, as well as local news station WECT, which noted it was not responsible for the ad content that airs during broadcasts and shared the feedback it had received from disgusted viewers.

The company has created several 15- and 30-second commercials, pointing to their recent efforts to reach a 2030-goal of reducing pollutants by 99%.

Many were quick to note that Chemours did not take this action proactively, but after they were forced to address their pollution by a court order, part of a lawsuit by local environmental group Cape Fear River Watch and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Many also noted that these actions came after at least three decades of industrial pollution from Dupont and, later, from Chemours, a company created in part to absorb potential legal liabilities.

The commercials brought swift pushback from the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority — one of Chemours' loudest critics, in no small part because CFPUA has been left on the hook for hundreds of millions in water filtration costs to filter out Chemours' PFAS from the Cape Fear River. CFPUA has filed suit against Chemours, but currently neither the state nor Chemours have focused on the 'downstream' costs of Chemours' decades of pollution.

Frustration for local journalists

The commercials ran on WWAY, WECT, Fox, and Spectrum and put those stations' in-house news departments in a tough position. A report by WECT's Ann McAdams highlighted the frustrations of viewers — one who called the advertisements 'gaslighting' — and included an editor's note, stating, "WECT News department has no say in what airs during paid commercial time between newscast segments. Those decisions are made by the WECT Sales department," an arrangement shared by almost all news departments and the separate ad departments that operate under their parent companies.

While most responsible news outlets have a 'firewall' between editorial and sales decisions, the situation is no doubt frustrating — compounded by the fact that not all viewers, readers, or listeners have a nuanced sense of the relationship between news and ad departments.

Thankfully for those in news departments, local environmental groups, particularly Clean Cape Fear, called on television viewers to direct their anger and frustration towards sales departments.

County officials push back as well

Following WECT's reporting, on Thursday New Hanover County Chair Julia Olsen-Boseman released a statement, taking issue with Chemours' self-appraisal as a good neighbor.

"We certainly wouldn’t knowingly dump poisonous chemicals in our neighbors’ drinking water for decades, reap huge profits and refuse requests to pay to clean up our mess, then go around the neighborhood bragging about how awesome a neighbor we are," Olsen-Boseman's statement read in part.

Across the PFAS-polluted river in Brunswick County, Brunswick County Chairman Randy Thompson was likewise unmoved by Chemours' recent charm offensive. Thompson released a statement, which read in part: "Like many of you, I have started to see the barrage of advertisements from Chemours, the company responsible—along with DuPont—for putting unknown amounts of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into our drinking water for decades. Their newest public relations campaign touts Chemours’ efforts to protect quality of life and the environment by reducing their pollutants—all because they are 'good neighbors' and 'North Carolina is their home.'"

Thompson added: "Let’s get a couple of things clear: Chemours is not a friend to North Carolinians. Chemours is not a friend to the residents of Brunswick County."

In an open letter from the Brunswick and New Hanover County chapters of the NAACP, leaders pointed to the financial burden on low-income residents — some of whom struggle to afford home water filters, bottled water, or water bills that have increased in part to deal with Chemours' pollution.

The letter, signed by Carl Parker, president of Brunswick County NAACP, and Brayton Willis, chairman of the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee in New Hanover County, asked Chemours to take meaningful action.

"If Chemours wants to advertise itself as being a “caring good neighbor”, please genuinely help us. Reach deep into your “free cash” pocket and pay for the damages that your corporation has done to our precious drinking water and watershed. Help us to preserve, protect and celebrate our precious watersheds, wetlands, and irreplaceable ecosystems. Act in a sustainably responsible way to help us reverse the ever-growing tide of pollution that contaminates our drinking water, impacts our health, and destroys our environment," the asked, ending by noting, "Chemours’ future actions will speak louder than any words on a 30 second TV commercial."

Chemours' response

WHQR contacted Chemours to ask for additional comments in light of recent pushback from county elected leaders and NAACP officials. Chemours issued the following statement:

We’ve received feedback from multiple sources, including our Community Advisory Board, that many residents, while familiar with Chemours, are not aware of the emissions reductions we have completed and the additional remediation work we are undertaking. Because of that we prepared a series of commercials to inform the public about our work. The first ad began running in November and provided a general overview of the emissions reductions we have achieved and actions we are taking. The new ad, which will run for the next few months is about the barrier wall along the Cape Fear River we are preparing to construct. Subsequent ads will be produced as needed as we continue our work. Chemours is only one of many sources that impact the Cape Fear River system — we want the public to know we are doing our part and we hope others will do theirs.

In response to WECT's reporting earlier this week, Chemours issued the following statement:

“Chemours has done a significant amount of work to reduce emissions and complete remediation activity at our Fayetteville site in the past four years. These messages in our ad campaign are meant to keep the public informed about the work we are doing—exactly the type of information our communities around the plant and downstream—including your viewers—have asked us about. Our goal to reduce PFAS emissions by 99% is part of our Corporate Responsibility Commitment announced in 2018 to reduce fluorinated organic compound emissions from our manufacturing process. We know of no other company that has made a similar commitment,” the statement reads.

“Chemours has worked closely with our state regulatory agencies throughout these four years, including entering a Consent Order, and that work sets a high bar for our company and our manufacturing processes. In fact, we are currently designing and beginning construction for an in-ground barrier wall along the Cape Fear River next to our site; that wall is planned to be a mile long and six stories deep into the ground to help keep compounds from reaching the river. We are one of many contributors along the Cape Fear River system—the largest river system in the state. Chemours is doing our part to improve the river and we hope others will as well.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.