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Community members voice opposition to proposed Chemours permit

Sweeney Tour 6/15
Camille Mojica
/
WHQR
Deputy Executive Director of Treatment & Engineering at CFPUA, Carel Vandermeyden speaks with NC DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser and Radhika Fox, the assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Chemours has applied for a discharge permit at its Fayetteville works plant, which aims to reduce the amount of PFAS entering the Cape Fear River. But many community members believe the permit doesn’t go far enough.

The Department of Environmental Quality held a public hearing Tuesday night to get comment from residents about a proposed discharge permit for the Fayetteville Works Plant.

Sergei Chernikov, a permit writer with DEQ, said, “Groundwater from decades of contamination from the site continues to flow into the Cape Fear River along the facility's riverbanks. This is the largest recurrent source of PFAS compounds from Chemours site to the Cape Fear River.”

He said the consent order requires Chemours to reduce the PFAS by 99% from the current levels, and to do so, it will build a mile-long barrier wall that's 80 feet deep and 2 feet thick. Alongside that, groundwater wells will be built to capture the contaminated water and pipe it to a treatment facility with a Granular Activated Carbon Filter.

Based on the draft permit, that 99% level would still allow 122 parts per trillion of GenX into the river — that’s twelve times the health advisory level set by the EPA earlier this month.

DEQ’s Julie Grzyb said the proposal would significantly reduce the current PFAS contamination.

“We have PFAS entering into the Cape Fear River daily, everyday. We wanted to stop that. And the consent order requires them to stop that," she explained. "I do not know of another treatment system or barrier wall in the country of this size in this magnitude.”

Despite these assurances, attendees at the public hearing weren’t convinced. Cape Fear River Watch Executive Director Dana Sargent said Chemours should be held to a higher standard. “Regarding this permit, EPA's June 15 Announcement of health advisory levels for Gen X at 10 parts per trillion, PFOS at 0.02, and PFOA at 0.004 or 4 parts per quadrillion, underscores the need to ensure that not one drop of PFAS enters the Cape Fear River.”

Around 100 people showed up to the hearing to either listen or give comment, written or verbal. The vast majority opposed the permit, saying it didn’t go far enough- that Chemours should be required to get the water it discharges to non-detect levels, that it should test for more than three chemicals, or that it should be required to keep the water on-site, rather than putting it into the river.

Geoff Gisler from the Southern Environmental Law Center made legal arguments against the permit, and suggested it’s not lawful for the company to discharge such high levels of PFAS into the water with the permit.

“The only difference between those even those levels and non detect is how frequently Chemours changes out the carbon. That's what the operations and maintenance plan would do," he explained. "It will dictates how frequently Chemours changes out the carbon. And if the limits aren't set at non-detect, then they have the right, not just the ability but the right, to not change the carbon out. So 99% was a good starting point. It is not a lawful or acceptable ending point.”

Gisler pointed out that Cape Fear Public Utility Authority will get PFAS levels down to non-detect with its GAC filter, so Chemours should do the same with the same technology.

Other community members chimed in with agreement, including those representing themselves, or their neighbors, or their children.

High School Student Sheel Patel made a clear argument, and said he wasn't speaking for a class assignment, but as a concerned member of the public. “Even the remaining 1% that is left out of the DEQ proposal is still hundreds of parts per trillion of toxic chemicals," he said. "PFAS has multiple detrimental health effects is linked to a weakened immune response, decreased vaccine response, decreased kidney and liver function and numerous other health problems.”

Patel went further, making an emotional appeal to community members who may have had their health harmed by PFAS exposure.

“My neighbors who live on the road right next to my cul-de-sac were a perfectly healthy couple who had moved into Wilmington 10 years ago. Over the last three years the wife developed ovarian cancer and the husband developed liver cancer. With much time at the hospital and treatment through chemotherapy, they're finally recovering," Patel said. "They told me they strongly believe that it was our contaminated drinking water that caused their cancers. This is just one of the many families who have been impacted by the toxic forever chemicals in our river.”

And the high schooler demanded that DEQ limit the levels in the permit to the point of non-detection. Others, like County Commissioner Rob Zapple, asked that the water be kept on-site, or that the wells be set to handle more significant rain events than the system is currently rated for.

The DEQ will hold one more public hearing this week- a virtual event on Thursday, June 23 at 6pm. Details about how to access the event and give comments are available here. Following this public hearing, the DEQ should come to a decision on the permit after 60 days.

Note: A previous iteration of this article said Chemours had applied for a groundwater permit. It's actually a discharge permit.