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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

After hearing public input, DEQ approves stricter PFAS permit for Chemours

Vince Winkel
WHQR Public Radio
Cape Fear River

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality authorized the discharge permit to minimize PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River stemming from groundwater at the Chemours Fayetteville Works site.

The permit is specifically for the filtration treatment system, but the project also involves a mile-long underground barrier wall that received approval from the DEQ. The wall is intended to stop the flow of contaminated groundwater to the Cape Fear River and redirects it to over 70 extraction wells and into a filtration system to remove PFAS, according to the DEQ.

As of now, that contaminated groundwater flows directly into the Cape Fear River. According to DEQ, this project would be the largest of its kind to rectify PFAS contamination.

Previously, the proposed project only reduced PFAS contamination by 99%, still leaving a higher level of PFAS in the water than what is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, the DEQ says that, "after consideration of the public comments and further review of data and information contained in the permit record," it has updated the guidelines to require a contamination reduction of 99.9% within 180 days, dropping the limits to safe levels as defined by the EPA. The three PFAS chemicals being measured in this process are GenX, PMPA, and PFMOAA.

Response from advocates

Emily Donovan, head of Clean Cape Fear, said that while activists are grateful for the protections, capturing 100% of PFAS is still the goal. She also said that those three PFAS chemicals are among hundreds of types of PFAS chemicals beneath the facility.

“So we’re never going to be satisfied until it’s a 100% complete capture and there’s zero PFAS leaving that facility,” said Donovan.

The theory is that the treatment system will likely capture those other kinds, but Donovan said Chemours “shouldn’t be given any benefits.”

“They’ve never proven themselves to be responsible enough,” she said.

Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, called the permit a "big win," and gave credit to those who shared their "outrage and heartache" over Chemours' actions with the DEQ. She said that, given the strictness of DEQ's updated permit, Chemours would be forced to "essentially remove all pfas to near non-detectable levels."

Sargent also joined others in noting that Chemours' remediation actions to date are "by court order and not because they're 'good neighbors.'"

Other permit conditions

The permit also outlines weekly monitoring of the treatment system’s progress and efficiency during construction, and mandates an evaluation after one year of operation to reassess toxicity limits based on new data or standards.

Cape Fear Public Utility Association and New Hanover County commissioners had previously voiced concerns over how the system would work in the event of severe weather and flooding.

In the approval letter for the barrier wall, DEQ said in the event of a major storm or hurricane, Chemours will be required to more closely monitor the wells and could be required to deploy additional testing equipment.

The project must be operating by March 15, 2023, according to the DEQ.

A Chemours spokesperson said the company was reviewing today’s announcement from the DEQ. This article will be updated with a comment from Chemours when it is available.

Grace is a multimedia journalist recently graduated from American University. She's attracted to issues of inequity and her reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, she's investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast, and produced student-led video stories.