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State threatens Chemours permit, says company misled officials on GenX

Posted September 5
Updated September 6

Cape Fear River

— State regulators threatened Tuesday to pull Chemours' permit over the GenX scandal and said in a letter that plant operators misled environmental officials for years about what was going into the Cape Fear River.

State officials also announced they've begun a lawsuit against the company, saying it violated the state's water and air resources laws. The state may use a court order to stop company discharges into the river, which supplies drinking water in and around Wilmington.

The Department of Environmental Quality also said that, after weeks of looking through permit files, it finds no evidence that the company ever told regulators that GenX, used to make Teflon, was going into the Cape Fear River.

"In fact, the information provided by DuPont and Chemours led (Division of Water Resources) staff to reasonably believe that no discharge of GenX had occurred," a department said in a letter to the company that was also posted to a DEQ website.

"DuPont and Chemours' ongoing misrepresentations and inadequate disclosures, which have only recently come to light, shielded important information from DEQ and the public," the letter states.

WRAL News has requested comment from Chemours, and this post will be updated when it is received. DuPont ran the plant in Fayetteville until 2015, when Chemours was spun off from the conglomerate. The state said company officials told regulators in 2010 that GenX was part of a "closed loop system" that wouldn't discharge into the river.

GenX is part of a "perfluorinated" family of chemicals and meant to replace older versions of compounds known to cause cancer in animals. GenX itself hasn't been as heavily researched, and the jury is still out on the compound's toxicity, but its presence in the river and the difficulty of removing it from water sparked safety concerns.

Chemours stopped dumping GenX into the river in June at the request of state officials. A series of articles in The Wilmington StarNews led to more robust water testing, as well as an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week that it found more substances with unclear health impacts, identified as Nafion byproducts 1 and 2, flowing into the river from Chemours' Fayetteville plant.

The state has said it remains safe to drink water from municipal supplies along the river, but regulators asked the company last week to end these discharges just as it stopped discharging GenX. Tuesday's letter takes a stronger approach, giving notice that the state plans to suspend the Chemours' wastewater discharge permit in 60 days, a grace period required by law, unless the company meets several ultimatums.

That includes an end, by Friday, to discharges of Nafion byproducts 1 and 2. Friday also brings a deadline from legislation passed last week by the General Assembly requiring DEQ to either issue a Notice of Violation to Chemours or provide the legislature with a detailed explanation of why it hasn't done so.

Republican leaders in the legislature have questioned Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration's response on GenX, and the House and Senate both created select committees on the matter. Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, said in an emailed statement Tuesday that he was "glad to see the governor’s administration is finally taking action" and that he hopes a Notice of Violation will follow soon.

​The administration's letter to Chemours also set an Oct. 20 deadline to stop discharging other perfluorinated or polyfluorinated chemicals into the river. The company also must provide a full list of chemicals in the facility's waste stream, something the DEQ first requested July 21, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan told reporters last week.


Tracking GenX

State environmental officials began testing locations along the Cape Fear River for concentrations of GenX on June 19, 2017, and have continued to sample the water to track the contaminant. After the chemical company Chemours agreed to stop dumping GenX into the river June 20, concentrations dropped drastically, in most cases below the 140 parts per trillion public health standard set by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Find out more about how the state's ongoing tests of water for GenX in 13 locations along the Cape Fear River have changed over time. "Raw" sites were tested before water treatment, while "finished" sites were tested after treatment. Data updated Aug. 28, 2017

 
Below standard Above standard
Graphic by Tyler Dukes

Evidence of GenX in the Cape Fear turned up last year in an report distributed to state environmental officials, as well as the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. This went largely unnoticed until June, when The StarNews published its series.

The authority pushed last week for more decisive state action, calling on DEQ to stop asking Chemours to voluntarily end discharges and move on the company's permit. The authority said in an emailed statement Tuesday that it is "encouraged to see continued progress in DEQ’s efforts to ensure the Cape Fear River is properly protected."

"It is unfortunate that it takes legal action for Chemours to fully disclose what, and how much, it discharges to the Cape Fear River," the authority said in its release.

Regan said in June that Chemours' GenX discharge was "not breaking the law," but the secretary walked that back on Friday, telling reporters on a conference call that at the time the state didn't have enough information to determine whether a violation had occurred.

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