NCDEQ Increases Restrictions on PFAS Contamination in CF River in New Discharge Permit for Chemours

The NCDEQ issued a discharge permit for Chemours, in conjunction with its barrier wall to be constructed, which would increase PFAS restrictions in the Cape Fear River to 99.9%. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN NC – The state environmental agency that is working with Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility to mitigate PFAS pollution announced a major milestone in its progress on Thursday. It has increased restrictions on the company for the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances by almost 1% more than originally set out in a consent order that came into effect three years ago.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is proposing to reduce PFAS by 99.9% – from 99% – in a discharge permit issued for a treatment system. It will eliminate groundwater contamination at the Chemours site.

READ MORE: ‘Give us the right to know what the risks are’: Nonprofits continue legal battle with EPA to test health effects of PFAS

“The massive remediation project is the largest of its kind to combat PFAS,” according to Thursday’s statement from the NCDEQ.

After collecting public feedback and conducting research, NCDEQ opted for a granular activated carbon filtration treatment system, which is just one part of a larger barrier wall remediation project that Chemours is commissioned to build.

The draft permit was released for public comment in mid-March. It initially allowed Chemours to offload up to 1,300 ppt of PFAS and raised concern from local officials during the NCDEQ’s March visit to Wilmington.

“This represents a significant increase in qualifying PFAS over the 1,070 rule included in the consent order,” New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple said at the time. “Why on earth would DEQ write a discharge permit that allows Chemours to increase its discharge of GenX and PFAS into the Cape Fear River?”

The Deputy Director of NCDEQ’s Water Resources Division explained that the 99% removal indicator would address the majority of PFAS, essentially replacing the parts per trillion levels.

Zapple was not alone in his concerns. More than 250 written comments were submitted to the NCDEQ, along with nearly 50 people who spoke at in-person and virtual hearings in June.

People asked for stricter permit limits, requiring a reverse osmosis treatment system, more frequent sampling, and mandating a wall maintenance plan as part of the permit. They also called for additional limitations on the amount of PFAS allowed in the water.

On June 15, the EPA announced that GenX – a form of PFAS detected in the Cape Fear River – would be set at 10 parts per trillion (ppt), replacing the established 140 ppt statewide in 2018. There are currently no regulations or health advisories on other PFAS (however, the Environmental Protection Agency took a step toward additional compounds when it proposed late last month to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous chemicals”).

The DEQ permit finalized incorporated changes from the original draft and will impose limits on three indicator compounds, totaling 540 ppt. After 180 days, the metrics will drop significantly to 40 ppt combined.

  • GenX will be limited to 120 ppt; then go down to less than 10 ppt
  • PMPA is fixed at 100 ppt; then decrease to 10 ppt
  • The PFMOAA is initially limited to 320 ppt; which will be reduced to less than 20 ppt after the first six months

Additionally, the permit will require weekly monitoring upstream and downstream of the Chemours site as a 1 mile long barrier wall is under construction.

The NCDEQ told Cape Fear officials and community members during its March visit that groundwater is the largest contributor to pollution at the facility, at more than 60%. The dam wall installation at Fayetteville Works will collect and treat water before it is released into the river.

The wall will extend to a depth of 60 to 80 feet and be approximately 2.5 feet thick to prevent groundwater from escaping into the waterway. From there, more than 70 extraction wells will capture water, averaging 2.4 million gallons per day, and then treat it through granular activated carbon filters. The process will remove approximately 99.9% of PFAS compounds before being discharged into the Cape Fear.

On Thursday, the NCDEQ released a letter approving the design of the barrier wall, which includes additional monitoring wells, sampling of extraction wells and management of contaminated groundwater during construction of the wall.

A 401 water quality certification—required before any federal permits are issued—is also being finalized by the NCDEQ. It is expected to minimize impacts during construction of the wall in conjunction with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit 404 – regulating dredging and fill materials entering waterways during construction.

The NPDES permit will be reassessed after one year and, if necessary, will incorporate new data and further tighten the imposed limits. It can also be modified to add updated thresholds based on new toxicity data, the introduction of federal or state PFAS standards, or if another PFAS compound passes through the treatment system faster than current parameters allow. .

The project must be operational by March 15, 2023.

Three hundred thousand people in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties have been affected by toxic drinking water coming out of the Cape Fear River over four decades, due to PFAS pollution.

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