In June 2017, representatives of the Chemours Company held a public meeting with local and state officials in Wilmington. At the time, the chemical company openly admitted that it and the parent company, DuPont (which operated the facility until 2015) had been dumping GenX, an unregulated chemical, into the Cape Fear River and private residents’ drinking water wells as far back as 1980. As many as 300,000 North Carolinians have been affected but Chemours made no promises to end the chemical discharges.
The state sued Chemours in Bladen County Superior Court later that year. “Protecting people's drinking water is our top priority, and we’ve put Chemours on notice that it must stop discharging these chemicals into the Cape Fear River immediately,” said then-DEQ Secretary Michael Regan.
GenX belongs to the family of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) also known as “forever chemicals.'' These soluble compounds are used in everyday products like nonstick cookware, carpets, food packaging, stain repellents and water-resistant clothing. An extensive Duke University study established that North Carolinians who drank the water from the Cape Fear River had 2 - 4 times more PFAS in their bodies than the average American.
Scientists are making progress in studying the chemicals. Unlike many pollutants, PFAS builds up in the human body and even low concentration exposure has been linked to a wide range of cancers, diseases, and negative health effects.
In February 2019, the state, the Cape Fear River Watch and Chemours entered into a consent order which required Chemours to reduce its air emissions of GenX compounds by more than 99% and make a $100 million investment in its operation near Fayetteville to reduce PFAS emissions by installing a thermal oxidizer to reduce the chemicals.
As part of the agreement, Chemours agreed to pay a $12 million fine to the state. From June 2020 to January 2021 Chemours received three notices of violation for failing to meet the wastewater standards agreed to in the consent order. The company blamed the overage on a temporary increase in air emissions but said the issue was resolved.
On April 28, it submitted a report containing its facility-wide GenX emissions report through March 2021, which the state said was calculated incorrectly. The new calculation showed that Chemours violated its GenX air emission limits in March, April, May and June, 2021.
The consent order also mandated Chemours help those around the Fayetteville Works site by installing filters in their homes if their drinking water wells were contaminated. So far, fewer than 5,000 of the 300,00 affected North Carolinians have received any direct assistance from Chemours.
North Carolina has cited Chemours for multiple state air pollution violations and has fine the company nearly $200,000 for failing to meet terms of a consent order and violations related to the construction and installation of required measures to treat residual chemicals at the company’s Fayetteville Works plant.
State officials said that Chemours could be facing up to a $25,000 fine per day for its current violations or any future violation of North Carolina's air quality rules.
The estimated net worth of the DuPont subsidiary is between $7-10B. So is a $25,000 fine really a deterrent or just the cost of doing business? How many chances should the chemical company get to do the right thing?