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Pollution

North Carolina regulators seek court order against Chemours’s fluoroether pollution

Move threatens continued operation of plant

by Cheryl Hogue
April 11, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 16

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Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
North Carolina says Chemours must show that its air emissions don't pollute groundwater or the state will prohibit the company's Fayetteville Works from releasing certain fluoroethers into the atmosphere.

To protect drinking water, North Carolina regulators are asking a state court to order Chemours to stop fluoroether pollution from its plant outside of Fayetteville.

If the court grants the request of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the facility, which makes Nafion ion-transporting polymers and other fluorochemical products, could face at least a partial shutdown.

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Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid

In addition to controlling air emissions and other sources of fluoroether pollution, DEQ wants Chemours to hand over information about the use of a drainage ditch at the plant that was contaminated with fluoroethers. According to the agency’s April 9 court filing, Chemours for an unknown period of time discharged industrial process wastewater into the open ditch, bypassing the facility’s wastewater treatment plant. The untreated water flowed into the Cape Fear River, DEQ says.

“It’s time for Chemours to own up to the level of contamination they have caused to the environment in and around their Fayetteville Works facility,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan says. Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA) and other fluoroethers contaminate the Cape Fear River—which runs past the plant and supplies downstream drinking water utilities—as well as the river’s sediments. HFPO-DA is also found in groundwater beneath the plant and up to 11 km from the plant in the reverse direction of groundwater flow.

Chemours has not responded to C&EN’s requests for comment on this or other stories this year about the fluoroether pollution.

DEQ’s request to the court is a legal backstop to an April 6 warning letter the department sent to Chemours regarding the Fayetteville plant emitting to the atmosphere HFPO-DA and two related fluoroethers that hydrolyze into HFPO-DA. One of those chemicals is GenX, a surfactant used as a polymerization aid to manufacture fluoropolymers. The agency says it’s confirmed a causal link between the fluoroether emissions from the plant and HFPO-DA pollution in groundwater.

In the letter, DEQ says it will modify the company’s air pollution permit to bar emission of the fluoroethers unless Chemours demonstrates that its emissions do not end up tainting groundwater. Toxicity of HFPO-DA and other fluoroethers is unclear, but some studies suggest they could be hazardous to human health.

“The incessant fouling of the state’s natural resources by Chemours cannot be sustained under law,” DEQ Director Michael A. Abraczinskas says in the warning letter to the company.

DEQ also says the plant’s air emissions of HFPO-DA and related compounds are greater than Chemours previously reported. Last June, the company told DEQ it released about 30 kg of HFPO-DA-related compounds in 2016. In October, the company revised this 2016 figure to 269 kg. Based on measurements taken in January by a Chemours-paid contractor, DEQ calculates that the plant could release more than 1,225 kg of GenX-related fluoroethers into the air each year.

Chemours began capturing its wastewater for disposal elsewhere last year. In November, the state revoked the facility’s wastewater discharge permit for its fluorochemicals production area.

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