Raleigh, N.C. — The state Department of Environmental Quality has cited Chemours for failing to report a spill of a GenX precursor into the Cape Fear River last month, raising the possibility of fining the company for the first time since scientists discovered the unregulated compound in drinking water late last year.
Timeline: Tracking the route of GenX in the Cape Fear River
DEQ issued a notice of violation to demand details about the size and duration of an Oct. 6 spill of dimer acid fluoride – which effectively breaks down in water into the equivalent of GenX – at the company’s Fayetteville Works facility in Bladen County. GenX is a poorly studied and unregulated contaminant in a family of chemicals linked to cancer and other negative health effects.
The notice of violation, announced Tuesday morning, gives the company 10 days to respond with more information.
Regulators alerted the public last week that a spike in GenX concentrations near the plant initially tipped them off to the spill, which the company later confirmed in early November. Chemours’ wastewater permit requires that they notify the state within 24 hours. Any civil penalty against the firm would depend on what DEQ finds during its investigation.
“It is both unlawful and unacceptable for a company to fail to report a chemical spill to the state and public as soon as possible,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in a press release. “We will take all appropriate enforcement action to hold Chemours accountable for failing to comply with its permit.”
A spokesman for Chemours didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Experts from the state Department of Health and Human Services months ago set a “health protective” threshold for GenX of 140 parts per trillion after reporting from the StarNews newspaper in Wilmington revealed the presence of the contaminant in treated water downriver from the Chemours plant. That level is the most conservative estimate of risk necessary to protect the most vulnerable people, officials said.
Under pressure from the state, Chemours told regulators earlier this year it halted the discharge of GenX into the river. As a result, state regulators said just three weeks ago they were not planning to suspend the company’s wastewater permit.
DEQ said tests of the river water around the Fayetteville Works facility around the time of the spill last month showed that levels of GenX peaked to 3,700 parts per trillion on Oct. 9. By Oct. 16, the latest data the state has received so far, levels had dropped to 380 parts per trillion in untreated water.
In a release last week from Brunswick County’s public utility, officials reported seeing GenX levels in treated water hit 197 parts per trillion – above the state’s threshold – in samples taken on Oct. 19, after the spill.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which draws from the river and provides drinking water in and around Wilmington, also saw an October spike in its numbers, although the figures for drinking water remained below the state’s health advisory goal.
Tests there show treated water from the Sweeney plant hit 52 parts per trillion on Oct. 18 and 98 parts per trillion on Oct. 23. Samples had been running an average of 35 parts per trillion for the month prior.
The October spill comes as DEQ continues to examine the prevalence of GenX contamination in the groundwater near the Chemours plant. Over the past several weeks, state regulators have directed the company to supply dozens of nearby residents who use private drinking water wells with bottled water after discovering elevated levels of GenX in groundwater.