DEQ secretary on proposed Chemours consent order: ‘It’s a very strong first step’

DEQ secretary on proposed Chemours consent order: ‘It’s a very strong first step’

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Secretary Michael Regan said on Wednesday the state’s proposed consent order against Chemours is a “very strong first step” towards cleaning up and protecting the drinking water supply.

The proposed order, filed on Nov. 21 in Bladen County Superior court, requires Chemours to adhere to a host of regulations and monitoring measures as well as provide permanent drinking water supplies to those whose wells tested positive for GenX above the 140 parts per trillion threshold. Permanent drinking water through the installation of three under-sink reverse osmosis filters must also be installed for people whose wells test above 70 ppt for combined PFAS, or above 10 ppt for any one PFAS, including GenX.

Chemours will also have to pay $12 million in civil penalties, and another $1 million in investigation costs.

The public comment period for the proposed order will be open until Dec. 21.

To submit a response, submit a comment to comments.chemours@ncdenr.gov or mail a response to the assistant secretary’s office, RE: Chemours Public Comments, 1601 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699.

Regan sat down with WECT Wednesday morning to answer some of the lingering questions raised by those impacted by Chemours' contamination of the drinking water.

Question: Some of the mechanisms in the proposed order are more focused on those closest to the Fayetteville Works plant, so some feel the order doesn’t go far enough to protect the people in Wilmington and the surrounding area. Can you speak to those concerns?

Regan: “This is a very comprehensive approach, but it’s a very solid first step. It also is complimentary to other activities that are occurring. If you take a look at the immediate stopping of the discharge and air emissions and the groundwater cleanup, the downstream recipients of the chemical compounds, or the people in and around Wilmington, are benefiting from what DEQ is doing to stop the source of pollution. You also have the complimentary efforts of the federal lawsuit that the local public utility has filed. That is intended to pursue damages. And then you have the class-action lawsuits that are occurring here as well, so the comprehensive nature of all of those actions are what we consider the right steps in protecting the people of Wilmington. In Bladen County, when you look at the remedies we’ve sought for permanent hookups and/or filtration systems, those are designed to protect those whose well water has been saturated by these chemical compounds and do not have a public utility authority pursuing remedy in a federal court like the people in Wilmington have. And so, if you take a look at these actions that we’re taking, they’re indicative of the types of actions that are taken across the country when you have activities occur like this one, and that is: the state’s responsibility is to comprehensively address the contamination, stop the source of the pollution, and penalize the companies for the actions that they’ve taken. We have set what I would call a record-level penalty for this company, and that’s designed to send a signal, not only to Chemours, but any company in the state of North Carolina, that if you violate our laws and contaminate our drinking water then there are consequences to pay. There’s a culmination of financial disincentives here for the company as well. They’re going to have to install control technologies to control the air emissions that far exceed a $100 million investment. They’re going to have to provide permanent drinking water solutions for many people who have been impacted. And they have to spend lots of resources to clean up the contamination. Those remedies by no means reduce the opportunities for those who are seeking damages like the public authority here and those who are filing class action lawsuits.”

Q: Because of this agreement, DEQ would be somewhat limited in bringing any other action against Chemours. Do you have any concerns about that?

Regan: “We don’t have any concerns because this consent order is designed to address the issues that we know of today using the science and the data we have now. In the even that we get new data, new science, in the event that there are new regulations set or new standards set by the state or the federal government, this consent order does not prevent us from going further and being more stringent. This consent order recognizes that with the science and data we have in hand that this is a very strong first step, but these emerging compounds are evolving, and as it evolves, this consent order allows the state to do what it needs to do to adequately protect the drinking water for the citizens of North Carolina.”

Q: As part of the proposed consent order, Chemours has denied “any non-compliance or violation of any law, regulation or permit.” Does that set any precedent?

Regan: “There’s no precedent being set, typically these types of agreements contain that level of language. What I can say is that the priority for us is the health and well-being of the people of North Carolina. And so, we’ve achieved the goal that we set out in terms of that first step, which is controlling GenX and the PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from the source. Remember, there will be no discharge of GenX or these PFAS compounds from this facility, from the air and technically from the water. In addition to that, they have to clean this mess up, and they are paying the largest fine that a single source has paid the DEQ in North Carolina history. This agreement, again, does not prevent the federal court case for damages that others are seeking. And actually, what this does is it begins to create a public conversation around what the state and federal government needs to do to address these emerging compounds.”

Q: How did the DEQ come up with the $12 million fine? Is that enough for the decades of malfeasance?

Regan: “We have a formula that we use when coming up with our fines. It would be irresponsible for me to violate the good-faith effort of the negotiations (for the consent order) to talk specifically about that. What I would say is, I don’t want to get out in front of the judge rendering judgement on whether or not this is a fair agreement, but there will be a conversation and a discussion about all of the components of this order that will play out in court if the judge does see this as a fair and equitable effort for moving forward. Again, this is a really strong first step, but it’s not the completion of this. And I think we have to also take into account that we are looking at the remedies that we’re seeking to protect drinking water from Chemours, but we’re also looking more expansively than just this one company to be sure that we can trace where pollutants are coming from and how they might possibly be impacting the drinking water upstream and downstream.”

Q: Is DEQ reevaluating its GenX health goal of 140 parts per trillion following the release of the EPA’s oral reference dose?

Regan: “We’re following that science very closely, we’re working hand-in-hand with the EPA along with our department of Health and Human Services. Again, this consent order does not prevent us, as that science evolves, if those recommended standards are more stringent, this consent order does not prevent us from ratcheting down. And so, we are working hand-in-hand with all of our partners at the state and federal level, and as new information comes about, we can govern ourselves accordingly.”

Q: What happens after the public comment period ends on Dec. 21?

Regan: “Once the public comment period is over, we’ll take those comments into consideration, hopefully the judge will sign off on this consent order and we’ll begin to move forward with the elements of this order. DEQ’s job is far from done. We’ll continue to investigate where the PFAS compounds are coming from well beyond Chemours. And we’ll continue to take action. You might recall that we requested resources from the General Assembly over a year ago because we knew this contamination would not just stop with Chemours, but it’s a larger issue at the state and federal level. And so, we’ll continue to make the case that North Carolina needs the resources to adequately address drinking water issues, and we’ll continue to pursue our investigation to the best of our ability to protect the public health of the people in and around Wilmington, but also across the state.”

Copyright 2018 WECT. All rights reserved.