WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - In a public information session Wednesday night, Cape Fear River Watch and the Southern Environmental Law Center helped people understand their consent order against Chemours requiring the company to pay retributions for polluting the environment.
About 50 members of the public attended the session at UNCW’s Lumina Theatre.
Kemp Burdette, riverkeeper with Cape Fear River Watch, joined Geoff Gisler, senior attorney with the SELC, were on hand to answer questions.
The pair provided an overview of the consent order, which requires Chemours to reduce air and water emissions, clean up groundwater contamination, fund health studies, share information about emerging contaminants, provide permanent drinking water for eligible well owners and more.
"This consent order is what we believe to be the fastest way to clean up the pollution at Chemours' site and to keep the pollution from contaminating the Cape Fear River,” said Gisler.
A member of the public brought up concerns raised by New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White on Tuesday. White asked fellow board members to join ranks and oppose the proposed consent order.
White pointed out that Chemours does not admit liability in the consent order.
“That’s a common part of consent orders,” replied Gisler. “I think what’s most important is that regardless of whether they admit or deny wrongdoing, they are cleaning up the pollution and cleaning up the mess they made. They’re cleaning up the air pollution. They’re cleaning up runoff from their site. They’re cleaning up the groundwater.”
Burdette said he wasn’t focused on having Chemours admit fault in the legal agreement.
“My primary concern is stopping the pollution,” said Burdette. “My concern is getting safe drinking water to the close to 300,000 that use Cape Fear River water. My primary concern is not playing a blame game or gaining political points.”
White also raised the concern that the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County were not included in discussions about this consent order.
"Those groups weren't included because CFPUA has its own lawsuit,” said Burdette. “Our lawsuit does absolutely nothing to stop their lawsuit from moving forward. I think their lawsuit should move forward. I think they should try to recover the damages that they’ve incurred from Chemours polluting our drinking water supply."
Gisler explained the consent order was designed to specifically address concerns by Cape Fear River Watch and does not get in the way of other ongoing lawsuits or prevent any future lawsuits.
“The first part of solving this problem is stopping the pollution from going into the Cape Fear River, and that’s what this order will do,” Gisler said. "That doesn’t mean that the whole problem is solved, and there are a number of different cases from the public utilities to class action cases that will address other parts of this problem.”
Another member of the public asked how the penalty of $12 million was decided for Chemours, and wondered why it was not higher.
Gisler and Burdette said they could not get into specifics about how that financial penalty was negotiated, reminding the public that this was the highest fine in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s history.
When asked whether the consent order addressed PFAS and GenX accumulation in river sediment, Gisler and Burdetted replied that river sedimentation is not fully understood yet, and this order would prevent future sediment buildup.
When asked why Chemours has not been shut down, Gisler replied: “The last thing we want them to do is close up shop and leave and not clean it up.”
Cape Fear River Watch and Chemours have signed off on the consent order, but DEQ is waiting until the public comment period closes on Dec. 21 before signing. Then a judge must give the consent order final approval.
“This is a first step," Burdette said. "This is stopping the source of contaminants. There will be a lot more.”
Bob Stewart, a Wilmington resident in attendance, said he remains concerned about Chemours but is pleased with the consent order.
"After hearing two presentations now from Cape Fear River Watch, which I have a lot of confidence in, and has a lot of public credibility, I think they did the best they could to shut off pollution from the source,” said Stewart.
North Carolina’s laws need to focus more on preventing environmental pollution, Stewart said.
"I think we should all be concerned, but the concern needs to be addressed by developing a country and laws that prevent companies from dumping chemicals in the environment, and that is precluded before they start production,” said Stewart.