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Water treatment plant upgrades taking shape years after GenX discovery

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 6:36 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s been five years now since Eastern North Carolina encountered the GenX water crisis.

Since the discovery of contaminants in the Cape Fear River, local governments and utilities have spent millions of dollars and countless hours working to remedy it, many of which are starting to take shape.

At CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in New Hanover County, new granular activated carbon filters are already being installed.

Construction on the filters began in November of 2019 and this long term fix is on track to go online about six months from now.

“The only reason they were building these filters is because Chemours and Dupont spent 40 years discharging their PFAS to the Cape Fear River,” said CFPUA’s Public Information Officer Vaughn Hagerty. “When these filters are built they’re going to be very, very effective at removing that PFAS.”

Crews are also hard at work tackling the same problem in Brunswick County, where a new reverse osmosis (RO) plant is taking shape.

“There’s a lot of excavation going on right now and the project’s moving along but it’s early yet,” said Brunswick County Public Utilities Director John Nichols.

The county was in the final phase of expanding the northwest water plant when the GenX crisis came to light.

“We were already planning on expanding however we didn’t plan on expanding it with the advanced treatment but when we found out about GenX in the Cape Fear River, we knew we had to make some changes to the project, some pretty significant changes,” said Nichols.

Those changes came with a hefty price tag, which is why the county is one of many parties, like CFPUA, involved in the federal lawsuit to ensure the improvements to remove the contaminants from the drinking water are paid for.

“Currently the lawsuit is in discovery, it’s thousands and thousands of documents, emails and other records that need to be gone through, and that could take as long as another year,” explained Hagerty.

But providing clean water can’t wait. At this rate, Brunswick County and CFPUA will have their multi million dollar water treatment plants operational well before the fall 2023 expected trial date.

“The one thing to take from all of this is that clean water is an incredibly important part of our community — you can’t replace it. It’s not just the water that comes out of your tap, it’s the source of that water and we all need to play a part in making sure that water is protected,” concluded Hagerty.

These two facilities aren’t the only water projects underway. Separate from the efforts to mitigate GenX from surface waters, H2GO is also building a RO facility to purify groundwater.

Pender County is in the planning stages of constructing its own RO facility in the next five years to purify well water.

A representative of Chemours issued the following statement Wednesday afternoon:

Chemours has taken numerous actions over the past four years that have significantly decreased emissions of PFAS and loading to the Cape Fear River. Upon learning of PFAS levels detected in the river downstream from Chemours’ Fayetteville Works manufacturing site, we stopped discharge of our process water, which decreased levels of HFPO-DA (GenX) in the river by 95 percent. We also designed and constructed carbon filtration units and a state-of-the-art emissions control facility that uses high-temperature thermal oxidization to break down PFAS to limit their emission. The thermal oxidizer began operating on December 27, 2019 and is destroying 99.999% of PFAS channeled to it. Chemours has also begun to implement a site remediation plan to address legacy PFAS. Addressing legacy discharges is complex and requires multiple actions over time. To date we are making substantial progress in this effort.

Remedial activities that have been completed or are currently underway include:

  • Design and construction of a water treatment facility that is capturing and treating groundwater that expresses itself as a stream. This facility began operating on September 30, 2020;
  • Design and construction of a storm water capture and treatment system that recently began operating and removing PFAS greater than 95 percent efficiency.
  • Construction of four treatment units along the Cape Fear River where naturally occurring seepage of groundwater is being captured and treated in place to remove PFAS before the water is allowed to continue on its natural course toward the river;
  • Site preparation activity for construction of a groundwater remedy that includes an underground barrier wall that will be 70-85 feet in depth and will run parallel to the Cape Fear River to keep groundwater from reaching the river. The water will be captured by interceptor wells which will pump the water to a newly constructed water treatment facility where PFAS will be removed from the groundwater before it’s discharged.

With the sizable investment in PFAS emissions reductions technology at our Fayetteville Works site, and the hard work of our site team, we have reduced GenX emissions, among other PFAS, by 97 percent thus far. The actions currently underway are intended to address the remaining small percentage of legacy discharges that remain.

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