Note to lawmakers in Raleigh: Enforcing pollution laws actually works. So does serious regulatory action.
Chemours just provided all the evidence anyone needs to see. In response to a state threat to prohibit all air emissions of GenX and related chemicals from the company's Bladen County plant, the company announced that it will invest more than $100 million in equipment that will prevent the discharge of those chemicals into the atmosphere. The company said it would have the emission-control equipment in place by late 2019 or early 2020.
Meanwhile, Chemours said it will continue current efforts to reduce emissions. It says it can cut the amount of GenX and related chemicals vented into the atmosphere by 70 percent within five months.
In a 30-page response to the DEQ's legal threat, Chemours — a DuPont spinoff — said it is investing in the emission controls "to demonstrate its commitment to continuing to operate the facility in North Carolina and to resolve community concerns."
In a statement released Wednesday, Chemours Fayetteville Works manager Brian Long said, "Chemours is committed to enhancing our operations in North Carolina and being a valued member of the local community. " Long added, "We now believe we have the right answer for the long-term, which is why we have started outreach efforts with the surrounding community."
If the company makes good on its promises, it will mark the reversal of about four decades of pollution emitted from the chemical plant, which sits on the Cumberland-Bladen county line, between the Cape Fear River and N.C. 87. The pollution from the plant was only discovered by accident a few years ago by a team of researchers from N.C. State University who were looking at an unrelated pollution issue.
DEQ data filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center in legal complaints this week show that the pollution isn't just from GenX and its predecessor C8, used in the production of Teflon and other coatings. At least 33 perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds — known collectively as PFOA — have been discharged by the plant, in volumes that have exceeded 60 tons a year in some years. One of those compounds was discovered in a private well at a concentration of more than 8 million parts per trillion. The EPA's water health advisory level for GenX is for a maximum of 70 parts per trillion.
Chemours' announcement is welcome and an apparent change of strategy for the chemical plant, whose managers in the past misled state regulators about the level of pollution it was emitting, even declaring in permit applications that it was running a closed-loop operation, with waste products removed from the plant for disposal elsewhere. In truth, chemicals like C8 and GenX were being dumped into the Cape Fear River, and into the water supply of public utilities that serve hundreds of thousands of people. And they were — and still are — going up stacks at the plant and into the prevailing winds, later dropping onto the ground and then percolating into the groundwater.
If Chemours — or DuPont before it — had really wanted to be "a valued member of the local community," as manager Long's statement put it, it could have done so long ago. The company felt no pressure to operate more safely, so it didn't. It took active and aggressive regulatory action by the state to force the company to act. That didn't chase the company away, it simply moved it to comply with the law.
Trust is a great virtue. But if the state is going to protect its citizenry from the kinds of pollution we've seen from the Fayetteville Works, we need to take a page from the late President Ronald Reagan: Trust, but verify.