Category Archives: Wastewater

GenX: The State Enforcement Case

November 14, 2017.  An earlier post discussed some of the issues surrounding detection of a perflourinated compound known as GenX  in the Cape Fear River and in water systems using the river as a drinking water source. On September 7, 2017, the  Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)  issued a Notice of Violation and filed a legal complaint against the Chemours Company alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act and state groundwater rules related to GenX. This post looks at the specific allegations in the state enforcement case.  ( A copy of the entire complaint can be found on  DEQ’s GenX  webpage.)

One piece of background information —  Dupont  began manufacturing GenX at the Fayetteville Works in 2009, but transferred the operation and associated environmental permits to the Chemours Company in 2015.  The sequence of events surrounding GenX begins under Dupont management, but the enforcement case names only the Chemours Company — the current owner and permit holder — as defendant.

The enforcement case against Chemours makes two basic claims:

1. Chemours violated the Clean Water Act by discharging GenX to the Cape Fear River under a water quality permit that did not authorize any discharge of GenX.  The state claims neither Dupont nor Chemours  told DEQ that wastewater discharged from the Fayetteville Works to the Cape Fear River would contain GenX and other perflourinated compounds.   According to the complaint,  state water quality staff  understood that the GenX manufacturing plant opened in 2009 would use a “closed loop” system and dispose of all wastewater off-site.   In fact,  a consent agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Dupont under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)  only allowed manufacture of GenX  under conditions requiring Dupont to effectively eliminate GenX from both the wastewater discharge and air emissions associated with the manufacturing process.

The complaint alleged that Chemours,  in applying for its most recent National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit under the Clean Water Act,  did not tell DEQ that other operations at the Fayetteville Works generated wastewater containing GenX as a byproduct. (The implication is that Dupont had also failed to disclose the presence of GenX  as a byproduct when applying for earlier water quality permits.) Chemours discharged wastewater from those operations to the Cape Fear River.

DEQ alleges Chemours violated the Clean Water Act by failing to tell state permit writers that  wastewater from the Fayetteville Works contained GenX (and other perflourinated compounds) and by discharging GenX  to the Cape Fear River under an NPDES permit that did not authorize discharge of those compounds.

2. Chemours  violated state groundwater standards.    According to the DEQ complaint,   Chemours’ hazardous waste permit has required groundwater monitoring since at least 2003 and included sampling for PFOA (the older perflourinated compound replaced by GenX ).  After detection of PFOA  in the Cape Fear River in 2015, DEQ required supplemental groundwater monitoring to determine whether groundwater at the Fayetteville Works could be the source. It isn’t clear from the complaint whether the hazardous waste permit required monitoring for PFOA from the beginning and expanded the scope in 2015 or first required PFOA in 2015. DEQ did not specifically require monitoring for GenX until August of 2017. The initial sampling detected GenX in 13 of 14 monitoring wells on the grounds of the Fayetteville Works.

Under state rules, the  groundwater  standard for any contaminant that does not  occur naturally is the lowest measurable level  (the “practical quantification level” or “PQL”) unless the rules set a higher standard based on evaluation of health and environmental risk. Since GenX does not occur naturally and state rules set no other standard, the allowable concentration of GenX would be the PQL of 10 nanograms/liter (equivalent to 10 parts per billion).  The 2017 monitoring detected levels of GenX ranging from 519 ng/ltr to 61,300 ng/ltr. All five wells located adjacent to the Cape Fear River had levels of GenX exceeding 11,800 ng/ltr. DEQ found the test results documented widespread groundwater contamination on the Fayetteville Works site exceeding  both the 10 ng/ltr groundwater standard and the threshold for human health effects  identified by the state Dept. of Health and Human Services (140 ng/ltr level).

Status of the enforcement case.  The DEQ complaint asked, in part, that Chemours immediately stop any discharge of GenX and related compounds to the Cape Fear River.  On September 8, 2017 (the day after filing the enforcement case), DEQ entered into an agreement with Chemours to resolve the discharge issue. Under a partial consent agreement,  Chemours agreed to continue voluntary measures undertaken early in the summer to prevent discharge of process wastewater containing GenX to the Cape Fear River.  The partial consent agreement also required Chemours to take similar steps to prevent discharge of two other perflourinated compounds from the “single source of significance” of those compounds at the Fayetteville Works.

The partial consent agreement did not resolve all potential violations at the Fayetteville Works.  The consent agreement did not address any of the groundwater standard violations alleged in DEQ’s September 7, 2017 complaint. DEQ also expressly reserved the right to take additional enforcement action in the event of future unpermitted discharges or violations associated with other chemicals. In fact, DEQ issued a new Notice of Violation to Chemours today based on a previously unreported spill at the Fayetteville Works. That NOV  alleges that Chemours violated its NPDES permit by failing to notify DEQ of an October 6, 2017 spill of dimer acid flouride ( a precursor to GenX) from the manufacturing line.

Still to come. With respect to the groundwater violations, DEQ’s September complaint asked the court to order Chemours to:

♦ Remove, treat or control any source of perflourinated compounds at the Fayetteville Works that could contribute to groundwater contamination. Consistent with state groundwater rules, that  would need to be done under a plan approved by DEQ.

♦ Fully assess the extent of groundwater contamination and develop a plan to address the groundwater contamination. (Again, both the assessment and corrective action plans would be subject to DEQ approval).

It does not appear that Chemours has an approved groundwater assessment plan yet and the groundwater corrective action plan can only be developed once the assessment has been done. In the meantime, DEQ has directed Chemours to provide an alternative source of drinking water to 50 households near the Fayetteville Works whose water supply wells have been contaminated by perflourinated compounds.

DEQ’s September complaint focused on actions necessary to stop the  discharge of GenX to the Cape Fear River and address groundwater contamination,  but state law also authorizes DEQ to assess civil penalties for these violations. The maximum civil penalty for each violation of state water quality laws or rules is $25,000 and if a violation continues over a period of time, state law  authorizes DEQ to assess daily penalties.  (N.C. General Statute 143-215.6A.) The actual penalty amount per violation depends on a number of factors set out in the law, including the extent of harm and whether the violation was intentional. In the case of a continuing violation, DEQ would also have to decide what time period merits daily penalties. DEQ usually develops the penalty assessment separately from legal action to obtain compliance and has not yet proposed penalties for the Chemours violations.

The Legislative Response to GenX

September 10, 2017. At the end of its most recent one-week session, the N.C. General Assembly added GenX  provisions to an existing bill,  House Bill 56  (Amend Environmental Laws),  and passed the bill with little discussion.  Section 20 of H 56:

  1. Amends the state budget to give $185,000 to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) — $100,000 to study water treatment methods to remove GenX from the water supply and $85,000 for ongoing monitoring of water withdrawn from the Cape Fear River.
  2. Allocates $250,000 to UNC-Wilmington to “identify and quantify GenX and measure the concentration of the chemicals in the sediments of the Cape Fear River, the extent to which the chemical biodegrades over time or bioaccumulates within local ecosystems, and what risk the contaminant poses to human health”. The provision requires a final report from these studies by April 1, 2018.
  3. Directs UNC-Chapel Hill to develop a proposal to (i) identify and acquire digital environmental monitoring and natural resource data and digitize analog data;  (ii)  create an online, searchable public database of  water quality permits, permit applications, and supporting documents; and (iii)  create a system for electronic filing of permit applications. The provision also directs UNC-CH to study the feasibility of housing the database at UNC rather than with the permitting agencies in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
  4. Requires DEQ to report back to the legislature if the department has not issued a Notice of Violation to any person or company for discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River by
    September 8.

The bill does not allocate any additional funding to either DEQ or the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Governor Cooper had requested $2.5 million for the two departments to provide more resources for water quality monitoring; inspection of permitted facilities; permitting (and particularly elimination of the backlog in permit renewals); and development of health advisories for unregulated contaminants. Instead, DEQ  faces a $1.8 million budget reduction for 2017-2018, continuing a trend of repeated cuts to the department’s budget over the last 10 years. (See an earlier blogpost for the effect of those budget reductions.)

How will House Bill 56 affect efforts to address GenX?  The bill supports efforts by Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to identify treatment systems capable of removing GenX  from the water; increase water quality monitoring; and learn more about the impact of  GenX. Much of the funding would offset the cost of efforts already underway by CFPUA.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had begun pilot testing use of granular activated carbon and ion exchange systems to remove  GenX from the water several weeks before. The $100,000 appropriation to study water treatment alternatives could reimburse CFPUA for past and future expenses incurred in the pilot testing. The funding would not be sufficient to actually upgrade water treatment in the water systems affected by  GenX contamination. 

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had also entered into a one-year  contract  with UNC-Wilmington for just under $65,000  to analyze raw water and treated water samples  for additional perflourinated compounds  and to advise the utility on water treatment. House Bill 56 does not specifically describe the intent of the $85,000 appropriation for water supply monitoring, but the funds could cover the existing CFPUA/UNC-W contract. (The water quality monitoring would supplement, but not replace,  monitoring done by the Department of Environmental Quality.)

The $250,000 in funding directed to UNC-Wilmington to study GenX  would support new research and could generate important information about persistence of GenX in the environment and public health risk. The 6-month timeframe for the study, however, allows only  a very short  time to gather data and reach conclusions.

The UNC-Chapel Hill feasibility study for a digitized public database of water quality permit information would be the first step in a very long term project.   Creating a permitting database outside the permitting agency will raise a number of  legal, practical, policy and funding issues:  how to protect confidential information in permit applications (such as trade secrets);  cost of digitizing analog data and creating a new database; and the complications of maintaining  a database (or databases) to meet the very different needs of permit writers and the public.  Whatever the outcome of the study, the benefits of increased public access to permitting databases would likely be far in the future and require funding not provided in House Bill 56. [Note: Currently, anything in the permit file that is not protected by state confidentiality laws can be obtained through a public records request.]

What has been left undone?  None of the funding in the bill would go toward keeping GenX and other unregulated contaminants out of the Cape Fear River and other water supply sources. Only state and federal regulators can adopt water quality standards for the Cape Fear River and set permit limits for the discharge of GenX and other emerging contaminants to the river; local water systems do not have that power.

The bill does not address the lack of resources in DEQ and DHHS to evaluate the health and environmental risk of compounds like GenX before contamination of a water supply causes a crisis. GenX issue is only the most recent of several controversies over unregulated contaminants in North Carolina water supplies. Just within the last four years, the state has faced similar concerns about hexavalent chromium in drinking water wells and 1,4 dioxane in the Haw River. In each instance, state agencies had to develop guidance on safe levels of the contaminant in the absence of a clear federal standard and decide how to use the risk analysis in state permitting and enforcement decisions.

The weakness of the GenX response in House Bill 56 is that it reacts to water supply contamination without taking steps to prevent it. Once a contaminant has entered a water supply source, water systems — and their customers — shoulder the financial burden of using technology to reduce contamination to safe levels through water treatment. The bill also focuses narrowly on GenX rather than the broader problem of emerging contaminants affecting state water supplies. Nothing in the bill strengthens the state’s ability to detect other emerging contaminants in water supply sources; enforce water quality permit conditions; or assess health and environmental risk.

Next steps. As of today, the Governor had not yet signed or vetoed House Bill 56; the Governor’s decision could be affected by any number of provisions in the bill beyond those responding to GenX.  DEQ has taken an enforcement action against Chemours based on both discharge to GenX to the Cape Fear River and detection of GenX in groundwater on the site. (More about the enforcement action in the next blogpost.)

The Laws in the Background of the GenX Issue

August 21, 2017.  In  June, residents of southeastern North Carolina learned of a previously unknown contaminant in the Cape Fear River;  a study undertaken by an N.C. State University researcher documented the presence of the perflourinated compound  known as “GenX” in a report published in December 2016. The river provides drinking water for Wilmington-New Hanover County and other water systems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began studying the effects of perfluorinated compounds used in firefighting foam, water repellants, Teflon, and other products more than fifteen years ago.  EPA worked with chemical companies to phase-out the two compounds most commonly used, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), because of concerns about persistence in the environment and human health risk.  In 2000, 3M Corporation announced a phaseout of PFOS. Under a 2006 agreement with EPA, eight companies committed to phase out PFOA by 2015. In 2009, Dupont began manufacturing GenX,  a chemically distinct perflourinated compound,  at its Fayetteville plant as a replacement for PFOA. (The Chemours Company, a Dupont spin-off, now operates the Fayetteville plant.)

The discovery of an unregulated chemical with uncertain health and environmental risks in a water supply source created a high level of concern in the affected communities. It has also drawn attention to gaps in the safety net of federal environmental regulations with implications for all unregulated contaminants in water supplies.  In many ways, the GenX controversy parallels the earlier controversy in North Carolina over hexavalent chromium (a contaminant associated with coal ash) in drinking water wells. In each case, the absence of a federal standard —  or EPA’s failure to update a standard based on current science —  left the state struggling to evaluate health risk and develop an appropriate regulatory standard.

A number of news organizations have provided detailed coverage of the GenX controversy and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority posts key documents and monitoring results online . This post will focus on the key federal laws involved and the  gaps in those laws that the state may need to fill. Although I will use the GenX issue as an example, this blogpost should not be interpreted as an assessment of legal claims or liabilities associated GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River.

Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). EPA regulates manufacture and importation of chemicals under the  Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Two of the key requirements of the law:

♦ Section 5 requires manufacturers to give  EPA notice before manufacturing a new chemical. (EPA maintains a Toxic Substances Inventory of previously approved chemicals.)  Based on review of information submitted with the notice, EPA may  find the new chemical is “not likely to represent an unreasonable risk” and approve manufacture. But if EPA doesn’t have sufficient information to evaluate environmental and health effects or if the lack of information creates an unreasonable risk of harm, EPA can issue an order requiring additional testing or limiting release of the chemical to the environment. Concern that GenX may have risks similar to those already associated with PFOA and PFOS caused EPA to enter  a 2009 consent order that (among other conditions) required Dupont to effectively eliminate release of GenX in wastewater and air emissions from the  manufacturing operation.

♦ Section 8 of TSCA requires chemical manufacturers and distributors to inform EPA of any information the company obtains that would reasonably support a conclusion that a chemical presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.  In 2005, EPA used Section 8 of TSCA to assess a penalty against Dupont for withholding information the company had on the environmental and health effects of PFOA. That EPA action ultimately led to the phaseout of PFOA and development of alternatives like GenX.

Regulatory Gaps –TSCA covers chemicals manufactured or imported into the United States. It does not apply to a chemical by-product of a manufacturing or industrial process.  The TSCA  consent order for GenX limits release of GenX to the environment by the manufacturer,  but not the discharge of GenX  unintentionally created as a result of an unrelated manufacturing or industrial process. As a result, TSCA can’t address all contaminant sources. The TSCA review process also puts EPA in the position of constantly chasing the next generation of potential contaminants.

Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA has adopted national drinking water standards for 88 contaminants. Public water systems must monitor for those contaminants and insure that   water delivered to its customers meets the national standard for each regulated contaminant. Given the number of compounds used in manufacturing or produced as a by-product of industrial activities, national drinking water standards clearly do not exist for many contaminants. EPA has not adopted a  drinking water standard for GenX or any other perfluorinated compounds. EPA has issued a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS (combined) of 70 parts per trillion based on longterm exposure, but a health advisory is not an enforceable drinking water standard. EPA has also said that the PFOA/PFOS  health advisory does not apply to other perflourinated compounds like GenX.  

EPA continues to study the need for a national drinking water standard for perflourinated compounds.  Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA’s decision will be based on: likelihood the contaminants will be found in drinking water; the health effects; and the technical/economic feasibility of treating the water to reduce any health risk. It isn’t clear whether EPA will propose a drinking water standard for PFOA/PFOS and the decision to develop a standard for next generation alternatives like GenX would be even further in the future.

Regulatory Gaps —  EPA has not adopted a national drinking water standard for every contaminant that may be detected in a water source or in a public water system; some existing drinking water standards do not reflect the most recent science.  In the absence of a drinking water standard, an EPA  health advisory can provide guidance to the states on safe levels but health advisories  do not exist for all contaminants.  Many of the environmental and human health risks associated with PFOA and PFOS have been known for 10-15 years, but EPA has not yet proposed a drinking water standard and only issued a health advisory based on long-term exposure in 2016. In the absence of a national drinking water standard or health advisory, presence of significant levels of a contaminant in water supplies may require the state to develop a benchmark for safe drinking water.

Clean Water Act.  The Clean Water Act protects surface waters like lakes and rivers by requiring a permit to discharge waste to those waters.   National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System  (NPDES) permits allow wastewater treatment plants and industries  to discharge wastewater meeting specific pollutant limits. Like other states, North Carolina has assumed responsibility for issuance of NPDES permits in the state.

EPA has set technology-based wastewater limits for individual categories of industries, including chemical plants. But those limits do not cover all pollutants or every possible waste stream.  In the absence of an existing EPA limit or when faced with a new type of waste stream, the state permit writer must set a limit on a case-by-case basis based on factors set out in the Clean Water Act. That puts responsibility on the state water quality agency to determine the appropriate limits for these unregulated pollutants.

Regulatory Gaps — Existing state and federal water quality standards and guidelines for permitting wastewater discharges do not address every potential pollutant. In the absence of federal effluent guidelines for a particular pollutant, the burden will be on the state water quality permitting agency to look at any existing information on the environmental and health effects to set a permit limit.

The challenge for the state. These federal laws create frameworks for approval of the  manufacture and use of chemicals; release  of chemicals to the environment in wastewater; and protection of  drinking water sources.  But the EPA standards adopted under those laws are not comprehensive and often lag behind the emergence of new contaminants or evolving science on risk.  When an unregulated contaminant affects a drinking water source, the responsibility for dealing with the immediate environmental and public health concerns falls on the state.