Chemours Ends Its Silence, Seeks To Rebuild Trust

Jun 13, 2018

A protest sign brought by Rebekah Cain Saenz sits on a platform in front of Chemours' President of Flouroproducts Paul Kirsch during a community meeting hosted by the chemical company Chemours at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C. on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

A year after news broke that Chemours had been releasing unregulated, industrial compounds into the Cape Fear River for decades, the company ended its silence with a town hall meeting Tuesday night.

But the chemical manufacturer has a lot of work to do to rehabilitate its battered corporate image.

Chemours plant manager Brian Long had a clear message to the roughly 250 people in attendance Tuesday night.
 
"We're gonna fix this,” Long said.

I know you get it but why'd you ever do it in the first place? -Bladen County resident Ron Schaefer

Long was talking to Bladen County resident Ron Schaefer, a 78-year-old retiree who attended Tuesday's town hall with his daughter.
 
"I know you get it but why'd you ever do it in the first place?" asked Schefer, who lives just a couple of miles from the Chemours plant at the company's Fayetteville Works site.
 
GenX-laden wastewater discharged from the plant into the Cape Fear River contaminated drinking water for a couple hundred thousand residents downstream in Wilmington.
 
Airborne Gen-X has tainted wells in homes closer to the plant.
 
"What about our gardens?” Schaefer asked. “GenX is airborne and every time it rains, there goes my garden."

Ron Schaefer, left, speaks with Chemours Plant Manager Brian Long, right, prior to the start of a community meeting hosted by Chemours at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C. on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

Schaefer said as a hunter he's concerned too about the effects GenX in the water and air could be having on wildlife.
 
The state Department of Environmental Quality is conducting tests on fish from a private lake in the vicinity of the Chemours plant.
 
Long repeatedly told attendees that Chemours was taking steps to all but eliminate water and air emissions of GenX and other fluorinated compounds from the Fayetteville Works site.
 
In a pilot project, the company has installed granular activated carbon filters in six homes with wells that showed GenX levels above the state's health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion.
 
Results after a couple of months of testing show complete removal of the compound.

An illustration of a planned facility to address GenX pollution sits on a table prior to the start of a community meeting hosted by the chemical company Chemours at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C. on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

Long also said Chemours is investing more than $100 million in state-of-the-art equipment to prevent GenX emissions from polluting air and water.
 
"It's an emissions reduction unit that consists of thermal oxidation, thermolysis reaction, ion exchange, reverse osmosis and probably granular activated carbon,” Long said. ‘So they're layered control technologies in a large-scale manufacturing unit."
 
But for many at the town hall meeting held at a church not far from the Chemours plant, no amount of remediation will suffice.

"Sir...he did not answer the question...are y'all gonna buy my house?" posed resident Jonathan Webb, when Long tried to dance around a direct question about whether the company would compensate people for lost property value.

Jonathan Webb, right, a Cumberland County resident who lives about seven miles north of the Chemours Bladen County Plant holds a protest sign in front of Chemours Plant Manager Brian Long, left, during a community meeting hosted by the chemical company Chemours at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C. on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

Whenever Long spoke, Webb continually held up a sign calling the Chemours plant manager a liar and a puppet.
 
A Bladen County sheriff's deputy asked Webb to leave the building when he wouldn't stop interrupting the proceedings.
 
Webb left peacefully and spoke outside with reporters.
 
"This is ridiculous,” Webb said. “This is another Erin Brockovich part 2."
 
Chemours faced a lot of questions about the possible health effects of GenX.
 
Company toxicologist Gary Jepson said a decade's worth of data from studies on rodents do not warrant such fears.
 
"At the concentrations that we have in the environment here, whether you're young or whether you're old, whether you're exposed for a short time or a long time, these concentrations just aren't at a level that create concern for...health effects," Jepson said.

Deborah Belle speaks with WUNC reporter Rusty Jacobs following a community meeting hosted by the chemical company Chemours at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C. on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

People were not convinced.
 
Outside the church following the meeting, long-time Bladen County resident Deborah Belle said she came seeking the truth -- and did not get what she was looking for.
 
"They want us to be OK with their lies and their plan to fix something they don't even think is wrong," Belle said.

Belle's friend and former schoolmate, Patsy Sheppard, also attended the town hall meeting and was equally unimpressed with the company's pledges of reducing air emissions.
 
"They want to pretend that if they cut it back to just 99 percent that's OK,” Sheppard said. “They don't have the right to poison me one percent."
 

A large crowd gathers for a community meeting hosted by the chemical company Chemours at Faith Tabernacle Christian Center in St. Pauls, N.C. on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

Long, the Chemours plant manager, repeatedly said he understood people's frustration and that the company would do everything possible to regain the public's trust.
 
But for most people in attendance, the only acceptable solution seemed to be summed up in a message written on another sign held up by Webb, the disruptive man removed from the town hall meeting.
 
That message: Shut Down the Plant!