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Legal filing urges state to protect North Carolinians from harmful industrial pollution

Aug 14, 2023Aug 14, 2023

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—On behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, MountainTrue, and the Yadkin Riverkeeper, the Southern Environmental Law Center today petitioned the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission for a ruling requiring the Department of Environmental Quality to consistently apply existing law to protect all families and communities in North Carolina from industrial water pollution—including from toxic PFAS and cancer-causing 1,4-dioxane—and resulting harms.

“DEQ’s inconsistent application of the law leaves communities in North Carolina vulnerable to harmful industrial water pollution,” said Patrick Hunter, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which is representing the community groups in the petition. “The Environmental Management Commission has an important opportunity to confirm DEQ’s longstanding legal obligation to consistently apply the protections of the Clean Water Act to communities across the state. Consistent application of the law will better protect North Carolinians from harmful pollutants like toxic PFAS, or forever chemicals, and 1,4-dioxane.”

The petition focuses on state and federal laws requiring industrial permittees to install available technologies to stop pollution before it enters water sources and harms families living nearby and downstream. Stopping pollution at its source places the burden of industrial pollution on the polluter instead of on North Carolina communities.

The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants without a permit. Those permits must include technology-based limits which are developed by taking into consideration available pollution control technologies. As available pollution control technology improves, industrial facilities can further reduce or eliminate their pollution.

“Our rivers and streams are not dumping grounds and we expect industrial dischargers to minimize the amount of pollution they put into streams that are used for swimming, fishing, and drinking water across the state,” said Gray Jernigan, general counsel for MountainTrue. “Today, we’re asking DEQ to consistently apply technology-based requirements under the Clean Water Act to protect downstream communities and fish that people rely on for sustenance.”

Unfortunately, DEQ bypasses the technology-based requirement in the majority of permits it issues for industries that discharge pollution directly into local waterways. DEQ recently applied technology-based controls in two wastewater permits for Chemours and Colonial Pipeline after intense public scrutiny and engagement. For Colonial, proper application of technology-based controls led to an 86% reduction in the amount of benzene—a known human carcinogen—Colonial can discharge into local waterways.

“Proper application of technology-based controls has led to significant water quality protections in our community,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper, Edgar Miller. “We commend DEQ for applying technology-based controls in the Colonial Pipeline permit and we hope that a ruling by the Environmental Management Commission will ensure those protections are extended across North Carolina for all its residents.”

Consistent implementation of the technology-based requirement is particularly critical for “emerging” pollutants like PFAS and 1,4-dioxane. PFAS are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals. Growing research links PFAS exposure to harming people’s health, including liver cancer, testicular cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, and other health harms. 1,4-dioxane is toxic to people, causing liver and kidney damage, and increases the risk of cancer. Both chemicals are widely used in industrial processes.

SELC’s work on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch to stop Chemours’ PFAS pollution of the Cape Fear River demonstrated how DEQ can use existing law to stop such pollution at its source before it reaches drinking water sources and further harms families and communities. When fully implemented, technology-based controls are expected to achieve a 99% reduction in the amount of PFAS discharged by Chemours into the Cape Fear River, the source of drinking water for about 500,000 North Carolinians.

“Our petition asks DEQ to apply the same laws it applied at Chemours to other industrial dischargers within the Cape Fear watershed and across the state,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “Technologies are available that can dramatically reduce industrial water pollution. Communities in North Carolina are depending on DEQ to issue permits that require industries to use those technologies to better protect water quality and communities.”

The petition asks the commission to require DEQ to evaluate existing pollution-control technologies for all industrial facilities and impose limits based on those technologies in permits moving forward.


The Southern Environmental Law Center is one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment, rooted in the South. With a long track record, SELC takes on the toughest environmental challenges in court, in government, and in our communities to protect our region’s air, water, climate, wildlife, lands, and people. Nonprofit and nonpartisan, the organization has a staff of 200, including more than 100 attorneys, and is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., with offices in Asheville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Nashville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C.

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