How the Source of a ‘Forever Chemical’ in the Roanoke River Was Found

The worst contamination of the Roanoke Valley public water supply in recent history comes from a company that, ironically, specializes in water quality.

ProChem Inc., which has a sign outside its Elliston plant that bears the slogan “When Water Matters,” was identified last week as the likely source of GenX, a hazardous chemical that has been detected downstream in the Roanoke River and the Hollow Spring Reservoir.

The company said it was “dismayed” to learn it was the source of the pollution.

An investigation by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Western Virginia Water Authority – which operates the Spring Hollow Reservoir – traced the GenX to industrial equipment that was undergoing a “chemical wash down process”.

ProChem said it was cleaning equipment for a customer it declined to name, citing confidentiality requirements that are part of its contract.

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However, the water authority identified the customer as Chemours, a global producer of chemicals that can repel oil, heat and water. Known as the “eternal chemicals,” the compounds are used by many industries and in the manufacture of a wide variety of consumer products, ranging from non-stick cookware to waterproof clothing to carpets.

Since 2014, ProChem has serviced “vessels” — which have the same configuration as home water softeners and serve essentially the same purpose — as part of the manufacturing process at a Chemours plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia. Once ProChem removed the calcium and magnesium compounds from the units, they were returned to Chemours.

“Had ProChem been made aware of GenX’s presence on these vessels, it would not have accepted the order,” the company said in a statement released Friday. “As soon as this knowledge was obtained, the service of these ships ceased.”

The ProChem plant is about five miles upstream from where the water authority draws from the Roanoke River to fill Spring Hollow.

GenX, the trade name for hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, is one of the forever chemicals that has come under increased scrutiny in recent years from federal and state governments, as more is learned about their health risks.

In June, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory warning against lifetime consumption of water containing more than 10 parts per trillion of GenX.

Samples of ProChem wastewater that was dumped into a sewer system leading to a Montgomery County water treatment plant showed levels of 1.3 million parts per trillion.

After the sewage was treated and before it was discharged into the South Fork of the Roanoke River, the level had fallen to 23,900 parts per trillion, according to the water authority, which recently received the results of the laboratory tests.

Although GenX monitoring is still in its infancy, levels in the Roanoke River are the highest reported to date in Virginia.

The authority stopped taking water from the river shortly after GenX was detected there in late August. Since then, a carbon filtering system at Spring Hollow has reduced levels below the 10 parts per trillion threshold issued by the EPA.

The non-binding EPA health advisory is based on a 70-year-old person’s lifetime consumption of two liters of water per day. Possible dangers include liver, kidney, and immune system complications.

Until the most recent tests were carried out near the ProChem plant, the highest level of GenX detected in the river was 139 parts per trillion near the reservoir. Concentrations, which have been intermediate, have declined in recent months.

Although tests show that water authority customers are no longer receiving contaminated water, increased monitoring is planned. Among the unknowns is how much past exposure people may have had, not just to GenX but to different chemicals forever in products other than drinking water.

Water drawn from wells by homes and businesses that are not serviced by the authority may also need to be tested.

“I think it’s something that needs to be followed,” said Michael McEvoy, the authority’s executive director.

GenX’s discovery marks the worst water contamination in the history of the authority, which was established in 2004 and currently serves about 69,000 customers in the Roanoke Valley.

“I don’t see anything else close to that,” McEvoy said.

The chemical was first detected in Spring Hollow water in 2020 at around 60 parts per trillion. After the EPA recommended no more than 10 parts per trillion in June — and after GenX was detected in late summer in the Roanoke River at higher concentrations — the authority stepped up its efforts to find the source of the problem.

After that, it was only a matter of time.

“There just aren’t many plants in the United States that use this compound,” McEvoy said. “And there aren’t that many above us” in the Spring Hollow watershed.

Working with DEQ, the authority initially focused on the North Fork of the Roanoke River. A number of potential sources in Montgomery County, including some in the Blacksburg Industrial Park, were considered and then eliminated.

Attention then shifted to the south fork of the river. After reviewing state permits for companies authorized to discharge sewage into the treatment plant operated by the Montgomery County Public Service Authority, DEQ identified ProChem as a possible source.

Samples were taken in early October from two locations – from a sewer manhole adjacent to the plant and from water that had been treated at the county’s treatment plant in Elliston. When results came back from a lab about a month later, extraordinarily high levels indicated a breakthrough in the investigation.

After being contacted by DEQ, ProChem said it was cleaning the equipment of Chemours, a known GenX source.

“It all sort of fell into place over the last 10 days,” McEvoy said Friday.

At ProChem, an Elliston-based company that provides expertise and products to solve industrial water problems, the news came as a shock.

“We are appalled that ProChem may have unknowingly contributed to the presence of GenX in the local water supply,” company vice president Brian Kidd said in a written statement.

Starting in 2014, ProChem began supplying its chemical washing process to two vessels per month which were used in the Chemours manufacturing process. This represented less than 0.5% of ProChem’s total business, the company said.

In what is called a resin regeneration service, a sand-like material has been used to absorb and remove calcium and magnesium, which can contribute to water hardness.

Once the process was complete, ProChem again cleaned the generated wastewater before discharging it to sanitary sewers for treatment by the county. This was done pursuant to a DEQ license, “which does not list GenX in the list of settings limitations,” the company said.

Virginia and the federal government currently have no regulations that apply to forever chemicals, which have only gained attention in recent years as more is known about the risks they pose. pose.

Laws recently passed by the General Assembly, including one sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has established a testing system and process that will be used to draft regulations starting next year. “We need to watch this closely,” Rasoul said in a text.

U.S. Representative Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said he was monitoring the work at the federal level. “I appreciate that DEQ is taking action to remedy the situation and I look forward to responses on how the issue developed,” read a statement from Griffith.

At ProChem, efforts are underway to cooperate with DEQ and local water officials, the company said.

“In the absence of state and federal regulations, we are taking several precautions to help identify and mitigate risks in the future, including additional testing, implementing a carbon sink technology system and working with customers to screen for PFAS compounds,” Kidd said.

Shortened forever to chemicals, PFAS refers to per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, which are believed to be present worldwide in air, water, soil, and living organisms. There are over 6,000 different types of substances, which do not break down naturally over time.

ProChem said it will continue to address the GenX issue until levels are below EPA guidelines, a process that “may take several weeks.”

The company has been based at its Elliston site since 2005, when it had around 60 employees. According to its website, its customers include Caterpillar Inc., General Electric, Goodyear, RJ Reynolds, the US Postal Service and Volvo.

If the Roanoke River GenX contamination is definitely traced to Chemours, it won’t be the company’s first problem with a chemical forever.

The EPA took enforcement action at both the Chemours plant in West Virginia and the one in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

In a 2019 letter to the president and CEO of Chemours, an EPA official said the company violated the Toxic Substances Control Act, in part by failing to notify the government of its intention. to make a new chemical.

The EPA had previously requested information on “when Chemours first learned of GenX-related contamination in and around ‘West Virginia and North Carolina plants,’ including GenX contamination in the Drinking Water,” Diana Saenz, EPA’s Director of Chemical Waste and Enforcement. division, wrote in the letter posted on the agency’s website.

Chemours did not respond to a Friday email from the Roanoke Times requesting information about the equipment it sent to ProChem and whether it had been contacted recently by DEQ or the water authority, among others.

But in a March 18 letter to EPA headquarters, a lawyer for Chemours challenged the agency’s assessment of GenX’s toxicity.

The assessment “contains substantial scientific flaws, does not incorporate available peer-reviewed scientific literature highly relevant to the analysis, and significantly overestimates the potential human risks associated” with GenX, wrote Brian Israel of Arnold & Porter. from Washington DC.

Fluoropolymers, a type of forever chemical, manufactured by Chemours are essential to “countless industries, including the medical, automotive, electronics, aerospace, energy, and semiconductor industries,” Israel wrote.

The EPA is expected to propose a plan to regulate certain chemicals forever in drinking water later this year, with a final set of rules expected to take effect by the end of 2023.

On its website, the EPA said, “This proposed rulemaking would increase transparency around releases of these harmful chemicals and help hold polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination.”