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Ex-DEQ inspector says he shared DuPont pollution info with federal investigators

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Tom McKinney, a former inspector at the Division of Air Quality, says he was reassigned in 2005 after notifying the agency of perfluorinated compounds in the groundwater near the DuPont plant in Fayetteville. (Photo: Tom McKinney website)

A former inspector with the state Division of Air Quality says he has shared agency information with federal investigators about contamination from DuPont’s Fayetteville Works plant from 15 years ago.

Tom McKinney, who now works in the Division of Water Resources, said that after he learned of the criminal investigation early last year, he told current management at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that he had information, including notes, which showed the agency and the company knew about contaminated groundwater and perfluorinated compounds at the plant in 2004.

The US Attorney’s office told Policy Watch it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. McKinney said that he has not heard from investigators since last year.

In 2017, the US Attorney’s office did subpoena documents from DEQ [2] related to the agency’s enforcement, permitting and meetings about DuPont – now Chemours. Investigators, though, requested materials only since 2008.

Those materials then, wouldn’t necessarily have included McKinney’s notes from 2004, when he was assigned to the DuPont plant as an air quality inspector. According to notes from an agency pre-inspection dated that September, Mike Johnson, the facility’s environmental manager, told McKinney that PFOA – also known as C8 – had been detected in one of the groundwater monitoring wells. C8 exposure has been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders. It is listed as a likely carcinogen.

“This is quite surprising since the [C8] plant only began operation in December 2002,” the notes read. “Mr. Johnson indicated that they do not understand why C8 was detected in their ground water” and he speculated that it might have been formed from a chemical reaction unrelated to the C8 process.

According to an online archive maintained by McKinney, [3] DuPont Fayetteville Works had tested air emissions from the C8 plant. “There has been increasing concern during the past year that the spread of C8, in the environment around the plant may have resulted in part from plant emissions of C8 into air.”

McKinney told Policy Watch that he notified his superiors at DAQ of the conversation. In April 2005, McKinney also gave a presentation to the EPA in Research Triangle Park, in which he discussed C8 contamination at the DuPont plants in Fayetteville and Parkersburg, WV.

That September, McKinney said representatives from the DEQ and DuPont met. Shortly afterward, McKinney said he was “excluded from all meetings and responsibilities” – including inspections — related to the Fayetteville Works plant. He said it was never clear why he was reassigned from the DuPont case, or who ordered it. McKinney said he doesn’t know what happened to the information he provided to his supervisors.

At the time, Keith Overcash was the director of Division of Air Quality. He left the agency in 2010 and now is vice president of Carolina DreamBuilds, which constructs log cabins. Reached by phone, Overcash said he “has been retired for nine years,” and “doesn’t remember” the events from that time. “I’m not going to comment,” Overcash said.

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McKinney said that in 2005, his supervisors told him he was not allowed to speak to anyone about what was happening in the office or it would be considered “insubordination.”  McKinney said he also contacted the Office of Human Resources and tried to schedule a meeting with William Ross, Jr., then secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), since renamed DEQ. He wasn’t able to meet with Ross, McKinney said.

Ross was DENR secretary from 2001 to 2009, during the Gov. Mike Easley administration. Ross is now an environmental attorney and consultant at the Brooks Pierce law firm in Raleigh. He said he doesn’t recall information being told about DuPont and C8 contamination. Nor does he remember McKinney or “know anything about his career path, including his reassignment,” Ross said.

When McKinney was an inspector over DuPont, the EPA had not completed its review of C8, and didn’t regulate it as toxic or hazardous. But C8 wasn’t a complete unknown. In 2002, DuPont in Fayetteville began manufacturing C8 because the 3M company, under regulatory scrutiny, had phased it out.

In the same year that McKinney learned of the groundwater contamination in Fayetteville, DuPont settled a years-long $671 million class-action suit and agreed to provide alternate water and medical monitoring to thousands of residents in the Ohio Valley.

The 2004 pre-inspection notes also show that McKinney and Johnson discussed air emissions from wastewater in the production of Nafion. Nafion byproducts also belong to a class of PFAS.  The byproducts – fluorocarbons – are “persistent chemicals that are not degraded by wastewater microorganisms and remain unchanged as they are discharged to the river.”

McKinney resigned from the agency in 2006. He returned in 2016 and works as an environmental engineer in the Raleigh Regional Office.

It’s difficult to know if widespread contamination could have been prevented had DENR acted on McKinney’s information. But the ramifications of inaction have become clear – in contamination of the drinking water supply, groundwater, air, food, and the bloodstreams of people living near and downstream of the plant.

Last year, the state health department conducted a small study of 30 adults living hear the plant. C8 and other PFAS (but not GenX) were found in the blood of every participant – at levels higher than the median for the US population.

Meanwhile, NC State scientists conducted a larger study of 345 people, including 56 children, in Wilmington. Nafion byproduct 2, a type of PFAS, was detected in 99 percent of the samples. While PFOA blood levels have decreased in the general US population, that trend has not occurred in Wilmington. In general, PFOA blood levels were similar to those of the general population – from 20 years ago.

McKinney has since lauded the current DEQ leadership for finally stemming emissions and discharges from the Chemours facility. Nonetheless, McKinney said that a bipartisan legislative panel should convene to “Identify what went wrong and recommend changes to prevent this from ever happening again.”