Moncure, NC – VinFast, the Vietnamese electric vehicle maker Democrat North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper credited for leading an army of clean-energy companies coming to the state, is being criticized for polluting waterways near its $4 billion EV manufacturing plant in Chatham County.
Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton first reported issues from the project site at Triangle Innovation Point in Moncure going into various waterways in January, well before the groundbreaking on Aug. 4, to Richard Rogers, director of the division of Water Resources (DWR); and Toby Vinson, operations chief at the Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources (DEMLR) — both divisions of the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
DWR oversees water quality violations, and DEMLR handles sediment issues violations.
The issues stem from the clearing and grading of land for the project.
Those waterways include the Haw River, which flows into Jordan Lake; Shaddox Creek, which is the last tributary to the Haw River before it joins the Deep River to form the Cape Fear River; and Gulf Creek, which goes into Cape Fear.
The Haw River supplies drinking water to Pittsboro. Jordan Lake provides much of Wake County and some of Chatham County. The drinking water in the area of the Cape Fear River that would be affected is between Sanford and Fayetteville.
Sutton has flown over the site between March and July capturing images of orange clay flowing from a catchment basin into the creek.
Haw River Assembly field technicians tested a portion of Shaddox Creek in March, about half a mile from the Haw River, for turbidity. Turbidity measures the cloudiness of water. The unit of measurement is called nephelometric turbidity units or NTUs. The maximum level of NTUs for most rivers and streams that feed drinking water supplies is 50. The measurement from March read 132 NTU.
On the same day, a test of the water from the VinFast site flowing into Gulf Creek measured 364 NTU and 383 NTU.
In May, turbidity levels were measured once again in Shaddox Creek. This time tests revealed 800 NTU or 1,600% above state law levels.
According to Sutton, measurements of this much turbidity can lead to major repercussions.
For starters, it will make it harder for fish and wildlife to find food, and when the sediment settles out, it will suffocate macroinvertebrates, things like crawfish, and aquatic insects.
“All of the rocks and plants and the riffles that are in the bottom of a stream bed are critical habitat for all different types of wildlife, animal species, aquatic species, and once that mud settles out of the water column, it just drowns all of that at the bottom of the creek with sediment, so there’s no more habitat for that sensitive wildlife, and the fish don’t have food to eat,” Sutton told Carolina Journal in a phone interview.
Sutton said that the sediment can also clog the gills of fish, leading them to die that way as well. It also makes it hard for wildlife like otters and beavers to see in the water to find food.
“Sediment is also a transporter for nutrient loads, and so we have higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which can lead to algal blooms, especially in the summer when the water is warm,” she said. “It’s a huge strain on drinking water processors downstream, so this has implications far beyond just a not visually aesthetic creek.”
So why hasn’t anything been done, like issuing a fine or warning? The process, said Sutton, is a complex issue that doesn’t have an easy answer.
Currently, the VinFast site has an NCG01 permit, which by definition, “allows discharge of stormwater in the surface waters of North Carolina. It’s basically a general construction permit for a developer of what Sutton calls a small-scale project. This type of permit does not have a turbidity standard but does have requirements to minimize sediment loss.
She said since it is such a large-scale project, what is needed is a 401 cross-stream permit from the state and a 404 permit from the Army Corp of Engineers, both of which were sent in last year and are currently awaiting approval.
Sutton said the state is allowing the project to move forward with just the construction permit and not the others because they claim they aren’t currently working in sensitive areas like creeks and wetlands.
Despite the abnormal levels of NTUs and pictures of the discolored waterways, DEMLR has told her that VinFast is not violating the construction permit because the developer and the contractors are doing everything according to the project design. They’re retaining the water and running it through a silt fence and a crushed stone-like filter.
“Even though we can see very clearly that it’s inadequate and not working, it’s not holding back sediment, they’re [DEMLR] saying that there’s no violation because it’s just turbid water,” Sutton said. “They are not seeing sediment loss because the sediment isn’t settling out of the water, but they’re seeing turbidity, which is the water. So it’s a very complex.”
And since there is no turbidity standard on the construction permit, regulations haven’t been violated in their eyes, Sutton told CJ.
“DEMLR said that they regulate the sediment, not the turbidity,” she said. “So, if the sediment isn’t being settled out, it’s not being held back, then that’s a water quality violation, and that’s a Department of Water Resources issue. So right now, there isn’t a violation according to DEMLR.
Sutton added that it is very hard to get both departments to work together.
She likened the issue to someone driving past a housing development construction site who saw sediment or mud in a pile outside of the job site. It would be considered sediment loss and a violation. But if you just see muddy water running into a creek and you don’t see the deposited sediment, then it’s not a violation.
Sutton said the contractors and developers working on grading the site for VinFast need to be held accountable.
“Whether existing strategies that they’re practicing now are allowable in their existing permit or not, they’re not effective,” she said. “The agency (DWR) can take steps to require stronger protections, whether that be different filters or more retention time in their sediment basins. The contractor is responsible and VinFast itself to take precautions to work within these Triassic basin soils.”
CJ reached out to Josh Kastrinsky, spokesperson for DEQ, for comment but did not receive a response prior to the publication of this article.
A VinFast representative told CJ in an emailed statement, “VinFast complies with all applicable laws, regulations, permits requirements, and conditions for all phases of construction of our manufacturing project. VinFast, and its on-site contractors, continue to work collaboratively with NCDEQ to ensure all construction activities remain fully compliant. If any corrective actions are required, VinFast will implement them immediately.”
They cited an NCDEQ report from May 10 that stated that no violations were observed, and the site is in full compliance with no corrective action needed.
Based on the on-site inspections by both VinFast contractors and DEQ, they say the site continues to operate in full compliance with its NPDES construction stormwater permit.
“Our on-site contractors will continue to monitor the erosion control measures to ensure sedimentation is handled consistent with the approved Erosion Control Plan,” they added.
Sutton said another inspection was due to occur this week.
She urges the public to voice their concerns when the commenting period for the 401 permitting process begins, which will be announced on the Haw River Assembly website and in their email newsletters.
Theresa Opeka is the Executive Branch reporter for the Carolina Journal.