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Concerns mount over chemical research facility proposed in rural Williamson County

More than 2,000 neighbors have signed a petition calling for the TCEQ to deny an Air Quality permit to Exfluor Research Corporation.

FLORENCE, Texas — Monica Castro and her husband bought property in rural Williamson County in September 2020. They're building what Castro calls her family's dream home.

"We bought this property in the hopes of, you know, raising our kids here," Castro said as she showed us part of her property. "We love the outdoors, so we want to be outside as much as we can. I mean, that's why we got such a big lot is so that we can explore and camp and raise animals, hopefully."

Castro already allows her neighbor's cows to roam on her property. Once their house is done, Castro and her family will bring chickens to the 12-acre yard. As optimistic as she sounds, her worries are growing too.

"It just scared, scared me, to be honest, all the verbiage that they use. None of it sounded good. So really, that's why I kind of freaked me out," Castro said.

A neighbor sent her a Change.org petition calling on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to deny an Air Quality permit to Exfluor Research Corporation. According to Exfluor's website, the small, family-owned company opened in 1984 in Round Rock with the "purpose of developing a commercially viable method for conversion of hydrocarbons to fluorocarbons using elemental fluorine."

"Exfluor currently has held over 25 U.S. patents covering its fluorination process and many of its fluorinated products," the website states.

The company applied for an Air Quality permit last year in order to build a new research and development facility in the Florence area of Williamson County. In a statement to KVUE, Exfluor's Head of Engineering Eric Bierschenk said, "Growing demand for specialty pharmaceuticals and compounds has necessitated the construction of this proposed R&D center near Florence."

Castro and other neighbors who have signed the Change.org petition say they're worried if Exfluor builds the facility, a leak may allow chemicals to spill into the North San Gabriel River nearby. Bierschenk denied that would happen in the company's statement saying, "Our facility is designed to be a zero-water discharge facility; 100% of our process water will be recycled or treated and evaporated."

Neighbor concerns are not unfounded though. In 2014, Round Rock emergency responders had to evacuate the company's Round Rock facility as well as neighboring businesses due to a gas leak. According to TCEQ's Compliance File on the company detailing the incident, "[Exfluor] released 33 lbs of perfluorosuccinoyl fluoride (which hydrolyzed into approximately 6.8 lbs of hydrogen fluoride) from a leaking storage cylinder on September
18, 2014. The storage cylinder began leaking due to an improperly installed valve."

Exfluor resolved the issue and, according to TCEQ spokespeople, has not had any problems since. According to TCEQ, Exfluor paid $4,875 as an administrative penalty after the 2014 leak. The company then achieved compliance with TCEQ through "technical requirements that included an employee training requirement for the use of hazardous material protective equipment."  

The agency's most recent inspection came in April 2019 for an Air Permit Renewal in Round Rock.

"No issues were noted," a TCEQ spokesperson said. "The Florence location has not had any violations."

TCEQ's Executive Director Toby Baker has already given initial approval to Exfluor for its Air Quality permit request for the Florence location. Final approval must be given by the commissioners.

According to the preliminary decision document provided by the TCEQ in regard to the Air Quality permit, Exfluor's Florence facility would emit hazardous chemicals if built: "hydrogen fluorides, carbon monoxide, hazardous air pollutants, nitrogen oxides and organic compounds."

Bierschenk, in the same statement responding to the Change.org petition, said the new facility would help develop methods for administring common drugs "for millions of Americans. Additionally, we plan to synthesize anti-stiction agents for MEMS (Micro-electromechanical systems) and continue production of a high-performance lubricant currently in use in over 50% of the world’s computer hard drives. As the sole producer of many of our compounds in the world, we develop specialized compounds for very specific applications."

Exfluor did not respond to multiple requests for an interview regarding the differences between the Round Rock and potential Florence facility other than to send updated renderings of the proposed facility.

Castro has already filed at least one formal complaint with the TCEQ regarding the Air Quality permit which would allow Exfluor to build the new facility. She simply wants them to find somewhere else to build it.

"We just don't know what the effects could be. So it's that 'what ifs' scenario that is so scary to me," Castro said. "There's so many animals and nature and wildlife out here, families. It just doesn't seem like a great location for it."

Initially, TCEQ had planned to close the comment period after an appropriate amount of time. Baker has approved for a public meeting on the permit, and according to a spokesperson, comments can be filed up until the public meeting. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Read Exfluor's full statement in response to the Change.org petition below:

Thank you for reaching out for a comment from us concerning our new facility that we are planning to build in northern Williamson County. The North San Gabriel Alliance (NSGA) and their change.org petition continues to use terms like chemical plant and use imagery of billowing smokestacks in an attempt to fearmonger residents that live near our proposed facility. This alliance fabricated and continues to share misleading information with the community. The most egregious claim made by the NSGA is that we “obtained a wastewater discharge permit, which would drain into the North Fork of the San Gabriel River.” – change.org dated March 29, 2022. We have provided factual records to the alliance multiple times informing them that we do not possess, nor have we ever applied for a permit to discharge any process water at this proposed site. Our facility is designed to be a zero-water discharge facility; 100% of our process water will be recycled or treated and evaporated. Astonishingly enough, the alliance continues to spread this lie on their facebook page; understandably, this has resulted in concern from responsible residents and media outlets.

Exfluor has spearheaded to fight against the proliferation of Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in our drinking water and rivers throughout the United States. We have worked hand-in-hand with the EPA to synthesize Carbon-13 labeled PFAS compounds as analytical standards; which allow environmental labs and regulatory agencies to finally have an accurate test to quantify the amount of PFAS in a sample. Exfluor is the only company in the world capable of making these much-needed compounds to accurately test for PFAS. Ironically, the NSGA could cause great harm to the ongoing fight against PFAS in our water and rivers.

Our proposed facility will be a $10 million+ investment in the area. Growing demand for specialty pharmaceuticals and compounds has necessitated the construction of this proposed R&D center near Florence. We hope to continue the research and development of proprietary oxygen carriers that will revolutionize how common drugs are administered for millions of Americans. Additionally, we plan to synthesize anti-stiction agents for MEMS (Micro-electromechanical systems) and continue production of a high-performance lubricant currently in use in over 50% of the world’s computer hard drives. As the sole producer of many of our compounds in the world, we develop specialized compounds for very specific applications.

I hope we will be a positive addition to the area. We are a small business that currently employs less than 25 employees, many with a bachelor's, master's, or Ph.D.’s in science or engineering fields. We have two full-time employees devoted to health, safety, and the environment. The business prospects and the potential to employ more STEM and other specialty positions look very promising for Exfluor in the near future. We are projecting strong growth in our business for the foreseeable future. With our projected growth, the demand for high paying jobs and skilled labor from northern Williamson County will follow.

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