Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Advocacy team urges UN to take action against PFAS pollution, citing human rights violation

Clean Cape Fear, with help from UC Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, submitted a 36-page document to the U.N. Human Rights Commission urging action on PFAS contamination, citing human rights violations. Pictured is Clean Cape Fear leadership left to right Emily Donovan, Lacey Brown, Rebecca Trammel, Jessica Cannon and Harper Peterson. (Courtesy Emily Donovan)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A Cape Fear community action group filed the first formal complaint to the United Nations that addresses PFAS contamination as a human rights violation in the U.S.

Clean Cape Fear, in collaboration with U.C. Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, submitted a 36-page document to the U.N. Human Rights Commission on Thursday. It alleges Chemours has been polluting the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to 500,000 residents, for decades and contaminating groundwater for more than 6,000 private wells in eight counties.

READ MORE: Recent testing shows Brunswick County water contains PFAS not monitored by EPA

The local advocacy group directed its letter to Dr. Marcos Orellana, U.S. Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights. The hope is for confirmation that PFAS pollution is a violation of residents’ right to clean drinking water, as well as their right to information and to an effective solution.

An expert in the law on human rights and environment, Orellana has investigated the PFAS contamination crisis in Veneto, Italy. Chemical company Miteni has been accused of leaching PFAS into drinking water, impacting over 350,000 residents since the ‘60s. Miteni is likened to Chemours in its production of PFAS and knowingly polluting hazardous chemicals into the environment.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission is tasked with investigating, reporting and recommending to governments and businesses cures for human rights violations related to toxic chemicals. Exposing people to harmful substances without their consent is a human rights issue, according to the commission.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports PFAS are found in the blood of 97% of Americans. A recent GenX Exposure Study done by N.C. State revealed individuals in the Cape Fear region have higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the U.S. average.

The document submitted by Clean Cape Fear states:

“PFAS contamination of drinking water sources obstructs residents’ right to healthy water. This right is in turn integral to other human rights, including the rights to life and health and a life with dignity and the right to a clean and safe environment. The resulting body burden of toxic chemicals found in area residents’ blood abridges their right to bodily integrity.”

The complaint carries a handful of requests, including:

  • Forcing Chemours to reimburse water utilities for the facility upgrades needed for PFAS removal
  • Ordering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund large-scale human epidemiological studies
  • Banning all nonessential uses of PFAS.

Further, it urges the U.N. to send letters of allegation — outlining concerns and requesting specific action be taken — to Chemours, DuPont — Chemours’ predecessor — the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It asks Orellana to report on the entities’ violation of North Carolinians’ environmental human rights and hold a press conference to raise public awareness of the toxic exposure crisis.

In 2022, a total of 654 communications were sent from the UN Human Rights Commission to 138 countries and 101 other non-State actors; 283 received replies from 81 countries. The UN established the international human rights law obligating governments to protect certain freedoms, such as for women, children, people with disabilities, minorities and in the last decade to include environmental protections and safe drinking water. It has the power to implement global resolutions to address disparities.

Its goal is for universal adoption of human rights, with recommendations that can lead to new laws and action plans. Some top successes of the international group include promoting diversity in Indonesia, new legislation for gender equality in Tunisia and prison reform in Georgia.

Claudia Polsky, director of Environmental Law Clinic at Berkley, said the communication to the U.N. Special Rapporteur provides a “legal road map for restoring Cape Fear communities to health.” The recommendations submitted to the entities involve actionable steps to remedy the situation.

In the outlined complaint submitted to the U.N., the right to water is detailed in many treaties, committees and legal authorities.

The U.S. is obligated to protect North Carolinians right to toxics-free water as part of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and Chemicals and also the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposals.

Though neither has been ratified by Congress, both aim to protect human health and the environment from pollutants, including PFOA and PFOS — two forms of PFAS that have been banned in the U.S.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed and ratified by the U.S., obligates protection of residents’ right to life where it is threatened, “including by toxic exposures and correspondingly increased risk of illness and death.”

“We live in one of the richest nations in the world, yet our basic human rights are being violated,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan said in a press release. “We refuse to be a sacrifice zone. Residents here are sick and dying and we continue to lack equitable access to safe water in our region, or the necessary health studies to truly understand the impacts from our chronic PFAS exposures.”

Clean Cape Fear, working to protect water, air, soil and food from PFAS, was founded in 2017 after protests erupted following Chemours’ slow response to public questions about PFAS in the tap water. Harper Peterson, who served as Wilmington mayor from 2001 to 2003 and New Hanover senator from 2018 to 2020, is a founding member, among its seven-person leadership team.

“We have been fighting for clean water and to hold the polluters accountable since then,” Peterson said in the release. “I ran for office and was elected on the PFAS issue. We are grateful for the small steps our state and federal government have taken to make things right, but we need real action, once and for all.”

Dr. Kyle Horton of Clean Cape Fear said there is growing evidence of serious, life-threatening conditions associated with PFAS exposure, yet doctors still struggle to understand the health effects.

“Clinicians need to be able to provide evidence-based care, and to answer their patients’ questions with confidence,” she said in a press release. “Known polluters must be held financially responsible for the cost of health studies on the effects of PFAS exposure, and the costs of related medical testing and patient care.”

The group is demanding in its letter that corporate polluters be held accountable for water treatment and clean-up costs to all impacted residents. It’s also asking for North Carolina to deny Chemours’ permit to expand production at its Fayetteville Works facility.

The chemical manufacturing company announced last fall it would increase production of a monomer building block for PFAS to meet the demand of the domestic semiconductor supply chain. Chemours’ application for a new air emission permit notes GenX emissions will increase. The NCDEQ has to approve the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for the expansion and Clean Cape Fear is pushing them to deny it.

The announcement to amp up production at Chemours comes after companies such as 3M and the European Union have publicly committed to phasing out the use of PFAS.

Currently, another local advocacy nonprofit, Cape Fear River Watch, has a petition with 1,194 signatures to stop the expansion. NCDEQ has also issued multiple notices of violation to Chemours over the company’s failure to operate its facility responsibility and fulfill court orders.

The complaint notes the expansion would further exacerbate violations of human rights.

The U.N.’s guiding principles recognize companies have a responsibility to prevent exposure to hazardous substances, according to the document submitted. It notes DuPont and then Chemours knowingly dumped high volumes of PFAS-containing waste into the Cape Fear River for decades, with no intervening filtration at all. By 2008, DuPont was releasing 5.4 million pounds of PFAS into the environment from its Fayetteville Works plant. Even the following year when the EPA announced GenX is toxic, DuPont did not disclose its been discharging the chemical for 24 years.

Fayetteville Works did not install PFAS-destroying air emissions technology until ordered to do so in a 2019 consent order with NCDEQ.

However, the complaint notes NCDEQ is also to blame for not stepping in sooner and placing heftier fines. “Regulators have also been derelict as to their duty to uphold North Carolinians’ right to information,” the complaint states.

Though NCDEQ issued the largest monetary fine to Chemours in the state’s history in 2018 for $13 million, the amount equaled only 1% of the company’s single-year profits. Similarly, the EPA issued the largest civil administrative penalty to DuPont for failing to report PFOA risks to human health for 23 years. The fine was $10.5 million.

It also cites the EPA’s recent denial of a group of nonprofits’ request to test 54 specific PFAS under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The complaint is requesting the U.N. order EPA to designate PFAS as a class as hazardous substances to force polluters to cover clean-up costs. 

“Water is so vital to life that even in wartime it is against international law to ‘render water dangerous for human consumption’,” DEI consultant and Clean Cape Fear member Rebecca Trammel said in the release. “How can a company do what a hostile combatant cannot, and then evade legal consequence? Chemours has effectively been allowed to poison its neighbors for decades, and forced its victims to pick up the tab.”

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