Friday, July 19, 2024

Local advocates head to D.C., urge leaders to not ‘water down’ PFAS legislation

Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan has been advocating for stricter PFAS regulations and holding Chemours accountable through her nonprofit for years. She heads to D.C. with other advocates next week to speak with U.S. representatives. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Local advocates fighting for additional protection from toxic forever chemicals are traveling to the nation’s capital in hopes of garnering more support for PFAS legislation.

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

ALSO: ‘Serious mistake’: Nonprofits appeal EPA lawsuit for PFAS testing

Emily Donovan, co-founder of nonprofit Clean Cape Fear in Wilmington, and Katie Bryant, co-founder of Clean Haw River in Pittsboro, will meet with members of Congress, including North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, on Sept. 13.

Along for the ride will be experts in the field, but Donovan and Bryant are there to share their experiences discovering toxic contamination in drinking water and the resulting impacts.

“Our goal is to make sure our communities’ stories are heard,” Donovan said Friday. 

She also said polluted water and PFAS protection is a bipartisan issue.

“We want to take that message to Tillis: We’re pretty confident all North Carolinians are unified across all political spectrums. We need you to hold [polluters] accountable,” Donovan said.

They’re going to D.C. on the heels of a newly introduced bill in the U.S. Senate that would limit the number of PFAS chemical companies would be required to report, though there is no federal guideline regulating them.

The draft bill — sponsored by Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) — would mandate studies on health impacts and make publicly available all known or potential effects, set a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water, and research destruction methods for the near-impossible to break down compounds.

Within the drafted legislation, PFAS are defined as human-made chemicals containing at least two fully fluorinated carbon atoms.

The proposed language would disregard ultra-short chain versions of the compounds, which are much harder to break down. Donovan and Bryant are urging legislators to adopt a definition they say “isn’t watered down” by including “one fluorinated carbon atom,” not two. The difference between the two definitions would be 7,500 compounds being left off regulatory practices.

Eighteen states use the one carbon atom language to define the toxic substances, according to a recent report in Sludge. Donovan noted even various departments within the Environmental Protection Agency operate under different definitions of PFAS.

Port City Daily asked the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality how North Carolina defines PFAS. This article will be updated upon response.

Environmental groups, including those Donovan and Bryant are members of, say the new bill — not yet named since it’s only in draft form — would “gut” all the important work local communities have been doing to advocate for more PFAS protection.

“We’re pushing for Congress to codify a unified definition and make sure it’s as strong as possible,” Donovan said.

According to the American Chemistry Council’s lobbying disclosures for the first two quarters of 2023, nearly $3 million went toward “unintroduced PFAS legislation.” 

Chemours — as well as lobbying groups CGNC, Holland & Knight, Strategic Marketing Innovations and Thorn Run partners on Chemours’ behalf — have spent more than $620,000 on lobbying issues related to PFAS emissions, PFAS legislative proposals, and environmental cleanup funding, according to federal lobbying disclosures.

The chemical company has also lobbied the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on trade issues related to fluorochemicals, discussion on reinstatement of superfund taxes and the PFAS Action Act of 2021, according to federal lobbying disclosures. The latter would have limited the use of PFAS, but it never made it to a Senate vote after passing the House.

The new draft bill, a reincarnation of the PFAS Action Act of 2021, would also require the National Academies of Sciences, Engineer and Medicine to carry out a study that weighs the benefits and costs of current uses of PFAS in commerce, the availability and efficacy of substitutes for applications and what a reduction of the nonessential PFAS would have on the economic and commercial market.

Donovan and Bryant penned a letter to Tillis urging public support for a better definition of PFAS.

“Residents in North Carolina have some of the highest levels of PFAS pollution in the nation,” the letter, which has also been signed by 527 individuals as of Friday afternoon, states. “Irresponsible chemical companies, like Chemours and DuPont, knew the dangers of PFAS exposures but hid them from regulators for decades.”

In 2017, news broke that Chemours and its predecessor company DuPont had been polluting the Cape Fear River, the main source of drinking water for at least 1.5 million residents in North Carolina, for four decades. 

“North Carolina’s textile industry used dangerous PFAS chemicals without restraint, applying these chemicals to fabrics and fibers in our clothing, furniture and household goods — infiltrating every part of our daily lives,” the letter continues. “By way of reckless manufacturing practices, their forever chemicals have ended up in our air, soil, blood, crops and our waterways which supply our drinking water, now considered toxic.”

In the U.S. companies are not required to prove a chemical is safe before it reaches consumers, unlike other countries in the European Union. In 2000, the European Commission adopted the precautionary principle, which requires a product to have been proven not toxic before it’s released to the market.

With little known about all the health impacts PFAS have on humans, residents in the Cape Fear have been searching for answers and advocating for ways to hold polluters accountable.

“The burden of clean up and accountability should fall on the responsible parties–not the great people of North Carolina,” the letter states.

Aside from urging Tillis to publicly support the broader definition of PFAS to ensure the most compounds are required for regulation, Donovan and Bryant are also asking Congress to not make any exemptions for Superfund PFAS liability.

In September 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed listing certain PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Ac, a federal law governing contamination remediation program, known as Superfund. It holds polluters responsible for cleanup efforts if they are found to be linked to the release of hazardous substances.

EPA noted these particular compounds are linked to adverse health effects including high cholesterol, liver disease, thyroid disorders, cancer and more.

It raised concerns among municipalities and utility authorities that they could be held responsible for cleanups of pollution caused by other entities or for being required to use products containing PFAS in operations. Airports, for instance, are required to use aqueous film forming foam by the Federal Aviation Administration; the foam contains PFAS.

“Congressional PFAS exemptions are unnecessary because the U.S. EPA already has the authority to apply equitable considerations,” Donovan and Bryant’s letter states. “Since Superfund laws were established over 40 years ago, Congress has never exempted certain chemicals from CERCLA and it shouldn’t start now.”

According to a report from the American Society for Civil Engineers, U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) introduced several bills in early May. They would all allow for what Donovan called “bad carve-outs,” exempting certain companies and authorities — such as water, wastewater, compost, agriculture producers — from liability. The draft legislations were referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in May, where they all currently remain.

Donovan said the power should reside with EPA, which has provided equitable consideration to entities that are “passive receivers” of PFAS, such as Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. However, a blanket exemption would give “lazy” companies from having to follow the guidelines.

She also used CFPUA as a positive example of an authority protecting its customers from PFAS at their expense, despite the fact that it did not create the pollution. If all utility companies were exempt from CERCLA, there would be no obligation to hold them accountable as the gatekeepers.

“Permit holders are responsible,” Donovan said. “It’s making sure systems are in compliance and making sure no one is abusing the sewer system.”

EPA administrator Michael Regan stated in a May 10 House Committee on Energy and Commerce meeting the EPA would pursue CERCLA liability for companies responsible for the contamination and use “enforcement discretion.” This would ensure the right people pay and those dealing with the contamination from others, wouldn’t.

“The most important thing is [CERCLA] is a mechanism to make sure polluter’s pay,” Donovan said. “If you start carving out exemptions, it weakens the ability.”

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