SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The U.S. government took a major step Friday to designate certain chemical compounds as “hazardous” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
PFOA and PFOS — two per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which make up 9,000 or more chemicals including GenX — have been used since the 1940s and are commonly found in nonstick coatings in cookware, stain-repellant products, water-resistant fabrics, packaging, and fire resistant foams. The compounds are referred to as “forever chemicals” for their long-staying power and resistance to breaking down in the environment.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in the human body accumulate and create dangerous health outcomes, studies have indicated. The chemicals have been linked to various issues in reproductive, developmental (e.g., low birth weight), cardiovascular, liver, and kidney health, as well as have caused cancer and immunological effects.
It’s the first time the Environmental Protection Agency has enacted CERCLA, or “Superfund” law, for any PFAS.
The law was enacted by Congress in December 1980 and created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries. Over $1.6 billion has been collected just in the last five years; funds are used for cleaning abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
“To see this administration start utilizing that tool in their toolbox is incredibly important,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan said.
Clean Cape Fear was founded in 2017 as a grassroots effort to protect water, air, food and soil from being poisoned by PFAS. It upstarted in response to Chemours — a subsidiary of DuPont — dumping PFAS into the Cape Fear River from its Fayetteville Works Plant, 70 miles west of Wilmington.
Five years ago, it was revealed the company had been poisoning the drinking water of 300,000 residents for decades.
Chemours faces lawsuits and protection orders to remediate and prevent toxic pollution in the future. Under its current consent order with NCDEQ, the company is required to supply individuals whose wells test above acceptable levels of PFAS with free clean drinking water.
The potential EPA designation of the PFOA and PFOS “triggers” a Superfund, Donovan explained, which will shift the financial burden away from taxpayers to responsible parties.
“We know we didn’t create the problem so why are we carrying the burden?” Donovan asked. “It allows the EPA to become an active participant and the NCDEQ can work with EPA to make the process of cleanup and who pays for it, more clear legally.”
The two entities would work in tandem to identify sites manufacturing the hazardous substances and enforce abatement.
Also, by designating PFOA and PFOS chemicals as hazardous and putting the responsibility on Chemours, the hope is it will force the company’s hand to reimburse utility companies for the millions spent in upgrading water treatment systems to protect residents.
Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has been installing a $43 million granular activated carbon system to filtrate PFAS over the last few years. It estimates it will be delivering PFAS-free water by the end of the year.
Adding the PFOS and PFOA compounds to the hazardous list also forces any industry manufacturing the chemicals to start reporting to the EPA if it releases more than 1 pound of the substances per day. Companies do not have to currently report PFAS output.
“It helps communities like ours to identify where potential hot spots may be occurring,” Donovan said.
Individuals living in the Cape Fear region ingest dangerous amounts of PFOA and PFOS in their tap water, well above the EPA’s health advisories for the chemicals, set to 10 parts per trillion.
“Based on the new data and EPA’s draft analyses, the levels at which negative health effects could occur are much lower than previously understood when EPA issued 2016 health advisories for PFOA and PFOS (70 parts per trillion or ppt),” the proposed rule designation paperwork noted.
According to CFPUA’s July testing from its Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, PFAS (of all combined compounds) levels were at 126 parts per trillion.
“There’s historical contamination there,” Donovan said. “We hear a lot about GenX and we’re very aware there’s a lot more than GenX in our tap water. They’re still discovering new [PFAS] as analytic standards are created and utilities can start testing for more. We still don’t know the full scope of contamination.”
For a time, Chemours’ predecessor DuPont, was the only American company producing PFOA.
“We need the EPA to also list all PFAS as hazardous substances and begin addressing the forever chemicals currently in commercial use,” Donavan added. “I think this is a good first step and going to be a benefit for us, but it’s not going to solve all our problems.”
The EPA will publish a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in the Federal Register in coming weeks. The federal agency is asking for public comment on the proposal for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register at its website (docket EPA-HQ-OLEM-2019-0341).
This article has been updated to reflect DuPont was the only producer of PFOA in the U.S. for a time, not Chemours.
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