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Monday, May 27, 2024

Amid ongoing lawsuit, NC groups dismayed by EPA’s private chemical industry workshop on PFAS testing

Local environmentalists expressed alarm in a recent letter to the Environmental Protection Agency regarding private meetings with PFAS producers and chemical industry consultants on the agency’s PFAS testing strategy. One included Chemours, located 100 miles upstream from Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Local environmentalists expressed alarm in a recent letter to the Environmental Protection Agency regarding private meetings with PFAS producers and chemical industry consultants on the agency’s PFAS testing strategy. One included Chemours, located 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.

READ MORE: Appeals Court casts doubt on district judge’s dismissal of local groups’ PFAS testing petition

“EPA once again left the public — those that the agency was put in place to protect — out of the conversation on PFAS,” Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent told Port City Daily. She noted there has been no public comment period for the agency’s PFAS testing strategy, which was announced in 2021.

The workshop’s attendees included representatives from other PFAS-producing companies, such as Gujarat Fluorochemicals, Eastman Chemical, 3M, and the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s largest trade association. A recent Food & Water Watch study found ACC spent more than $58 million lobbying against PFAS regulations from 2019 through 2022.

“[EPA] did not seek public comment on the creation of their PFAS strategy and now they are holding meetings with chemistry lobbyists and industry insiders on the PFAS testing strategy within it — knowing full-well that the communities hit hardest by PFAS find the testing strategy severely lacking,” Sargent added.

The chemical industry has been a powerful influence on the EPA for decades; Steven Jellinek, the first assistant administrator for the agency’s chemical division said the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act was “written by industry” and should have been named after a DuPont executive who was heavily involved in drafting the bill. 

“EPA seems to be seeking positive feedback from industry polluters to support their legal fight against PFAS advocates,” Sargent said.

On March 19, Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Cape Fear, Toxic Free NC, the Center for Environmental Health and former National Institute for Environmental Sciences director Linda Birnbaum sent a letter to the EPA, stating they were “dismayed” to learn about the private, invite-only workshop held Feb. 13-15. 

The letter specifically addressed EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention assistant administrator Michal Freedhoff. It criticized the EPA’s PFAS testing strategy for its limited scope, priorities, and delays, as well as the agency’s solicitation of feedback from PFAS-producing companies rather than the public.

The nonprofits are involved in an ongoing, years-long lawsuit against the EPA to mandate comprehensive PFAS testing in North Carolina after DuPont and its spin off company, Chemours, discharged the “forever chemicals” in the Cape Fear River for decades. 

In January, judges on the fourth circuit court of appeals in Richmond, Virginia, expressed doubt about EPA’s claim the agency was sufficiently granting the environmentalists’ request through its current testing protocol; the court is expected to issue a written statement on the case in coming months.

“Data on the health effects of nearly all these PFAS are lacking,” the groups wrote in their recent letter to the EPA. “Without this critical information, communities and medical professionals cannot understand the health impacts of long-term PFAS exposure and protect their families and patients from harm.

The nonprofits argue EPA testing implementation has barely begun over two years after the strategy was announced. It notes testing orders have only been issued for three PFAS variants — the nonprofits’ lawsuit requests testing of 54 compounds — data of which remains publicly unavailable. The environmentalists argue the strategy’s current pace will take decades to complete and call for urgency to address the health concerns of Cape Fear communities.

EPA’s PFAS test orders are carried out under the authority of the Toxic Substances Control Act; Freedhoff, the assistant administrator addressed in the letter, helped shape a strengthened version of the TSCA in 2016, but noted compromises with the industry were necessary for its passage.

Freedhoff has served as assistant administrator of chemical safety since 2021, but has criticized the chemical industry throughout her career in various environmental oversight positions. 

PCD reached out to Freedhoff and the EPA to ask why the agency held the workshop as a private event rather than also invite impacted communities and environmentalists, and why EPA did not seek peer review on the PFAS testing strategy. Spokesperson Jeffrey Landis said he would look into the inquiries; PCD will update the article if and when he responds.

“We’re deeply disappointed the EPA’s office of chemical safety and pollution prevention continues to engage in business-related human rights abuses,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan said. 

She noted Clean Cape Fear reached out to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council last year to ask them to look into the issue, leading to the UN’s November 2023 statement on human rights abuses related to PFAS contamination in North Carolina. The UN also admonished U.S. environmental regulators for the failure to provide adequate PFAS information to the public after Clean Cape Fear reached out to the UN’s Human Rights Council.

“The fact EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention still went forward with this secret meeting continues to erode public trust in this office’s ability to work for taxpayers and not the chemical industry,” Donovan said.

Letter sent to EPA from area nonprofit groups:

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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