By Greg Barnes
UPDATE: This story has been updated to note the release on Feb. 14 of new EPA “action plan” to research, monitor, detect and remove of PFAS compounds from the environment. See the end of the story for details.
The state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knew that Chemours was shipping wastewater containing GenX from the Netherlands to North Carolina at least a year before the shipments were publicly disclosed by the media.
Environmental organizations have bristled at the shipments and what they perceive as a lack of transparency. The shipments, from a Chemours’ plant in the Netherland to the Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County, have been happening for about five years.
“It is frustrating that we were not told,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “I do not know exactly what we could have done with the information since these shipments were approved by the EPA, but we certainly feel that, given the lack of transparency on this issue over the last year and a half, these revelations will only make the public more skeptical of Chemours.”
David Andrews, senior scientist for the national advocacy organization, the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C, called the lack of transparency “ridiculous.”
“Ultimately, it seems to be ridiculous and a clear and egregious oversight on what is going on with these chemicals,” Andrews said. “At this point, I think there needs to be clear and public accounting of anything that happens with these chemicals.”
Kept in the dark
For at least 37 years, Chemours, and DuPont before it, had been discharging GenX and other fluorochemicals, most of which are suspected carcinogens into the Cape Fear River from its Fayetteville Works plant. The DEQ ordered the discharges stopped in 2017, after high levels of GenX, a chemical used to make Teflon and other nonstick and water-resistant products, was found in high levels in Wilmington’s drinking water and private wells surrounding the plant.
GenX is one of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, called PFAS, that have come under intense scrutiny in recent years because many are believed to cause ill-health effects, including cancer. Although the health effects of GenX on humans isn’t well known, it has been shown to cause kidney, liver, pancreas and testicular cancer in animals.
The EPA ordered the predecessor to GenX, known as PFOA, or C8, to be phased out in 2009 because its eight-atom carbon chain made it extremely persistent in the environment and was eventually found to cause cancer in humans.
DuPont began producing C8 at its Fayetteville Works plant in late 2002 before switching to GenX, which was touted as less toxic to the environment and to human health, partly because of its shorter atomic chain.
But now, grave new concerns swirl around GenX and related PFAS compounds, many of which have been found in the Cape Fear River below the Chemours plant and in private wells surrounding it.
While DEQ was investigating the contamination, it became aware of the shipments containing GenX from the Netherlands to the Fayetteville Works plant. Only the agency didn’t tell the public, which has grown increasingly skeptical of Chemours and state environmental regulators.
Unlike the Netherlands and other European countries, the United States does not regulate GenX as a hazardous material. The shipments are not illegal, but they have raised serious questions.
In a letter to Chemours dated Jan. 18, 2018, Linda Culpepper, then acting director of DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, addressed the division’s concerns about the shipments and asked Chemours to respond to numerous questions.
In part, Culpepper wanted to know what pollutants besides GenX were in the wastewater being shipped, why they were being sent to the company’s Fayetteville Works plant, how long the shipments had been made, the volume of wastewater contained in the shipments, how the wastewater was being managed and stored and where it was sent for final disposal.
On that date, Chemours responded that process wastewater was being sent to the area of the Fayetteville Works plant where GenX is produced. The GenX in the shipments was then recycled before the leftover liquid was trucked offsite for incineration, according to the response from Christel Compton, Chemours’ program manager.
Compton wrote that the reclaimed wastewater was “nonhazardous” and that the EPA had been told “of these reclamation activities on multiple occasions.”
Compton also wrote that the company needed more time to fully answer the DEQ’s questions because the EPA had asked similar ones. She said a full response to both agencies would be made available by Feb. 5 of that year. Chemours met the deadline.
A year later, DEQ won’t release the responses.
“Unfortunately, the majority of that letter is confidential business information” and “it will take a while for DEQ to redact the letter,” DEQ spokeswoman Megan Thorpe said in an email to NC Health News. She suggested that Chemours might be willing to release it.
Lisa Randall, a spokeswoman for Chemours, initially said the company would release its responses but later backtracked, saying it would take much more time to get them ready for release. She said one set of responses contains about 200 pages.
Randall said Chemours has been shipping what she called “process water” containing GenX from its Netherlands plant to the Fayetteville Works plant for about five years. Randall objected to calling it waste or wastewater. She said a Chemours plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, also sends its process water to the Fayetteville Works plant for recycling.
In an email, Randall said Chemours had been shipping some of its process water containing GenX and other chemicals to a European recycling facility until that company went bankrupt. What she didn’t say is that the company, Miteni SpA in Italy, went bankrupt after tests revealed GenX in groundwater and in wells near the plant, according to the investigative news website The Intercept. The national nonprofit publication reported that studies show the chemical has affected the health of people living in the area.
The wastewater containing Genx that had gone to Miteni SpA has apparently been rerouted to the Fayetteville Works plant, said Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and executive director of Cape Fear River Watch. That organization has joined DEQ in a consent order that seeks $12 million in fines from Chemours for the contamination in the river and near its plant.
Randall explained that some of the GenX made at its Fayetteville Works plant is shipped to the Netherlands for use there. At the end of the manufacturing process, she said, “a liquid material consisting of GenX and other ingredients” remains. That liquid is then shipped to the Fayetteville Works plant, which captures the GenX for reuse, reducing the amount of virgin GenX the company needs to make, she said.
Randall said the remaining liquid from the Fayetteville Works plant is then sent to facilities in Arkansas and Texas for incineration.
Randall said Chemours has not changed any of its operations since receiving the letter from the DEQ’s Culpepper. The DEQ didn’t ask it to, she said.
“Failed to be transparent”
The EPA still has a lot of questions about the shipments from the Netherlands and their storage, handling and disposal in the United States.
The EPA does not authorize states to administer federal import and export functions regarding hazardous waste regulations. For that reason, Thorpe, the DEQ spokeswoman, referred questions about the shipments to the EPA, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Eleven months after Culpepper’s letter to Chemours, an EPA senior attorney sent a letter with a list of six questions about the waste shipments to a representative of the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate. In the letter, the attorney also provided a list of 10 questions that the EPA was asking Chemours regarding the shipments, including the types of wastes they contain, whether they contain more than one waste stream, their origination, storage and handling and the disposal process.
The EPA’s letter, obtained last month by environmental reporter Lisa Sorg at NC Policy Watch, is the first time the public has been informed about the shipments of GenX. The letter is dated Dec. 19, 2018, and titled, “Notice of Temporary Objection.”
The EPA’s letter says the reason for the notice is that “EPA has not yet had an opportunity to review more current, detailed information concerning the wastes to be shipped and the management of the wastes.”
Sorg obtained the letter from North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water, which said the letter was leaked to the activist group.
“Regardless of the authenticity of the letter, NCDEQ has failed to be transparent
with the fact Chemours is importing GenX waste to the Fayetteville facility,” the group’s leader, Kathleen Gallagher, wrote in a 16-page letter to a Wilmington councilman. “Had this information not been leaked, we would still not know today.”
Randall said Chemours continues the same shipping and recycling practices today as it had before the EPA letter was sent. She said Chemours provided responses to the EPA’s questions to the regulatory agency within the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water of The Netherlands. That agency will submit responses to the EPA using information provided by Chemours, she said.
Among its many questions, the EPA’s letter says it seeks clarification of where the waste is going after recycling at the Fayetteville Works plant.
Randall said the liquid has gone to both Texas and Arkansas for incineration after it leaves Fayetteville Works.
Phillip Retallick, senior vice president for compliance and regulatory affairs for the Clean Harbors incinerator in El Dorado, Arkansas, said his company handles hazardous and nonhazardous waste coming from Chemours plants across the country, including Fayetteville Works. But he said Clean Harbors has not incinerated wastewater from the Fayetteville Works plant that originated in the Netherlands.
Andrews, the senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, argues that much stricter regulations and oversight are needed for the incineration of GenX and thousands of related chemicals.
The DEQ was unaware of just how much GenX Chemours was releasing through the air at its Fayetteville Works plant until contamination was found in ground and drinking water in 2017 and the department began conducting air-emission tests. Chemours now says it will spend about $100 million to reduce air emissions at the plant to almost nothing. That work is already underway.
In August, the EPA held a community forum in Fayetteville to discuss PFAS contamination, which has also been found in states across the country. Trey Glenn, the EPA’s regional administrator, announced at the forum that the information shared would be used to support a national plan to manage PFAS.
The outcome of that planning process is due to be released soon.
UPDATE – Feb. 14, 2019:
On Wednesday, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the nation’s first-ever “action plan” for research, monitoring, detection and removal of PFAS compounds from the environment.
Unveiling the plan in Philadelphia, Wheeler said the EPA is moving forward to set a maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most prevalent contaminants found in drinking water. Wheeler said the agency plans to set a regulatory determination on the two chemicals by the end of the year.
The regulatory process, which has already begun, dictates the pace at which the EPA can go, Wheeler said, assuring people that the agency continues to take enforcement action when contamination is found above the EPA’s current health advisory for PFOA and PFOS. That advisory is 70 parts per trillion, either separately or in combination. The advisory is not regulatory, meaning it does not have real teeth, as yet.
Wheeler said more research is needed to determine whether the maximum contaminant level — which would be regulatory — should be set lower than 70 parts per trillion.
He said 1.3 percent of the nation’s public water systems have tested above that threshold. The EPA also plans to put PFOS in the next round of monitoring under the unregulated contaminant monitoring program and will consider listing PFAS in the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which tracks the amount of monitored toxins released into the environment, Wheeler said.
“Our goal is to close the gap on the science as quickly as possible, especially as it relates to other emerging risks, like GenX,” he said.