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By Greg Barnes

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rejected a petition from six North Carolina environmental groups that would have forced the Chemours chemical company to fund health studies on 54 types of “forever chemicals” released from its Fayetteville Works plant.

The EPA said in a Jan. 7 response that the petitioners failed to prove the requested data was needed.

The petition was filed Oct. 14 by the Center for Environmental Health, Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Cape Fear, NC Black Alliance, Democracy Green and Toxic Free NC. The group sought a rule of order under the Toxic Substances Control Act compelling Chemours to fund and carry out health and environmental testing of the 54 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — commonly known as PFAS — through a panel of independent scientists.

Leaders of the groups had strong words following the EPA’s denial.

“I believe the EPA is lying to North Carolinians, and by extension the rest of America,” Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, said in an email. “If, as the EPA suggests, enough scientific data already exists to deny our petition then where are the drinking water standards for these 54 PFAS? Fish and wildlife consumption advisories? Fact sheets for medical practitioners and state health departments?

“The required data doesn’t exist to produce these vital protections. The EPA knows it and my children are still being exposed to many of these PFAS. My friends and neighbors are sick. My husband almost lost his eyesight to a brain tumor and I’m tired of a government, funded by taxpayer dollars, refusing to do its job.”

Nearly 300,000 exposed

The environmental groups say Chemours — and before it DuPont — are responsible for PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River downstream of the Bladen County chemical plant and in more than 4,000 private wells surrounding it. Before 2015, DuPont owned and managed the Fayetteville Works facility, then the company spun off Chemours into a separate entity.

Nearly 300,000 people surrounding the plant and living downstream of it are believed to have been exposed to elevated levels of PFAS from decades of unregulated PFAS being discharged into the river and the air. The substances have also been found in vegetables grown near the plant and in fish, alligators and other wildlife downstream.

Potential adverse health effects from PFAS include liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone and immune suppression and cancers of the liver, kidneys, pancreas, testicles and thyroid.

Chemours contends that the levels of PFAS found in drinking water drawn from the Cape Fear River and in private well water are not enough to cause human harm. Yet mounting evidence suggests that even extremely low levels of certain types of PFAS may cause adverse health effects.

The groups that filed the 49-page petition want Chemours to pay for studies on the 54 PFAS so people can know the health risks and perhaps how to mitigate them.

The action would emulate studies conducted in the Mid-Ohio River Valley in the earlier part of this century which found most of the people studied had some level of PFAS contamination in their blood.

“Medical practitioners in our region know we were overexposed to PFAS but lack the guidance and support on how to offer preventive medical care,” said Donovan, who lives in Brunswick County. A study last year by the national Environmental Working Group found that water from a drinking fountain in a Brunswick County elementary school contained the highest level of PFAS detected in the country.

“There’s a data gap inside our health care community regarding exposures to mixtures of PFAS,” Donovan said. “We deserve to know all the risk factors.”

Chemours says petition fell short

Chemours disagrees. Shortly after the EPA rejected the groups’ petition, the company released a statement saying it was happy with the outcome. The statement also touted Chemours efforts to substantially reduce PFAS from the Cape Fear River.

“The petition failed to establish any of the factors required under TSCA to support the proposed action,” the company said in a statement. “Several of the compounds cited in the petition have no known connection to Chemours’ Fayetteville Works operation. Others are byproducts and intermediaries that occur at such small quantities, levels that continue to decrease, that it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to manufacture the volumes required for testing.”

Following the EPA’s decision, the groups filing the petition vowed to continue fighting on behalf of at-risk communities against PFAS pollution from Chemours.

“EPA’s petition denial does not dispute the serious health effects concerns associated with PFAS or the extensive contamination of the Cape Fear River basin caused by Chemours,” the groups said in a joint statement published by the Center for Environmental Health. “Instead, it seeks to justify its refusal to require testing with a self-serving recitation of its actions on PFAS generally — actions which have been widely criticized as ineffective and inadequate.

“Under (President) Donald Trump, protecting the profit margins of corporate polluters has repeatedly taken precedence over public health. EPA’s refusal to require Chemours to fund testing that should have been conducted decades ago is one more example of its willingness to sacrifice public health to protect industry’s bottom line.”

The groups said they will ask President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to approve the petition. Biden has nominated Michael Regan, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, to lead the EPA. Biden has said he will declare two of the oldest and most troublesome PFAS — perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law, which could provide a major boost in cleanup of the toxic chemicals.

An estimated 5,000 different types of PFAS are known to exist. They are used to make products grease-or-water resistant and are found in many everyday products, including non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets, lubricants, firefighting foams, paints, cosmetics, paper plates and fast food packaging.

Nearly everyone in America is thought to have some level of PFAS in their blood, but few states have as much of the contamination in drinking water as North Carolina. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment and accumulate in the body.

PFAS are ubiquitous

Elevated levels of PFAS have been found in drinking water throughout the Cape Fear River basin, from Greensboro to the coast.

In a video conference last month announcing findings from a study of PFAS in Pittsboro residents’ blood, Duke University researcher Heather Stapleton said 1 million people who draw their drinking water from the basin could potentially be exposed to elevated levels of PFAS.

Stapleton also said the types of PFAS found in the blood of Pittsboro residents are “strikingly similar” to those found in the blood of Wilmington residents.

Yet, some types of PFAS, including GenX and Nafion byproducts, are almost exclusively released by Chemours in North Carolina. Both compounds were found at extremely high levels in drinking water downstream of the Bladen County plant before the company was forced to stop releasing its wastewater into the river in 2017.

Elevated levels of the substances are still found in the river, however, coming largely from groundwater seepage, runoff and sediment. Last year, The state Department of Environmental Quality took additional action against Chemours that it says will significantly curtail the PFAS loading into the river.

But the environmental groups that filed the petition want more than promises to stop the pollution. They want industries to be held accountable, and they want to know what decades of contaminated drinking water could be doing to their health.

“Chemical giants continue to reap financial benefits of their reckless behavior at the expense of human health and the environment,” Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, said in the statement.’’This petition holds at least one polluter responsible for paying to figure out just what damage they have done to the health of those in their community in North Carolina.”

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com