Environment

GenX crisis didn’t have to happen: EPA Inspector General finds agency’s regional office knew nothing of a 2009 consent order

The GenX crisis, which contaminated the drinking water for tens of thousands of people in southeastern North Carolina, could have been averted had the EPA simply done its job.

The EPA Inspector General has found that a communication breakdown within the agency allowed DuPont, later Chemours, to discharge the toxic compound GenX into the Cape Fear River for eight years, in violation of the terms of a consent order.

The report, issued this morning, explained that a 2009 consent order between DuPont and EPA headquarters required the company to capture 99% of all air emissions and water discharges of GenX. The company failed to comply with the requirements, but EPA inspectors were none the wiser.

That’s because the consent order was never approved or reviewed by the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Nor did EPA officials tell their counterparts at the Region 4 offices in Atlanta, who, had they known of the consent order, would have been required to inspect the Fayetteville Works plant to ensure it was complying with the terms.

Instead, those at the EPA who did know about the consent order used information provided by DuPont/Chemours to track and review the company’s compliance.

The EPA undertook no independent, on-site compliance monitoring for GenX at the Fayetteville Works facility until 2017, when first, the Wilmington Star-News, and then other statewide media began covering the issue.

By that time, the company had discharged millions of gallons of GenX into the river, contaminating drinking water supplies downstream in Wilmington and in Brunswick County. The company also failed to adequately control its air emissions of GenX, as laid out in the consent order with the EPA. When the compound left the plant through the smokestacks, it later fell to the ground and contaminated groundwater, crops and private drinking water wells over 70 square miles.

GenX is a type of perfluorinated compound, also known as PFAS. It replaced two previous compounds, PFOA and PFOS, which have been linked to cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, among other serious health conditions. GenX was supposed to be less toxic, but recent scientific studies have shown it poses similar risks.

DuPont had petitioned the EPA in 2008 to begin making two new GenX chemicals. Known as a “premanufacture notice,” it is required by federal law for companies either manufacturing or importing new compounds. In 2009, the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention allowed DuPont to make these chemicals as long as the company complied with the terms of a consent order.

A consent order was necessary because the information about GenX that DuPont provided to the EPA was deemed “insufficient to permit a reasoned evaluation of the health and environmental effects of the chemicals.”

Without more data, the EPA determined “the uncontrolled manufacture, import, processing, distribution in commerce, use, and disposal of the chemicals may present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment.”

It also found that DuPont would produced GenX “in substantial quantities and will likely enter the environment in substantial quantities, and there may be significant or substantial human exposure to the substance.”

The consent order also required the company to provide workers with personal protective equipment, such as respiratory and skin protection, and to test for human health or environmental effects from exposure GenX. Testing protocols and results were to be sent to the EPA.

In February 2019, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch entered into a separate consent order with Chemours requiring the company to capture 99% of its GenX air emissions. Previously, DEQ had forced the company to stop discharging the compound into the Cape Fear under threat of revoking its environmental permits.

Chemours was also required to submit a Corrective Action Plan detailing how it would clean up the contamination. Earlier this year, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan determined the plan was insufficient and ordered the company to revise it.

Also in February 2019, the EPA issued a Notice of Violation to Chemours related to two facilities using the GenX manufacturing process: Fayetteville Works and the Washington Works facility in West Virginia.

However, that Notice of Violation involved Chemours’s failure to file certain reports and paperwork regarding the manufacture and import of the chemicals; it did not include any violations of the 2009 Consent Order at the Fayetteville Works facility.

The EPA did say that it was continuing to investigate the company and could “find additional violations.”

In September 2019, the EPA announced that investigation was continuing.

In today’s report, the Inspector General recommended that the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance consistently review and approve consent orders that are under its purview.

The EPA responded that PFAS actions are “a top priority” but since it didn’t explicitly state that enforcement officials would meet the report’s recommendations, the Inspector General determined the issue is still unresolved.

Environment

EPA Inspector General to probe agency’s handling of Chemours’ request to produce GenX

The EPA Inspector General is launching an investigation into how the agency evaluated Chemours’ 2009 request to produce GenX, including the company’s information on how it would discharge and dispose of the toxic compound.

According to a notice filed yesterday, the Inspector General is focused on determining “what actions the EPA took to verify compliance” with a consent order “to prevent release of the chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River Basin.”

Under the Toxic Releases Substance Act (TSCA), companies that intend to manufacture or import certain new chemical substances must file a pre-manufacture notice with the EPA. These substances include polymers, such as GenX.

A pre-manufacture notice must be submitted within at least 90 days before production of the chemical begins. Companies must provide detailed information about the chemical, its manufacturing process, the amount to be produced, its intended use, environmental releases, disposal practices, human exposures and available test data on toxicity to human health and the environment.

The EPA’s risk assessors are supposed to consider this information during the new chemicals review process, and to ensure they don’t present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment.

In 2008, DuPont – now Chemours – filed pre-manufacture notices under TSCA for GenX. The following year, the EPA and DuPont signed a consent order for the substances, according to the agency website. That order required health and environmental testing in animals, including that for reproductive effects and cancer, as well as possible harm to fish and birds.

It also included analysis of controlled worker exposures, proposed environmental releases, and the amount of impurities that could be present in the final product.

DuPont/Chemours conducted the required testing and provided it to the EPA. That data is now under review. The Inspector General did not provide a timeline for the investigation.


PFAS health study launches in seven states

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded $7 million in grants to study the relationship between PFAS-contaminated drinking water and health. Each award is worth $1 million.

The awardees include six universities, two state departments of health and two nonprofits:

Clean Cape Fear, a citizens’ group based in Wilmington, criticized the state and universities for not applying for one of the grants. “Residents in the Wilmington and Fayetteville areas will not be able to participate in one of the six national locations receiving these federal grants because no state agency, university, or research facility submitted an application on behalf of our communities,” said Emily Donovan, a co-founder of Clean Cape Fear.

“A quarter of a million residents downstream of DuPont/Chemours exposed us to dangerous levels of toxic PFAS for decades and our data will not be added to this nationwide study. It’s heartbreaking. Our participation in this study would have added valuable information to the nation’s understanding of human PFAS exposure.”

Donovan said DHHS should have overseen a statewide group, including public health officials and research institutions and nonprofits to submit multiple applications for this grant. Other states, like Massachusetts, did so.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services said “since this was a research study, DHHS encouraged its academic partners to apply.” DHHS is not a research organization, but does collect and publish public health data.

Jeffrey Warren, research director for the NC Policy Collaboratory, which has deployed dozens of academic researchers to study perfluorinated compounds, was on a CDC review team to evaluate some of the grant proposals. He said the states that received funding had long histories with PFAS contamination – longer than North Carolina’s – and also had collected extensive amounts of data. All of the grants he reviewed, Warren said, involved academic teams.

The CDC’s 55-page call for applications was clear in that the agency would require applicants to have access to large amounts of data.

Because the state has less data, Warren said, “I’m not sure North Carolina would have qualified.”

“The criticism is unfounded,” he said, adding that the university researchers in North Carolina have applied for grants totaling in the tens of millions of dollars to study the compounds.

agriculture, Environment

FDA: GenX, 14 types of perfluorinated compounds found in produce grown within 10 miles of Chemours

Leafy greens collected at local farmers markets near Fayetteville contained elevated levels of GenX and other perfluorinated compounds, according to a recent FDA study.

The FDA shared the findings at an environmental conference in Finland, but not publicly in the US. The Environmental Defense Fund obtained photographs of the agency’s findings. The Environmental Working Group released them today.

Contacted by Policy Watch, an FDA spokesman shared the findings and said the agency is preparing to post the findings to a webpage. The FDA did not reply to a question as to why the results were not released earlier.

In October 2017, researchers tested for the presence of 16 PFAS in 91 food samples collected in the Mid-Atlantic region, including North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware.

In a related study, in 2018 the FDA sampled leafy greens grown within 10 miles of a PFAS production facility. GenX was detected at 200 parts per trillion in produce grown within 10 miles of Chemours, according to the study. There is no regulatory standard for GenX, although state health officials have set an advisory goal of 140 ppt in drinking water.

Fourteen other types of PFAS were also detected in the produce, including PFOA, which was phased out in 2015. Levels of PFBA, used to make photographic film, reached nearly 600 ppt. The cumulative concentration of PFAS in the produce ranged from 1 ppt to more than 1,100 ppt.

The FDA noted that the levels were not likely a human health concern, but that foods grown near PFAS sources should be monitored.

The greens were collected before state regulators required Chemours to control its air emissions at the Fayetteville plant. The compounds leaving the stacks, mixing with rainwater and humidity, then falling to the earth, contaminating groundwater, private drinking water wells and food miles away.

As part of a consent order between Chemours and the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the company is installing thermal oxidizers to eliminate the emissions initially by 92 percent, and then by 99 percent by the end of this year.

In food samples collected in other states, PFAS was detected in 14 of the 91 samples collected and examined by the FDA, including PFOS in almost half of the meat and seafood products, PFPeA in chocolate milk and high levels in chocolate cake with icing, PFBA in pineapple, and PFHxS in sweet potato.

PFAS are used in the manufacture of nonstick cookware, plastic packaging, water-resistant fabrics and other consumer goods. The compounds have been linked to thyroid, reproductive, kidney, liver and developmental disorders, as well as some cancers. They are widespread in the environment, contaminating groundwater, drinking water, lakes, rivers, soil, compost and food. Despite the health effects of PFAS, the EPA has failed to regulate them.

Newer studies suggest that “short-chain” PFAS, like GenX, may also pose a risk to human health.  To study the effects of certain short-chain PFAS and their effects on human health, the FDA said it is collaborating with other federal health and environmental agencies “to determine appropriate next steps for the authorizations for the use of short-chain PFAS in food packaging.”

Along with concerned citizens and other environmental and public health advocates, the Environmental Working Group is asking lawmakers and regulators to designate PFAS as hazardous substances, not just individually but as a class.

EWG is also calling for expanded monitoring for PFAS in food, air, water and humans; ending the use of the compounds in packaging, food handling equipment and cookware; ending sewage sludge applications on farm fields when PFAS has been detected; updating EPA’s “sludge rule” to require testing; and quickly establish clean up standards in tap water and groundwater.

Environment

A conundrum: rehabbing homes that have been damaged by a hurricane — and contaminated by GenX

Drinking water wells, which rely on groundwater, have tested positive for GenX nearly seven miles from the Chemours plant. Four homeowners who live within five miles have applied for federal housing disaster relief, which has presented a quandary for state officials. (Map: DEQ)

While Congress debates whether the EPA should regulate perfluorinated compounds, including GenX, the cost of inaction is playing out in North Carolina in an overlooked, yet significant way: hurricane relief.

In rebuilding or rehabbing homes damaged by Hurricane Matthew, state officials are encountering, for the first time, some houses whose water supplies have also been contaminated by GenX from the Chemours plant.

And the cost of cleaning up water contaminated with unregulated pollutants isn’t covered under housing disaster relief community development block grants.

“It’s not a storm-related damage so the cost isn’t reimbursable by HUD” — US Housing and Urban Development, said John Ebbighausen, chief of programs for the state Office of Recovery and Resilience. “But we have to bring the house up to code, and nothing hazardous can be there.”

The Office of Recovery and Resilience is a division of the Department of Public Safety; the housing disaster relief program is coordinated with the federal government and the state commerce department.

According to a letter from the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, four homeowners who live within five miles of the Chemours plant have applied for housing disaster relief. The plant is near the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

Dozens of wells between three and five miles of the plant have tested positive for GenX, and roughly 20 had detections above the state health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion. A few wells beyond the five-mile radius also had detections of GenX, but none above the state’s benchmark.

Federal law requires an environmental review for homes built or rehabbed under HUD’s disaster recovery program, as well as the land beneath. If a property is contaminated with chemicals that appear on the EPA’s list of hazardous substances list, then it must be cleaned up or mitigated; otherwise, it isn’t eligible for federal funds.

But the EPA hasn’t classified PFAS, including GenX, as hazardous. “There is no EPA guidance,” Ebbighausen said.

The Office of Recovery and Resilience has asked DEQ to determine the level of GenX contamination that would trigger a requirement for Chemours to pay for an alternate water supply.

“We need a piece of paper that we can take to Chemours and say, ‘You can install this, or our contractor will, and we’ll bill them,” Ebbighausen said.

Earlier this month, DEQ’s Director of Waste Management Michael Scott responded to Ebbighausen, noting that a recent consent order with Chemours includes provisions for alternate water supplies, based on thresholds of detectable PFAS in private well water.

Those alternatives include a connection to a public water supply, whole-house filtration and under-sink reverse osmosis systems. In some cases, it could be more protective for homes to receive a new, deeper drinking water well. However, only affected schools and public buildings are eligible for new well construction.

Scott said DEQ continues to sample private wells beyond a five-mile radius from the plant. Homes that are eligible for disaster relief and are within seven miles could have their well tested and if necessary, be provided with alternate water. Scott added that it would review groundwater and well sampling results for damaged properties between seven and 10 miles of Chemours.

Those boundaries could shift, Scott said, depending on ongoing well sampling. DEQ would notify disaster recovery officials of any changes.

Homes that sustained damage whose costs are equivalent to 50 percent of their prestorm tax value could be eligible for federal funding. Mobile homes with more than $5,000 in damage might also be eligible.

The deadline for homeowners to apply for disaster relief funds is May 31. This round of funding is applicable only for Hurricane Matthew damage.

The state is owed another $168 million in federal housing money for Hurricane Matthew recovery, Ebbighausen said. Earlier this week HUD awarded the state $336 million for housing damage caused by Hurricane Florence, far less than the $2 billion in damage caused by the historic storm.

Environment

Sampling shows PFAS, GenX in groundwater wells in New Hanover County; contaminants not detected in drinking water

The area shaded in brown indicates the Castle-Hayne aquifer, which includes parts of New Hanover County. (Map: USGS)

State environmental regulators are sampling groundwater from monitoring wells in northern New Hanover County after perfluorinated compounds, including GenX, were detected in six of 25 wells that supply the Richardson water treatment plant.

However, the compounds were not detected in finished drinking water.

The plant, operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, provides drinking water to several communities, including Murrayville, Wrightsboro, and parts of Castle Hayne and Odgen. The source of this public water supply is groundwater tapped from the Castle Hayne and PeeDee aquifers.

While most of the utility’s water treatment plants withdraw from the river, the Richardson plant uses groundwater.

In all, 12 types of PFAS were detected, although not every type was found in every well.

Tests of well water showed levels ranging from 25 ppt to 65 ppt for all PFAS; another well, intended only as an emergency source for the Sweeney plant, contained concentrations of PFAS at 180 ppt. That well is not operating.

No PFAS have been detected in finished drinking water from the Richardson plant during March testing, the utility said. In April, only a trace amount, 0.6 parts per trillion, was detected in one sample, according to the utility.

“We share their concerns, but one data set does not sufficiently help us understand the cause or source of the contamination. DEQ plans to sample areas of concern and expedite testing results,” DEQ Communications Director Megan Thorpe said in a prepared statement.

DEQ said it will conduct its own sampling, but it could take several weeks to receive the results.

The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS or GenX. The state health department has set an unenforceable advisory goal of 140 ppt in drinking water. As part of a consent order, the state Department of Environmental Quality requires Chemours, which had been discharging PFAS into the Cape Fear River for decades, to pay for filter options for owners of private wells where the compounds have been detected above 10 ppt for one, or 70 ppt collectively.

The original source of the widespread PFAS contamination in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin is the Chemours plant, 100 miles upstream. Private drinking water wells around the plant, as well as public drinking water supplies downstream have been polluted from the facility’s discharge.

It’s possible that at least part of the aquifer beneath New Hanover County is now contaminated. In 2017, the utility had pumped water from the Sweeney water treatment plant into an aquifer storage well to keep finished drinking water that could be used during times of high demand. However, the utility suspended the project after it learned that it had unknowingly contaminated the aquifer well because water from the Sweeney plant was contaminated with GenX and other PFAS from Chemours.

The utility found the most recent contamination after sampling the wells to determine how PFAS might move through groundwater near the aquifer storage well. The utility said it is unclear if that well is the source of the other contaminated groundwater wells. Those wells are two to three miles away, and groundwater migrates only about 15 feet a year, at least in the coastal area of New Hanover County.

Speed of groundwater migration can depend on rock and soil types. The Castle Hayne Aquifer is composed of “carbonate rocks,” common in coastal environments, according to the US Geological Survey. The slightly acidic groundwater can carve tunnels in the rock that can be tens of feet wide and even thousands of feet long. Water then moves through these underground networks, although it can’t penetrate undissolved rock.

The Pee Dee Aquifer is made up of fine- to medium-grain sand and black clay.

The finished drinking water from these aquifers is not contaminated, likely because the Richardson plant uses an advanced membrane treatment system, which can remove PFAS, including GenX.

However, the contamination doesn’t end there. The material caught by the membrane filters, known as “concentrate,” is discharged into the Intracoastal Waterway.