Critics pounce on the lack of urgency in EPA’s “Action Plan” on PFAS

Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker spoke at EPA’s office in Research Triangle Park to unveil the agency’s national PFAS Action Plan. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Environmental advocates and residents of contaminated communities are irate. The Cooper administration is disappointed. But 3M, a primary manufacturer of per- and polyfluorinated compounds — PFAS — is satisfied.

After receiving 120,000 written comments and holding listening sessions and a National Leadership meeting with state officials, the EPA unveiled its national PFAS Action Plan yesterday, but the most notable aspect of the 60-plus page report was its lack of action. The EPA began implementing rules and guidelines about a few of these toxic compounds nearly 20 years ago, but it has yet to establish an enforceable drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, just two of thousands of per- and polyfluorinated compounds. 

Nonetheless, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency’s “top priority is getting this action plan done quickly and right.”

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement calling the EPA’s plan “weak.”

“I am disappointed that the agency’s action plan does not commit to setting standards, lacks detail on what research is planned on specific compounds like GenX, and seems to ignore the urgency of the problem,” Gov. Cooper said. “Today’s announcement contradicts promises made in public meetings in North Carolina last summer to work swiftly to set standards and recommendations for these compounds. People deserve to have confidence in the water they drink, and this weak action by the EPA negatively impacts state efforts to protect water quality and public health.”

A 3M spokesperson said the company “supports regulation rooted in the best-available science and believe that this plan may help prevent a patchwork of state standards that could increase confusion and uncertainty for communities. 3M also urges the EPA to continue to fully engage with communities and to ensure action items in the plan are completed on a clearly-defined schedule. This will provide citizens with the highest degree of confidence in the quality of their drinking water.”

Wheeler and Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker — she held a press conference at the agency’s offices in Research Triangle Park — assured the media and public that  proposed drinking water standards are coming — at the end of the year. Even then, it could take months, well into 2020, before an official maximum contaminant level, an MCL, is established.

But these standards won’t include GenX and the thousands of other related compounds. They are on the waiting list, even for final determinations of their toxicity. That assessment is expected to occur later this year — and beyond.

Under a voluntary phaseout that ended in 2002, the industry has retired PFOA and PFOS from production. Yet because of their chemical composition, the compounds persist in the environment and people. Agency officials estimate 99 percent of people in the US have some level of these compounds in their body. Nearly 2,000 of the nation’s 151,000 public drinking water systems contain levels of PFOA and PFOS above the federal health advisory goal of a combined 70 parts per trillion. This figure doesn’t include households that rely on private wells, which are fed by groundwater.

Nor does the plan address how to dispose of the tons of these compounds that are contaminating water and land.

The EPA is known for its glacial pace in rule making, although with climate change, some glaciers calve more quickly than the agency moves. The report lays out extended timelines for meaningful progress:

  • The EPA “is considering” adding PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory. The TRI is a public database established under the Community Right-to-Know Act. Although industries voluntarily self-report the data, the TRI gives the public an inkling of who is polluting what and where.
  • The EPA “is working on” listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund program. Such a move would require responsible parties, such as Chemours, DuPont and 3M, to pay to clean up the contamination and potentially cover costs for upgrading water treatment plants.
  • Under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, the EPA will “propose” nationwide drinking water monitoring for PFAS, but not until the next round begins in 2020. And that’s merely monitoring, not regulatory action.
  • The agency is expected to develop “interim” cleanup recommendations for groundwater contaminated with PFOA and PFAS that “are protective” and call for “timely clean up.” That action is “anticipated” sometime this year.
  • It will develop testing methods for PFAS in surface water, wastewater, soil, sludge, fish and air — between 2019 and 2021.
  • Two years from now the EPA plans to determine if the science supports limiting the amount of discharges to waterbodies.
  • The agency uses “enforcement tools, when relevant and appropriate” to address PFAS exposures. Relevant and appropriate aren’t defined. (Yesterday, Policy Watch reported that the agency did cite Chemours in Fayetteville for several violations, but has yet to announce a financial penalty.)
  • And in 2022, the EPA says it will develop toxicity data to better protect aquatic life.

“EPA’s proposal for PFOA and PFOS is an empty gesture for American families and communities,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. The firm is representing Cape Fear River Watch in court to stop PFAS pollution from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville. “We know that these chemicals are only two members of a larger group of toxic pollutants already in our rivers, groundwater, and water supplies, all of which must be cleaned up. While it’s essential that polluters are forced to clean up their existing pollution, EPA must also act to prevent industry from discharging these toxins and endangering people in the first place. The agency’s plan does nothing to stop ongoing pollution, a role that this administration has abandoned.”


EPA cites Chemours with multiple notices of violation; company allegedly failed to provide key documents

The EPA today announced it has issued a Notice of Violation to Chemours for failing to comply, on multiple occasions, with federal law at the company’s plant in Fayetteville. According to EPA documents — some of them heavily redacted — obtained earlier today by Policy Watch, Chemours in Fayetteville failed to provide many key documents related to the import, processing, recycling/reclamation, and health and safety effects of GenX and other chemicals.

The EPA did not mention a financial penalty in the documents.

Chemours spokesperson Lisa Randall issued a statement about the EPA action, saying the company is aware of it and is “in the process of reviewing it to better understand the agency’s concerns. Once we fully understand the details of the notice, we will work with the agency on any additional steps that may be needed. It’s important to understand that the notice pertains to inspections done in 2017. We’ve already taken signifcant action to address PFAS emissions between 2017 and today.”

During a June 2017 inspection, EPA officials asked Chemours if the facility had imported any chemical substances in the last four years. According to EPA documents, “Chemours stated that all chemical import activities were controlled by corporate office. As a result Chemours did not provide any records on the import of substances associated with the facility.”

Chemours TSCA NOV CBI SANITIZED 021318 SIGNED (1) (Text)

Nearly months passed until  Jan. 4, 2018, when Chemours disclosed to EPA Region 4, which covers the Southeast, that it imported GenX compounds. Three weeks later, the EPA requested Chemours provide dates the GenX compounds were recycled and the method; the origin and disposal sites of the waste; the amount released each day, and where any emissions occurred.

As Policy Watch reported last month, in mid-December 2018, the EPA filed a Temporary of Notice of Objection to further imports and exports of GenX compounds to the Netherlands. A Chemours spokesperson said at the time that the company had been importing and exporting the material for five years.

Chemours failed to provide the EPA  with a “pre-manufacture notice,” which also covers imports, of certain new chemical compounds within the legally required 90 days before the production or importation began.

Chemours in Fayetteville transports GenX compounds to New Jersey and West Virginia, and exports them to the Netherlands, Japan, China and India.

A shipping manifest obtained by Policy Watch shows the Chemours plant in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, exports GenX compounds through a Belgian port, to the Port of Liverpool in England, and then onto Wilmington, NC. From there it is transported to Fayetteville.

EPA officials raised other questions during the 2017 inspection in Fayetteville. The agency asked about any documentation Chemours had detailing possible adverse health effects and reactions to the chemicals used at the plant. The EPA also asked for a list of health studies, as well as any known health and safety information.

“At the time of the inspection, Chemours indicated they had no such records and they would check with their corporate office in Delaware,” the EPA documents read. “No records were provided.”

Chemours did not submit required notifications for “significant new use” of certain chemicals. (The names of some chemicals were redacted because they are considered Confidential Business Information.)

The EPA also requires a GenX to be used in a closed loop, with no discharges to the environment. However, Chemours did release the compounds into the groundwater, surface water and air — and had been since 1980.

Under pressure from state regulators and environmental advocates, Chemours is investing $100 million in state-of-the-art emission control technology at our Fayetteville site to achieve 99% reduction in PFAS air and water emissions by the end of 2019.

A public hearing on the technology, known as a thermal oxidizer/scrubber, is scheduled for Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Bladen County Community College Auditorium, 7418 NC Hwy 41 West, in Dublin.

TSCA NON CBI R3 Chemours Inspection Report (Text)

Chemours R4 Sanitized Report (1) (Text)


NC residents demand more action from environmental justice board

Jamie Cole of the NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed the group’s possible recommendation on the proposed swine farm permits.

During a brief break at yesterday’s convening of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, a man introduced himself to me as Bill. A recent transplant to Wilmington, Bill had decided to spend some precious hours of his retirement listening to the myriad environmental crises that have buffeted the state: coal ash, GenX, methyl bromide, natural gas pipelines, the wood pellet industry, uranium and cyanide plumes, swine waste.

At one point, Bill turned to me, a tinge of buyer’s remorse in his voice, and lamented, “This state is the den of iniquity.”

Bill, it’s worth noting, is from New Jersey.  Yes, New Jersey, home of 105 Superfund sites, a childhood cancer cluster in Toms River, and some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

Although the meeting agenda was wide, it wasn’t deep, four hours being insufficient to delve into the public’s concerns. “This board is moving too slowly,” said John Wagner, who had trekked from Pittsboro to Wilmington for the event. “We have critical issues in this state and we’re running out of time.”

Wagner’s remarks pointed to the public’s impatience with the board. It lacks a sense of urgency. It has yet to advise NC Department of Environmental Quality on how to best communicate with underserved communities, particularly those without reliable access to the Internet or newspapers.  It needs to set an agenda for the DEQ, not vice versa. And it needs to wield its power. Although the board lacks rule-making authority, its members nonetheless can influence decisions at the highest levels of the department.

Part of the problem is the 16-member board meets quarterly, but considering the issues facing the state, that is too seldom. (The Environmental Management Commission, for example, meets every other month.) As a result, the board can’t be nimble in its feedback to DEQ. The deadline for public comment on Duke Energy’s plans to clean up coal ash at six sites is Friday; the affected communities unanimous in wanting the material fully excavated from unlined pits and put in dry storage. Another deadline regarding swine farm permits is looming. That short time frame forces the board and its subcommittees to scramble to write their recommendations and resolutions to DEQ.

“This board is the respected environmental experts of the state,” said Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch. “The process is too slow.” DEQ’s decision how to regulate swine farms, will affect 2,300 facilities in eastern North Carolina. And the next permitting doesn’t occur until 2024. If the board doesn’t chime in now, Sargent said, “you’ll have to wait another five years.”

Sargent also pushed the board to advise DEQ to regulate perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — as a class, which the department has the statutory authority to do. (The EPA is announcing its rules on PFAS tomorrow, Feb. 14, at 9 a.m.) “Our state is failing these [affected] communities.”

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In the Netherlands, Chemours washes its hands of GenX waste, fails to monitor for it

Chemours in Dordrecht, the Netherlands (Photo: Chemours website)

This post has been updated with a comment from Chemours.

The Chemours plant in Dordrecht shipped waste containing GenX compounds for processing, but failed to both sample for them and to keep proper records on the type and origin of the waste, according to a Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate report issued in July 2018. The waste haulers are unaware they’re carrying GenX compounds, which potentially contaminate the shipping containers.

The inspectorate’s investigation showed that “little or no attention is given to [GenX] substances in waste throughout the entire chain,” and that the substances “re consequently emitted into the environment at various places in the chain. An overview of where and to what extent emissions into the environment occur cannot be provided at this time based on the information currently available.”

Chemours determines whether a waste flow contains GenX compounds based on the production process, but the inspectorate said it couldn’t establish that Chemours uses any formal methods to verify that. “Chemours takes no measurements to determine whether [GenX] substances are in the waste. The waste substances’ records of Chemours do not always show what the type and origin of the waste flows are. This led in one case to the discovery of a waste flow that evidently contained [GenX] substances, while they should not have been present based on the production process,” the report reads.

The waste processors don’t test the material for GenX compounds. And the inspectorate noted that transport companies deliver Chemours waste but don’t always clean their tankers afterward, nor do they test for traces of GenX compounds.

“These vehicles may then be used to transport other (waste) flows, which may then become contaminated” with GenX compounds, the report reads. If the haulers do clean their tanks, the rinse water could contain GenX compounds. “The cleaning companies discharge this rinse water into the sewer,” the report read.

Lisa Randall, communications lead for Chemours, said the company reviewed the report when it appeared “and communicated our strong disagreement with several of the observations. The suggestion that Chemours does not know what our waste contains or where it goes is false. Our waste process is carefully managed and we closely track waste discharge. All of the GenX that is brought to North Carolina is either recycled or incinerated out of state.  We consistently share relevant information with involved parties including waste handlers, waste transporters and the regulatory agencies in the locations where we operate.  We have an unwavering commitment to environmental stewardship and are delivering on our commitment to reduce the emission of all PFAS compounds at our Fayetteville site at least 99 percent by the end of 2019.”

When Chemours in Fayetteville transports its GenX-contaminated waste to Texas or other offsite locations, it is shipped with a Class 9 placard on the truck, said a DEQ spokesperson, which indicates it contains an environmentally hazardous substance. A shipping manifest also indicates the waste is hazardous.

There is now a bottleneck in recycling and processing the waste abroad, according to an article published today in a Dutch news outlet. Since the Italian recycler Miteni declared bankruptcy, Chemours in Dordrecht has few places to process the GenX waste.

Until recently, the article reads, the Italian recycler processed the compounds, then sent them back to Chemours in Dordrecht for reuse. Transport documents show that in 2015 and 2016, Chemours sent 100 tons each year to Italy for processing. Now that Miteni is out of business, Chemours must get back the material or find another processor — not in the US. Because the EPA has temporarily objected to further imports of the GenX-containing compounds  from the Netherlands to the Fayetteville Works facility, Chemours in Dordrecht can store it for up to one year.


BREAKING: Malec Brothers withdraws air permit application to use methyl bromide

Malec Brothers had planned to use the hazardous air pollutant methyl bromide to fumigate logs in shipping containers at its facility near Delco and Riegelwood in Columbus County. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Malec Brothers has formally withdrawn its application for an air permit to emit methyl bromide in Columbus County, the NC Department of Environmental Quality announced Wednesday afternoon. The Australian company had planned to emit up to 140 tons of the toxic compound for its log fumigation operations near Delco and Riegelwood. However, vehement public opposition halted the plan while state officials petitioned the Environmental Management Commission for a new rule to add methyl bromide to the state’s list of air toxics.
Methyl bromide has been banned internationally for most uses because of its toxicity and ozone-depleting properties, but log fumigation is exempt from the prohibition. China reportedly will accept only exported logs that have been fumigated, in order to prevent invasive pests from entering the country. But Malec Brothers has decided to debark the logs instead of fumigating them. An air permit is not required for that activity, a DEQ spokesperson said.
Originally, Malec Brothers proposed to place logs timbered from North Carolina forests into shipping containers, which would be infused with methyl bromide. After the logs had been gassed, which could take up to 72 hours, the doors to the containers would be opened, allowing the rest of the methyl bromide to enter the air. If, during fumigation, the container leaked an unacceptable amount of the gas, the solution, according to the company’s air permit request, was to seal it off with sand bags and duct tape. The fumigation would have been conducted about a mile from a school.
DEQ has placed any applications for methyl bromide use on hold while the EMC and the Science Advisory Board formulate a permanent rule, a DEQ spokesperson said, “as the use of this hazardous air pollutant is a matter of public concern.”