The EPA could decide not to regulate two perfluorinated compounds known to harm human health — compounds that are widespread in the environment and in human blood. Politico reported Monday that the EPA would not regulate PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Although states could pursue their own drinking water standards, there would be no federal law to buttress them.
DuPont and Chemours, as well as 3M, are responsible for manufacturing these compounds and discharging them into waterways — including the Cape Fear River — throughout the US. Companies have phased out their production of PFOA and PFOS because of their link to many health hazards, including cancer.
The Politico story prompted the EPA to release a statement:
“Despite what is being reported, EPA has not finalized or publicly issued its PFAS management plan, and any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature,” said the EPA’s Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross. “The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing agency review.”
However, the EPA’s decision, Politico reported, would also list these compounds as hazardous waste under Superfund law. That designation would force the polluters to pay for the clean up. It could also change how contaminated water and soil is disposed of. For example, waste classified as non-hazardous can be placed in city- or county-owned landfills. Hazardous waste is required to be disposed in specially designated facilities.
Without federal standards as guidance, the NC Department of Environmental Quality could still regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. However, DEQ Communications Director Megan Thorpe said that federal regulatory standards “create certainty built on science. Without EPA’s leadership on this issue, overburdened and under-resourced states will have an even greater challenge to protect public health.”
If the EPA chooses not to regulate the compounds, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is unlikely to change its current testing and treatment protocols, and its plans to upgrade Sweeney plant, which receives water from the Cape Fear River.
CFPUA spokesman Vaughn Hagerty said the utility “continues to test for a variety of PFAS [perfluorinated compounds]” at Sweeney, including PFOA, PFOS and GenX.
Results in finished drinking water sampled Dec. 26 showed concentrations for each of those compounds at below 4 parts per trillion, Hagerty said. The state’s health advisory goal in drinking water for GenX is 140 ppt. The EPA has recommended that cumulative and individual levels of PFOA and PFOS should not exceed 70 ppt.
Although CFPUA is not a regulatory agency and can’t set enforceable limits, Hagerty said the utility “can take steps to try to limit PFAS in the drinking water produced at Sweeney.” The plant has launched a program to change the granular activated carbon filters, which can help remove PFAS. The CFPUA board is expected later this year to vote on a proposed $46 million plant upgrade to further treat the water.
With the EPA hamstrung by the government shutdown, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has asked the NC Policy Collaboratory to sample drinking water for 26 types of perfluorinated compounds.
DEQ samples weekly at five facilities — Bladen Bluffs, International Paper, Northwest Brunswick, Pender County and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney plant — and usually sends those to the EPA for testing. However, because of the 35-day federal government shutdown, most EPA employees were furloughed and couldn’t conduct the tests at the agency’s Athens, Ga., lab. Over the past month, DEQ’s samples have been refrigerated to preserve them.
Even though the government reopens today, it’s expected the backlog of work could take weeks, even months, to plow through. And it’s possible the government could close again in three weeks if President Trump and Congress can’t agree on a border security plan.
Detlef Knappe of NC State University, who with an EPA scientist was the first to discover these compounds in the Cape Fear River and drinking water supplies, is leading the project.
Last year, the legislature budgeted $5 million for the collaboratory to award grants to more than 20 researchers within the UNC System to conduct PFAS testing and work on related research projects on the compounds in drinking water, air emissions — as well as ways to remove them to protect the public health.
Collaboratory Research Director Jeffrey Warren said the group will cover costs, estimated at $10,000 per month. That is equivalent to five samples at $500 each, per week for a month. The collaborators is awarding an initial $50,000 grant to Knappe to cover the two-month backlog, which started even before the shutdown, as well as sampling, through the end of April.
The EPA took as long as six weeks to analyze the samples and return the data. Warren said the collaboratory scientists could do that in half the time.
Duke University scientist Lee Ferguson has also offered to train a DEQ employee, especially hired to operate a mass spectrometer to do in-house PFAS analysis, on the equipment. The mass spec, as it’s known, is identical to the one Ferguson uses in his laboratory. He will set up the system, shaving six months to a year off the agency’s start-up time, Warren said. Duke University is not part of the UNC system covered by the collaboratory, so Ferguson will offer these services to DEQ for free.
- This is a developing story based on breaking news this morning. It will be updated as more information becomes available.
NC Department of Environmental Quality officials knew the Fayetteville Works plant was importing GenX compounds from a Chemours counterpart in the Netherlands, and spoke to the EPA about the issue on Dec. 13, 2018 — five days before an EPA attorney requested more information from Dutch government officials about Chemours’s practices.
According to an email provided by DEQ, officials within the Division of Waste Management sent the EPA a list of questions about the imported waste, most of which then appeared in the EPA letter.
Above: Notes from DEQ that formed basis of questions posed to the EPA
DEQ knew on Jan. 18, 2018, that the Fayetteville Works plant was importing GenX compounds from overseas, agency officials said. This knowledge was accidental: While DEQ inspectors were onsite conducting a plant visit, a Chemours employee mentioned it. Those inspectors then informed their superiors at the agency.
The imported waste does not affect the proposed consent order, agency officials said. All waste, whether imported or generated onsite, are both covered under the proposed consent order. That order regulates all discharges, regardless of the waste’s origins.
Moreover, DEQ said it could not regulate the import of the waste because of federal regulations. The EPA does not authorize states to administer federal import/export functions for hazardous waste. This approach, according to a 2017 citing in the Federal Register, is to “promote national coordination, uniformity and the expeditious transmission of information between the US and foreign countries.”
According to the DEQ notes to the EPA, the European Union regulates GenX compounds as hazardous waste, but the US does not. That has created concern within DEQ that the exports from the Netherlands could have been intended to circumvent EU law.
It’s still unclear how long the Chemours plant in Dordrecht has been exporting GenX compounds to the Fayetteville Works plant. In 2017, Dordrecht government officials issued discharge permits that reduced by 68 percent the allowable amount of GenX that Chemours could emit in wastewater, according to an article in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology. Presumably, that waste had to go somewhere besides the river.
Concentrations of GenX ranging from 1.7 parts per trillion to 812 ppt had been detected in river water downstream of the plant. One upstream site had a concentration of 22 ppt, which the article authors theorized could have occurred because of tidal currents pushing the contaminants in that direction.
A Chemours facility in the Netherlands is shipping GenX waste to its counterpart, the Fayetteville Works plant in North Carolina, according to an EPA “Notice of Temporary Objection” obtained by Policy Watch.
The letter dated Dec. 19, 2018, is from Eva Kreisler, an EPA senior attorney to the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure/Water/ Environment in Utrecht. It is unclear from the opening paragraph what the agency is objecting to, but Kreisler writes that the EPA wants to review more “current, detailed information concerning the wastes to be shipped and the management of the wastes.” The letter mentions a Notice of Intent filed by Chemours Netherlands but does not say what is contained in that notice, other than that all wastewaters from Fayetteville Works are being sent to Texas for deep well injection.
Because of the US government shutdown, EPA workers are furloughed and can’t be reached for comment. Policy Watch has asked the NC Department of Environmental Quality for more information, including the agency’s knowledge of these imports and whether they factored into the recent proposed consent order with the company.
The EPA is seeking additional information regarding “the current import shipments of waste and management of [GenX compounds] recovered from Chemours Netherlands” to Chemours in Fayetteville. The agency is asking the Dutch ministry to forward a list of questions to the Netherlands facility, which is in Dordrecht. There are two waste streams coming from the Netherlands to Fayetteville, although the EPA is unclear whether they are combined and where this occurs.
The EPA is also seeking sampling results, toxicity data and chemical composition information from the wastes before they are combined. It also unclear if the Netherlands ships waste to other facilities in the US, and the EPA has asked for copies of international manifests detailing the shipments. Policy Watch is filing a public records request with the Port of Wilmington to try to get similar information.
Kreisler also wrote that the EPA intends to contact the Fayetteville facility about both the international imports and any domestic shipments from other US generators of GenX compounds. It’s unclear if that has happened, because the government shutdown occurred shortly after the letter was written. Policy Watch contacted Chemours’s media office this morning via email.
When the waste arrives at the Fayetteville Works plant, it is presumably reclaimed, according to the EPA letter. However, it’s unclear how much of the waste is reclaimed, how the process occurs, and how any remaining material is disposed of. The EPA mentions that 55 percent of the original waste is placed in containers for disposal.
According to notes obtained by Policy Watch about the EPA letter, there is some concern about whether the Netherlands is exporting the material to the US to circumvent European law, which regulates GenX compounds more stringently. The author of those notes, however, is uncertain.
The US and the Netherlands are member countries of the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development . It has several functions, including encouraging trade and administering a control system for the recovery and import/export of waste. Member countries are expected to adhere to control procedures for waste, depending on the nature of the contaminants. Green controls, according to the OECD website are for more benign waste; amber is for waste that could be considered/is hazardous. Surfactants, such as those produced by Chemours, are classified as amber.