EPA Denies Petition to Address PFAS

The bulk of the region’s water is from the Cape Fear River at Kings Bluff Pump Station in Riegelwood in Columbus County. Photo: Johanna Ferebee

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday denied the petition filed Oct. 14, 2020, by six eastern North Carolina organizations to require Chemours Co. to fund testing by independent scientists on 54 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, produced at its Fayetteville Works facility.

As Coastal Review Online reported at the time, the groups had asked EPA to use its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, to require Chemours Co. to fund the testing.

“As a result of decades of pollution, these substances have been found in human blood, drinking water, groundwater, soil, air, and locally produced food adjacent to and downstream from the plant. They pose serious health risks to nearly 300,000 people in impacted communities,” the Center of Environmental Health said Friday in a statement.

PFAS, sometimes referred to as forever chemicals, are a group of about 5,000 synthetic compounds used to make products water- and grease-resistant and can be found in nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets, lubricants, firefighting foams, paints, cosmetics, paper plates and fast-food packaging. Exposure can lead to cause cancer, thyroid disease, birth defects, hormone disruption, decreased fertility, immune system suppression, and other serious health effects, Center of Environmental Health said.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services in June 2017 began investigating the presence of a compound known as GenX, which is in the PFAS family, in the Cape Fear River. The state found that the Chemours facility in Fayetteville was the source.

The EPA responded Thursday with a prepublication notice for the Federal Register explaining why the petition was denied and a letter to the petitioners: the Center for Environmental HealthCape Fear River WatchClean Cape FearNC Black AllianceDemocracy Green and Toxic Free NC.

The EPA includes as reasons for denial that the petition does not set forth the facts necessary to demonstrate that there is “insufficient information and experience” for each of the 54 PFAS and failed to address ongoing testing and data collections for some of the 54 PFAS.

“In denying this petition, which EPA has full authority under law to accept, EPA, yet again, failed to uphold its mission to protect public health and the environment, opting instead to support a multi-trillion dollar corporation. Enough is enough,” said Dana Sargent, executive director, Cape Fear River Watch.

Lisa Randall, regional communications lead with Chemours Co., told Coastal Review Online Friday that the company was pleased with the EPA decision on the petition filed by parties in North Carolina.

“The petition failed to establish any of the factors required under TSCA to support the proposed action. Several of the compounds cited in the petition have no known connection to Chemours’ Fayetteville Works operations. 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,” Randall continued. “Chemours supports science-based regulations and has worked with EPA and other regulators to develop and expand scientific knowledge concerning PFAS, including on issues of analytical chemistry, environmental fate and transport, toxicology and remediation. The numerous actions we have taken to reduce PFAS emissions and address remediation needs continue to make a significant difference in reducing loadings to the Cape Fear River.”

The EPA, which has authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to order manufacturers like Chemours to determine the safety of their products and processes, explained in the letter dated Thursday that the agency is already taking action to identify solutions to address PFAS with its PFAS Action Plan issued in February 2019.

“The PFAS Action Plan is the first multi-media, multi-program, national research, management, and risk communication plan to address an emerging contaminant like PFAS,” according to the EPA. The action plan details how the EPA will address PFAS in drinking water, identify and clean up contamination, expand monitoring, increase scientific research, and exercise effective enforcement tools. The EPA updated the plan in February 2020 with actions taken and work completed in the year since the PFAS Action Plan was issued.

“The denial is not based on lack of concern with PFAS,” the letter states, adding that the EPA is leading the national efforts to understand PFAS and reduce risks to the public through implementation of its plan and through active engagement and partnership. The letter goes on to say that the EPA found that the petitioners have not met their burden.

“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. 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,” according to Center of Environmental Health.

The Center of Environmental Health argues that by “poking small holes in the petition and blowing them out of proportion, the Agency also claims that petitioners failed to demonstrate that there is insufficient information available to assess the health impacts of the 54 PFAS.”

“I believe the EPA is lying to North Carolinians, and by extension the rest of America,” said Emily Donovan, cofounder of Clean Cape Fear and a mother living in a highly contaminated community. “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 recommendations? 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 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.”

The center noted that the EPA acknowledges there is little or no data on nearly all the 54 substances and that North Carolina residents exposed to these substances don’t understand the risks, but the agency “has repeatedly refused to hold the companies responsible for PFAS pollution accountable for filling these alarming gaps in information.”

La’Meshia Whittington, campaign director for the North Carolina Black Alliance, called EPA’s denial a “preposterous”  decision that prioritizes corporate interests over the needs of the communities affected in North Carolina.

“This decision reflects the environment the outgoing administration created, poison over our health and profit over the people.  We won’t stop here.  We will continue to fight against our water being poisoned, and children left without a basic human right of access to clean water,” she said in a statement.

The petitioners vowed to continue the fight, including by asking the incoming Biden administration to grant the petition and require the testing.

“EPA claims that cell culture-based screening tests can be developed and used to understand the toxicity of thousands of PFAS, however these methods have simply not progressed to the point where they come close to being useful for understanding the effects of PFAS. In fact, the animal and human studies proposed in the petition will produce the very data that EPA needs to validate these more efficient approaches to predict PFAS toxicity,” said Ruthann Rudel, research director at Silent Spring Institute.

About the Author

Jennifer Allen

Born and raised in Swansboro, Jennifer Allen graduated from Appalachian State University in 2002 and picked up a second degree from UNC-Charlotte the following year. She joined the staff of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City in 2005 and completed her master's at UNC-Wilmington in 2008. Jenn spent nine years writing and editing at the News-Times before joining the staff at the Town of Beaufort in 2014, where she served as public information officer and town clerk. On June 1, 2017, Jenn came aboard as assistant editor for Coastal Review Online. She has also written for Our State Magazine and other regional and statewide publications. She lives in Morehead City with her fiancé and their pups, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Octavius, but for short, they call him Gus.