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Accusing State of Inactivity, Environmentalists Ask Feds to Test Water at Paulsboro

Delaware Riverkeeper sounds alarm about possible presence of PFCs in groundwater

Credit: Ed Hille
Work crews prepared to hoist the derailed tanker cars from the Mantua Creek in Paulsboro.

Environmentalists are calling on the federal government to investigate their concerns that a South Jersey chemical plant may be contaminating drinking water with carcinogenic chemicals, accusing state officials of years of inaction on the issue.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an advocacy group that seeks to protect the river’s watershed, says public health is threatened by the presence of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in groundwater around Paulsboro and West Deptford where the chemical manufacturer Solvay Solexis has a factory.

The environmental group is requesting that the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct a public health assessment on Paulsboro’s water after what it says was the failure of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection to conduct new tests or publish results of a previous analysis of the water near the town.

As of September 5, the federal agency had not responded to the group’s request, while New Jersey’s DEP said only that it has “recommended” that the company and the Paulsboro water department conduct their own tests.

“We turned to ATSDR because New Jersey is ignoring the problem, and we need an outside investigation to provide the attention this pollution issue requires,” said DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio.

Concerns about possible PFC contamination at Paulsboro follow the spill of toxic vinyl chloride after a freight train derailment there in November 2012, and after a local refinery has started processing heavy crude oil shipped from Canada’s controversial tar sands.

Paulsboro “seems to have any major toxic chemical problem that you could find in the country,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

PFCs, used in household products such as Teflon, and industrial applications like lubricants and pesticides, can cause testicular and kidney cancer, and increased cholesterol in humans, and are linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animals, DRN said.

The chemicals have been found in many locations throughout the state but are at their highest in Paulsboro, about two miles from the Solvay plant, and at a location in Salem County about six miles from a factory operated by DuPont Chambers Works, DRN said.

A subset of the chemicals, PFOAs, has been found at “low” levels throughout the state, according to the DEP, based on its most recent tests in 2009.

Those tests on 29 public water systems, its second assessment of PFCs in drinking water, have still not been published. Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the department, said the delay is due in part to the slow pace of the scientific process, and to the state’s seeking guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on safe limits for PFCs. The EPA’s own provisional limit is 0.4 parts per billion, or 10 times higher than the state’s mark.

Hajna denied that asking the company to conduct its own tests is equivalent to the fox guarding the henhouse, saying it’s normal for other parties rather than the DEP itself to conduct such tests. He said test results will be reviewed by DEP officials.

“We suspect that Solvay Solexis is the source,” Hajna said, but added that it’s not clear precisely how the contaminants got into the water. “We don’t know what the pathway was,” he said. “This could have happened from aerial discharge.”

Solvay spokesman Chuck Jones said the company is cooperating with DEP to investigate any contamination by PFNA, a type of PFC.

“Solvay is currently working with the department to address concerns relating to PFNA and local water supplies,” he said in a statement. “We anticipate developing a technical plan to gather more data and determine further actions as appropriate. Solvay will likewise continue to keep local authorities apprised of its progress.”

DRN’s Carluccio argued that Solvay’s own sampling should be split with an outside entity, and that testing should be done by an independent body that is competent to detect the low concentrations of PFCs believed to be in Paulsboro’s water.

The delay in further testing and establishment of safe limits on the chemicals follows a three-year hiatus in the work of the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute, a statutory body that advises the department on safe drinking water limits.

The DWQI has not met since 2010 because it lost its chairman and several board members, Hajna said, but it is expected to resume its work in “early fall” this year to consider PFCs and other issues. Under pending legislation, the panel is due to get additional members representing industry, a change that is opposed by environmentalists.

But DRN’s Carluccio accused the DEP of “shutting down” the institute, which she said would have recommended an official Maximum Contaminant Limit for PFCs to protect the public if it had been able to continue its work.

If an MCL is established for any contaminant, the DEP can require treatment, and utilities can apply for loans to improve water quality. Although those conditions don’t currently exist, utilities including those in Brick have been taking steps to comply with the DEP’s guidance level of 0.04 parts per billion, Hajna said.

But Carluccio said water authorities have been left “scratching their heads” on what standards to apply or how to achieve them because of the apparent shutdown of the DWQI.

In Paulsboro, some residents are worried about their water, but none are so far willing to publicize their concerns, Carluccio said.

“The evidence is clear that the public has been exposed and is likely still being exposed to dangerous levels of PFNA and is unaware of the potential health threats this poses,” DRN said in a letter to ATSDR in August.

Despite DRN’s efforts to get the federal government involved, the group said the DEP is still in a position to act on Paulsboro’s water issue.

“We really want them to do a third round of testing now for PFCs throughout the state and to focus immediately on the Solvay-affected region and the water sources there,” Carluccio said.

ATSDR did not return a phone call seeking comment on whether it will launch a public health investigation.

W. Jeffery Hamilton, mayor of Paulsboro, said the city’s water department will be testing public water supplies for PFCs “very, very soon.”

“We are very concerned about it so we are testing,” he said.

The city’s two-year-old water-treatment plant tests regularly for a variety of contaminants, Hamilton said, but they don’t include PFCs because those chemicals were not listed as contaminants by the DEP and the EPA when the plant was set up.

Hamilton said he had received no complaints from residents about any health problems related to water quality.

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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