An industrial chemical that was designed to replace toxic PFAS substances but may be just as damaging to public health was shipped into a South Jersey plant which has already been blamed for contaminating ground water with the chemical, according to a newly released report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA said the manufacturer, The Chemours Company, shipped the replacement chemical, GenX, from its factory at Fayetteville, N.C. to three U.S. facilities including its Chambers Works site at Deepwater in Salem County where testing last year showed some nearby water wells were contaminated with the chemicals. The EPA’s inspection report did not say when the shipments occurred or how much of the material was sent to the New Jersey plant.
“GenX Acid is shipped to Chemours Chambers Works facility in Deepwater, New Jersey,” said the heavily redacted 45-page report. The site was one of five in the U.S. and overseas that “processed” the chemical, the report said.
GenX was developed by Chemours as a substitute for PFOA, part of the PFAS group of chemicals that has contaminated public and private water supplies in many places, and is linked to some cancers, high cholesterol, low birth weights, developmental problems and other illnesses. PFOA and other PFAS chemicals are no longer made or used by U.S. manufacturers — who once used them in consumer products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics — but they persist in the environment because they don’t break down.
Neighboring Carneys Point sued over pollution
The Chambers Works plant has been accused of pumping more than 100 million pounds of hazardous waste into water and soil since it opened in the late 19th century. Chemours and the company that spun it off in 2015, DuPont, were sued in 2017 by the neighboring town of Carneys Point which argued that the companies had set aside less than 5 percent of the estimated $1.1 billion cost of cleaning up more than a century’s worth of pollution there. Last year, the town also sued the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, claiming it had excluded the community from participating in the cleanup talks.
Chemours did not answer questions on when and why the shipment took place, whether shipments are continuing, or how much of the chemical was taken to the New Jersey plant.
But it issued a statement saying that GenX, also called HFPO-Dimer Acid, is used at the Deepwater plant and does not hurt human health at low levels.
“HFPO-DA is not PFOA, as is demonstrated by its rapid elimination from the body,” the company said. “The rapid HFPO-Dimer Acid elimination means that the movement, retention and interaction with biological processes is different than those with PFOA, and that HFPO-DA does not bioaccumulate in humans the way that PFOA does.”
“There is over a decade of scientific data to support the safety profile of HFPO-Dimer Acid,” Chemours said. “These data, including numerous toxicology studies, provide compelling scientific evidence that low levels of HFPO-Dimer Acid do not pose a risk to human health.”
Company says it has ‘active’ water-sampling program
Chemours said it has an “active” water-sampling program at the Chambers Works site, and has installed carbon filters to remove PFAS compounds at a “small” number of properties where the chemicals were found in well water last year. Those homes now have drinking water that meets or exceeds DEP standards, the company said.
The company said the violations alleged by the EPA at the North Carolina and West Virginia plants took place in 2017 and that many of them have been addressed.
In November, the EPA and DEP released data from a Chemours study showing that nine private wells near the Deepwater plant contained GenX at various levels.
But in January, the DEP criticized the EPA for approving GenX and another replacement chemical without doing a full analysis of their health risks — which New Jersey officials say are similar to those of PFOA.
The DEP is expected this spring to adopt strict health standards for PFOA and PFOS after setting the nation’s first limit on PFNA, a related chemical, last year.
DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the agency’s concern about GenX is shown by its criticism of the EPA’s faulty analysis of the chemical, and by its request to Chemours to test for GenX near the Deepwater plant last year. But he said the DEP has no plans to respond to the EPA’s inspection report.
Notice of violation
For its part, the EPA said it discovered that GenX was being shipped to Deepwater when it inspected the North Carolina and West Virginia sites in June 2017. That information led to the notice of violation that was not published until February 13 this year. The EPA declined to say how long the shipments lasted and said that any data on quantities of GenX shipped to Deepwater is protected by rules on confidential business information. The EPA does not regulate GenX or any other PFAS chemicals but issues health advisory limits on what it considers safe levels of the chemicals in drinking water.
Asked whether Chemours also violated the toxic substances law at Deepwater, as it is alleged to have done in North Carolina and West Virginia, the EPA said it is “continuing to investigate Chemours compliance with our environmental statutes.”
Last week, the EPA said in a long-awaited national Action Plan on PFAS chemicals that it intends to set health limits for PFOA and a related chemical, PFOS, and will begin the process of regulation by the end of 2019. But it would not say how long it might be before any regulation is implemented.
Environmental Working Group, a national advocate for tight curbs on PFAS chemicals, said it was unaware that GenX was being shipped to New Jersey, and said the EPA document highlights the need for a comprehensive program to sample water for all kinds of PFAS chemicals.
“The public and possibly EPA are largely unaware of exactly where these chemicals are used, stored and potentially released to the environment,” said EWG’s senior scientist, David Andrews. “EPA should add PFAS to the Toxic Release Inventory and publish information on production and use locations for this entire family of troubling chemicals.” The inventory is the EPA’s public database on toxic chemicals.
‘Significant new use’ of chemicals
In its February 13 letter, the EPA said Chemours had violated some parts of the Toxic Substances Control Act by failing to notify the agency of a “significant new use” for new chemicals including GenX that may represent a danger to the public. The EPA also accused Chemours of violating a 2009 consent order by its corporate predecessor, DuPont Co., requiring it to submit data on the chemical’s toxicity to the agency.
The violations at Chemours’ plants in Fayetteville, N.C. and Parkersburg, W.V. could also have occurred at Deepwater, argued Kathleen Gallagher, a member of North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water, an activist group that is fighting for cleanup and compensation for GenX and other chemicals found in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, NC.
“If Chemours is in violation here, they may also be in violation in NJ,” Gallagher wrote in an email. “NJ residents need to know if they have been exposed to other PFAS chemicals, in addition to PFOA and PFOS.”
Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that advocates for tighter health limits on PFAS, said the EPA report shows that GenX shipments need to stop until more is known about the chemical’s health and environmental effects around the South Jersey plant.
“If Chemours is receiving shipments of GenX or is using or discharging GenX at the Chambers Works facility, there’s plenty of reason for grave concern,” said DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio. “EPA did not require enough analysis of GenX prior to its approval for use as a replacement and, if people are being exposed to it, they are once again unethically being used like guinea pigs.”