A South Jersey company has been using secret chemicals to replace others that are subject to strict health limits, but the new substances may be just as toxic to air, soil and drinking water, state officials say in a new lawsuit.
The Department of Environmental Protection and the state attorney general’s office on Tuesday sued Solvay Specialty Polymers of Gloucester County, saying the company has been discharging both the old and new PFAS chemicals — also known as “forever chemicals” — into the environment from its West Deptford plant for years, and hasn’t done enough to clean them up.
“Solvay cannot be allowed to continue to release toxic PFAS chemicals into the environment while leaving the public in the dark about the risks of their practices,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, in a statement. “Solvay’s steadfast refusal to accept responsibility for its scientifically documented impacts to both the health of its neighbors and the environment in West Deptford and the surrounding areas, has left the Department with no choice but to proceed with today’s filing.”
Solvay and its competitors are faced with increasing regulation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) such as PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), and so are switching to unregulated substitutes. But the new chemicals appear to be just as dangerous to the environment and human health, according to the suit, filed in Superior Court in Gloucester County.
The new chemicals “pose risks to public health and the environment similar to the risks posed by PFNA and PFOA,” the agencies said in a 111-page complaint. It seeks a court order to compel Solvay to fully investigate and clean up its pollution, protect drinking water, restore natural resources, and publicly disclose the impact of its pollution on public health and the environment.
Solvay told the DEP in April last year that it had discharged replacement chemicals into the environment for “more than two decades” and continues to do so today, the complaint said. It suggests that the replacements were used alongside PFNA and PFOA until the company phased out the older chemicals in 2010.
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a longtime campaigner for stricter health limits on PFAS chemicals, said she didn’t know until reading the complaint that the company had used the replacement chemicals for so long.
‘The secrecy… is shocking’
“The secrecy that cloaks the truth about what Solvay has been releasing to the environment and exposing people to over the years is shocking,” she said. “That Solvay used the replacement compound without anyone, even DEP until recently, knowing it and without the toxicity known about the chemical and its properties, such as persistence in the environment and in people’s bodies, is nothing short of criminal.”
The action follows a “Directive” issued by DEP in March last year against Solvay and four other chemical companies, demanding that they clean up widespread PFAS pollution. The DEP said in the new suit that Solvay has not met all the requirements of the Directive.
Solvay and its competitors do not publicly identify the new chemicals on the grounds that they are proprietary information.
The company said it has cooperated with the DEP in monitoring and cleaning up PFNA near the plant since a public water well in nearby Paulsboro was temporarily shut down in 2013 when officials found the chemical at 11 times the level that New Jersey has since set as the limit for safe human consumption.
In 2018, New Jersey became the first state to set a public health limit on PFNA, and has since set tough limits on two other chemicals in the class — PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid).
The “rigorous” investigation has been done with the full knowledge of the DEP, and is in “full compliance with all laws and regulations,” Solvay said.
Given its cooperation with the DEP, Solvay said it is “surprised and disappointed” by the litigation. “We intend to defend ourselves vigorously against NJDEP’s inaccurate, overly broad, and meritless allegations,” it said in a statement.
Solvay said it uses a “very limited quantity” of a “process aid” instead of PFNA at the West Deptford plant, and noted that there are other sources of PFAS in Gloucester County. In October, the company sued the nearby Paulsboro Refining Company, saying that it was the real source of PFAS contamination in local groundwater.
The PFAS family of chemicals, once used in consumer products like Teflon and Scotchgard, have been linked to some cancers, immune-system impairment, developmental problems in babies and other serious health conditions. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, and so can persist in water and soil long after their use or manufacture has ended.
The DEP and attorney general quoted the European Chemicals Agency as saying that one class of replacements, known as CIPFPECAs, “is fatal if swallowed, is fatal in contact with skin, causes severe skin burns and eye damage, causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure and is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.”
The agencies noted that DEP last year expressed its concern about the new chemicals to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying “they may similarly cause toxicological effects of concern.”
The suit also names Arkema, a Pennsylvania company that made industrial plastics and coatings containing PFAS chemicals at the Gloucester County site in the 1980s, and sold it to Solvay in 1990.
Delaware Riverkeeper Network and three other environmental groups welcomed the suit, and urged the DEP to halt the use of replacement chemicals until more is known about whether they threaten public health.
“People today may be drinking water that is contaminated but don’t know it,” the groups said in a statement. “The fact that these are the same people who were exposed to PFNA in the past is intolerably unjust.”
The suit is the latest in a series of Natural Resource Damage actions in which the Murphy administration has been seeking compensation from polluters for damages to the natural environment. The agencies also announced a Natural Resource Damage suit against Honeywell International for environmental damage at the Quanta Resources Superfund Site along the Hudson River in Edgewater, Bergen County.
“The days of free passes and soft landings for polluters in New Jersey are over,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “The corporations we’re suing knew full well the potential harms they were inflicting on our environment but chose to forge ahead anyway. When companies disregard the laws meant to protect our environment, they can expect to pay.”