Trump’s EPA chief headlines GenX discussion in Fayetteville with distinctly partisan overtones

By: - August 26, 2020 12:42 pm
Left to right: Cumberland County Commissioner Michael Boose, State Rep. John Szoka and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Szoka wore a mask to the event, but had removed it as he prepared to address the press conference. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Mostly Republican pols invited to hear Andrew Wheeler issue an Apprentice-style challenge for new chemical clean-up solutions

North Carolina is now into Year 4 of its GenX crisis — nearing the equivalent of a presidential term — since the residents of Cumberland, Bladen, Brunswick and New Hanover counties learned their drinking water was contaminated with toxic GenX discharging from the Chemours plant upstream.

Since then, the EPA has merely nibbled around the edges of a nationwide problem. Although the agency routinely issues press releases about its latest forays into “exploring,” “examining” and “modeling” for GenX and other perfluorinated compounds — PFAS —  it has enacted no enforceable regulations to protect the millions of people whose drinking water is contaminated. The agency has dragged its feet in providing guidance to the states, resulting in a patchwork of anemic health advisory goals and murky recommendations.

But yesterday, the EPA did participate in a PFAS roundtable in Fayetteville. And it announced an Apprentice-style challenge to find ways to dispose of the toxic compounds.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican representing the 8th congressional district of North Carolina, opened the meeting with what was supposed to be a reassurance: “People are scared. We need standards and tools to prevent future contamination,” he said. “Making sure our community has safe and clean drinking water is a nonpartisan issue.”

Yet the discussion, held on the second floor of the Systel Building in downtown Fayetteville where Hudson has a congressional office, excluded nearly all elected Democrats. In addition to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Trump appointee, and Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker, the attendees included State Rep. John Szoka, a Cumberland County Republican; two Republican Cumberland County commissioners; and Deputy County Manager Duane Holder, who is registered as unaffiliated. W. Marshall Faircloth was the only Democrat.
(The original version of this story said all the commissioners who attended were Republicans, based on voter registration records for “Marshall Faircloth.” Commissioner W. Marshall Faircloth is registered as a Democrat.)

Not invited: The rest of the legislative delegation from Cumberland County, all Democrats.

Not invited: The public or the press.

Invited, but too late: Representatives from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, even though the agency’s Fayetteville Regional Office is in the same building, on the seventh floor.

Hudson had cited the threat of COVID-19 to justify excluding anyone but select invitees from the discussion. (Hudson’s staff streamed the meeting on Facebook, but the public could only vent their frustrations in the comment box, not fully participate.) However, only one of the eight roundtable attendees wore a mask during the meeting; the participants sat closer than six feet from one another. And social distancing was impossible at the subsequent press gaggle, held in the building’s small foyer.

Given the lack of any meaningful announcement or updates about PFAS contamination, the event functioned as a pretense for a campaign stop — for Szoka and Hudson, who are up for re-election (Hudson’s wife, Renee, worked as chief of staff for President Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway) and for Trump, via his proxy, the EPA’s Wheeler.

At the roundtable, Hudson told Wheeler he was “encouraged by the speed of the [EPA’s] action plan” on PFAS.

In reality, the EPA’s action plan has done little to prevent PFAS and GenX contamination from entering the environment; it has achieved even less in cleaning it up.

“One of my biggest areas of concern is the toxicity of GenX,” said state Rep. Szoka. “We need answers as to how toxic GenX is, and what it does to people, and what does it do to livestock and crops?”

Wheeler said the EPA had hoped to release a final toxicity assessment for GenX by now, but because of new data, it won’t be published until mid-February, three years after the initial draft.

Cumberland County Commissioner Michael C. Boose even posited that GenX is good for you. “No one knows,” he said. “Some people wonder, is GenX making them live longer? Is it curing vision problems? There’s so much mystery about it.”

While the health effects of GenX at certain exposure levels are not fully understood, there is ample scientific evidence that the compound is not “good for you.” Dutch and Swedish studies have indicated exposure to GenX can result in similar health effects to those caused by older types of PFAS, such as suppressing the immune system, disrupting hormonal function and contributing to thyroid disorders. In April, the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences published a study showing GenX can alter proteins that protect the human brain.

Public exposure to PFAS chemicals is widespread. Last year, Linda Birnbaum, then the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, testified before Congress  that “virtually all individuals” — 97% — have “detectable” PFAS concentrations in their blood.

Nonetheless, at yesterday’s press conference Wheeler could not provide a timeline of when the agency will issue regulations and maximum contaminant standards for two of the most widespread compounds, PFOA and PFOS.

Wheeler highlighted a new EPA requirement that industry report its discharges and emissions of 172 PFAS chemicals to the public Toxics Release Inventory. But it took an act of Congress — in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 — to do so.

And last month, the EPA issued a final regulation that can stop products containing PFAS from entering or reentering the marketplace without the agency’s explicit permission. “No new PFAS will be allowed into commerce without making sure they are safe,” Wheeler said at yesterday’s press conference.

But Wheeler did not fully explain the EPA’s “Low Volume Exemption,” which allows industries that agree to limit their manufacture of chemicals, including PFAS, to no more than 22 tons per year to expedite those compounds into the marketplace. Instead of the traditional 90-day review, these companies can apply for, and often receive, a 30-day review. The Environmental Defense Fund recently analyzed applications for these exemptions and found that the EPA has allowed 15 of 24 PFAS into the marketplace under expedited review; another application was “conditionally granted.” Wheeler told reporters yesterday that despite the shortened timeline those PFAS “receive equal scientific scrutiny” as other compounds with a 90-day review period.

Near the end, Wheeler finally revealed the purpose of the press conference: To announce a “technical challenge grant” to help find ways to destroy PFAS without burning them. The timing was curious. An hour before the roundtable, the EPA announced it had canceled a New Jersey study that would have burned chemicals with similar structures as PFAS in an incinerator to see how the compounds broke down. But community opposition to the project, led by former Region 2 EPA Administrator Judith Enck, who served in the Obama administration, killed the deal. In a press release, Wheeler lambasted Enck, alleging her “unprofessionalism, personal ignorance, and dishonesty has single-handedly shut down the Rahway study setting back the agency’s research efforts on PFAS – an emerging chemical of concern and top priority of the Trump Administration.”

Wheeler’s  technical challenge grant offers up to $50,000 for the best design concept to safely destroy the chemicals — without burning them.

The pitch seemed reminiscent of his boss’s former reality show The Apprentice. In fact, in the episode, “Send in the Crowns,” teams were given money to launch a promotion for Crest’s newest flavor of toothpaste. The budget: $50,000.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.