This Week in Pollution: An historic penalty against Chemours, plus more troubling science about PFAS

By: - November 30, 2018 9:03 am
The myriad ways perfluorinated compounds can enter the body. PFAS, of which there are thousands, are found in household products, firefighting foam and in industrial waste that is then discharged into the environment. (Slide: SciLine media presentation)

It was a big week for PFAS, although considering how widespread and durable they are in the environment, every week is big for industries’ estimated 4,700 perfluorinated compounds.

First, DEQ explained in more detail its proposed consent order, developed in conjunction with Cape Fear River Watch, against Chemours for its profligate discharge of PFAS, such as GenX, into the Cape Fear River. We’ve annotated the 40-page proposed consent order at this link and below. Click on any yellow box to read the context and analysis for that section.

DEQ announced the proposed order on Thanksgiving Eve at 7:30. Fortunately, Policy Watch was not baking pies, so had time to immediately summarize the key points.

The highlights include a $12 million penalty, plus $1 million in investigation costs, that DEQ assessed on the company for its decades of violations. It is the largest fine levied by DEQ for pollution at a single site. Under Gov. McCrory’s administration, the agency had fined Duke Energy $25 million after the 2014 coal ash disaster on the Dan River, but the amount was later reduced to $6.6 million. On a media call, DEQ officials declined to explain how they calculated the $12 million figure, because that information could be subject to attorney-client privilege. (But as Travis Fain of WRAL pointed out during the conference call, under these arrangements, clients, such as DEQ, can voluntarily discuss information, but not the attorneys.)

The company’s discharge permit, which had been up for renewal, is on ice, indefinitely.

In the proposed order, Chemours denies committing any violations, which is boilerplate language for these types of documents.

The proposed order resolves any past or current alleged violations, but as Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman said yesterday, the language “leaves the door open for future enforcement actions.”

Chemours must pay for alternate water supplies for affected households whose private wells tested above the state’s health goal of 140 parts per trillion: connection to a public water line, whole-house filtration systems, or under-sink reverse osmosis systems. For households that choose public water, Chemours is required to pay their water bills — up to $75 a month — for 20 years. “No one should be drinking water with PFAS above 10 parts per trillion,” Holman said.

The proposed consent order is open for public comment through Friday, Dec. 21. Submit comments electronically to [email protected] or mail them to Assistant Secretary’s office, re: Chemours Public Comments, 1601 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1601.


Consent Order 11212018 (Text)


Policy Watch also learned new and distressing facts about PFAS from a media presentation by SciLine,  a service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The transcript and video of the presentation are online for the public to review.

Panelists included Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in Research Triangle Park; Jamie DeWitt, assistant professor at the Brody School of Medicine at Eastern Carolina University, and from the University of Rhode Island, Rainer Lohman, on oceanographer who specializes in chemical pollutants.

Among the more troubling points, Birnbaum noted that scientists are now “becoming more concerned about potential exposure from inhalation” especially of the shorter-chain perfluorinated compounds. GenX is one of those “shorter-chains” that more easily volatilize — they can be present not only in water, but vapor. (PFOA and PFOS are known as C8 — eight carbon molecules — and are considered long-chain compounds. GenX is also called C6 — a shorter chain. Time to dust off the chemistry textbook.)

“We have limited information on the volatility. So we don’t know if there’s an issue, for example, with bathing and showering, which would be not only inhalation, but could also be dermal, as well,” Birnbaum said. I think it’s one of the big unknowns.” The “good news” about these shorter chains is that they don’t bioaccumulate. The bad news is, Birnbaum explained, “that because something doesn’t bioaccumulate doesn’t mean it won’t be a problem if you’re exposed to it, say, in your drinking water every day. My question would be is, why are we making chemicals that will never go away?” (Ah, the $12 million question!)

Nearly everyone on the planet has some level of PFAS in their blood. That ubiquity presents another problem, Lohman said. “I think there’s two other pathways, both of which are troublesome. You can donate blood. That will lower your personal level but of course might increase it for somebody else. And presumably through lactation. So women can potentially pass it on. For men, that’s not really an option.”

Still, Birnbaum said, for most women, breastfeeding is better than bottle-feeding. And the latter requires water to mix with formula, so there’s a catch-22.

Like the bond between mother and child, “the carbon-fluorine bond is probably one of the strongest bonds that exists,” Birnbaum said. “And it’s extremely difficult to break down.”

PFAS are lazy and sluggish, at least in groundwater. Recent studies estimated it took 15 years for  them to move just a half mile. If you’re living in Bladen County where the groundwater is contaminated with these compounds, they’ll stick around for as long as your child is in school. But once the compounds reach surface waters or soil, Birnbaum said, the transfer into the food chain is much faster. “We’re probably thinking of seasons or a few years.”

DEQ’s consent order does not require Chemours to clean up current contamination in the Cape Fear River, or the sediment in the river bed. It’s difficult to know if this is even possible, considering stirring up the sediment could cause bigger problems by releasing contaminants that are trapped there. But for more contained sites, Birnbaum suggested the viable options for cleaning it up “include just good, old-fashioned removal and then either burying it in a landfill or incinerating it. You could try to cap it, so you remove the exchange to the environment or add stabilizing agents to keep the PFASs in place.”

We can’t escape PFAS.  “They’re not just limited to the United States,” DeWitt said. “They exist all across the globe. And I’m often asked if there is a safe level of exposure to PFAS. I really think the better question is, is there an acceptable level of exposure? These are compounds that were not specifically designed to be put into our bodies. Safe means then that there is absolutely no hazard. And I think that we have enough information on PFASs that when they enter their body — our bodies, they induce a hazard.”

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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.