Chemours Is Using the U.S. as an Unregulated Dump for Europe’s Toxic GenX Waste
After many years of treating the developing world as its environmental dumping ground, the U.S. is finally getting a taste of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of another country’s dangerous garbage. DuPont-spinoff Chemours is sending industrial waste from the Netherlands to North Carolina. The waste in question comes from the production of the toxic chemical GenX, DuPont’s replacement for the surfactant PFOA, which was long used in the production of Teflon and many other products.
Unlike the Netherlands, the U.S. has so far declined to regulate GenX waste, so disposing of the material is comparatively easy.
Chemours has been transporting the GenX waste from its plant in Dordrecht, Netherlands, to Fayetteville, North Carolina, according to documents that surfaced last week and were first reported in NC Policy Watch. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to a representative of the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, temporarily objecting to the import and asking for clarification about where exactly the waste was being sent.
According to the EPA letter, citing a “letter of intent,” some of Chemours’s GenX waste from the Netherlands was supposedly destined for an incinerator in El Dorado, Arkansas, which is run by a company called Clean Harbors. But Phillip Retallick, senior vice president of Clean Harbors, said that his company is not receiving the material. “We are not in any way shape or form involved with the reclamation of the waste from the Fayetteville facility,” said Retallick.
As The Intercept reported this week, the incineration of PFAS compounds, the class to which GenX belongs, may raise safety concerns.
The EPA letter also indicated that the Fayetteville plant was sending waste to a deep well injection plant run by Texas Molecular in Deer Park, Texas. Deep well injection, a technique pioneered by DuPont in the 1950s, involves storing toxic waste far below ground. Deep wells have repeatedly leaked, resulting in contamination of both groundwater and drinking water.
When asked whether his company was receiving the GenX waste, Texas Molecular’s president, Frank Marine, declined to comment. According to its website, Texas Molecular, whose motto is “deep commitment,” provides “responsible and safe treatment and disposal solutions for even those most challenging industrial hazardous aqueous waste and wastewaters.”
DuPont developed GenX and introduced it in 2009 to replace PFOA, which persists indefinitely in the environment and is linked to cancer and other illnesses. GenX presents many of the same health and environmental problems, and causes cancer in lab animals, as The Intercept reported in 2016.
From 2014 until at least 2017, Chemours had been sending at least some of its GenX waste from the Netherlands to Miteni SpA, a chemical company in the Veneto region of Italy. Last year, tests revealed GenX in groundwater and wells near the Italian plant, contamination that has already led to health effects. Regional authorities then suspended some of the company’s operations. Miteni SpA, which was already under fire for causing massive PFOA contamination, filed for bankruptcy in October and ceased operation.
Chemours did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story or answer questions from The Intercept about how much of the waste it is importing to the U.S. and other places around the world. But a company spokesperson told NC PolicyWatch that the bankruptcy of a European company that had been recycling its waste from The Netherlands “requires us to take responsible actions to ensure we continue to recycle the vast majority of the GenX.”
According to a document obtained by The Intercept that a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality confirmed was notes from a call about the waste between the DEQ and the EPA, Chemours is “reporting an upper limit of 90 metric tons in about 20 shipments of unknown concentration for 2019.” The document states that the GenX arrives at the Fayetteville plant as a “sludgy liquid” from which the company removes “GenX salts,” but doesn’t say what happens to those compounds.
The North Carolina DEQ document raises several concerns about the waste, including that the material might be discharged into the river near the Fayetteville facility, and that Chemours might be importing it “to circumvent European regulations.”
Linda Culpepper of the North Carolina DEQ sent a letter to Chemours on January 18 asking for more information about the waste. Chemours responded the following week and stated that the substance it is importing is not hazardous according to the law “and that Chemours (and DuPont before it) has notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) of these reclamation activities on multiple occasions.” The Chemours letter said the company planned to send both the EPA and the state agency more information on February 5.
Growing Outrage Over PFAS Inaction
While much remains to be learned about how Chemours has been importing this waste and what exactly has been happening to it, there is little question as to why the company would send its dangerous chemicals to North Carolina instead of disposing of them at its Dutch plant. While PFAS waste is regulated in Europe, it is not regulated in the U.S.
And because GenX itself has not been declared hazardous by federal environmental authorities, the only restrictions on the compound in the U.S. come from a 2009 consent order with the EPA, which The Intercept obtained via FOIA in 2016. “There’s a gaping hole in the consent order because it doesn’t limit how GenX is disposed of or recycled,” said Eve Gartner, an attorney at Earthjustice. In addition, the agreement applies only to Chemours. “So Chemours can enter a contract with an incinerator company,” Gartner pointed out, “but there’s no guarantee that the incineration is going to destroy it.” While the consent order with the EPA remains in effect, the state of North Carolina is in the process of negotiating its own consent order with the company.
The EPA had been considering using the Safe Drinking Water Act to put safety standards in place for PFOA and PFOS, the two best-known PFAS compounds, but is now expected to shelve those plans, according to a report in Politico. The story sparked outrage from environmentalists and senators, who have questioned Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler about the EPA’s inaction on the chemicals as part of the process of confirming him to lead the agency.
“It’s frankly shameful that this is still where things are in the U.S. some 18 to 19 years after the research started on the regulatory level on these chemicals,” said Rob Bilott, the attorney who first brought PFOA to light in a class-action suit against DuPont. Bilott, who represented residents of West Virginia and Ohio whose water contained PFOA, said that without regulation, others will continue to be exposed to PFAS chemicals at dangerous levels.
Several states have begun to regulate these chemicals on their own. “What worries me are the folks living in states that have refused to take any action, because they’re waiting for the federal government to act,” said Bilott.
In a statement provided to The Intercept, the EPA denied that a decision had been made about the regulation of PFOA and PFOS. “Despite what is being reported, EPA has not finalized or publicly issued its PFAS management plan, and any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature. The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”
But the U.S. is already trailing behind Europe in the regulation of PFAS chemicals. And that lag makes this country a natural choice to dispose of PFAS waste. “There’s an irony here,” said Kevin Hannon, an attorney whose firm has filed class-action claims against DuPont and Chemours over GenX in North Carolina. “We’ve been sending our waste to third-world countries and poisoning kids because it was cheaper to send it there,” said Hannon. “And now we’re being treated by Chemours like those third-world countries.”
In Europe, outrage has been mounting over the disposal of GenX and related compounds. In June, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management released an investigation into Chemours’s disposal process, determining that “Chemours takes no measurements to determine whether [GenX-related] substances are in the waste,” and that the “substances are consequently emitted into the environment at various places in the chain.” The report also noted that only incineration in a kiln at “a sufficiently high temperature” can destroy the material, but that not all of the GenX-related waste streams were disposed of by incineration.
Dordrecht residents, who have had to contend with both PFOA and GenX contamination of their water, have repeatedly expressed frustration with the company. In September, Chemours said it would invest 75 million euros to reduce GenX emissions from the Dordrecht plant.
Meanwhile, the Italian government declared a state of emergency over the PFAS contamination last year and an investigation into Miteni SpA resulted in criminal charges. The recent discovery that the Dutch had been sending them their GenX waste sparked angry protests and a second investigation, which is ongoing.
The transport of the GenX waste from the Netherlands to the United States may be a violation of international law. Because the U.S. is not a party to the Basel Convention, an international treaty that governs the transfer of hazardous waste, the import of the GenX would be governed by European law that allows recycling but not disposal. And according to the EPA letter, some 55 percent of the Chemours waste was destined for disposal, which would make it illegal. “I would say that this is not a legitimate recycling process,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, which monitors the international movement of toxic chemicals. “This really looks like somebody’s trying to avoid disposing of it in the Netherlands.”
This not the first time the PFAS industry has exploited the weak spots in international environmental protections. After eight companies agreed to phase out PFOA and PFOS in the United States in 2006, China became the global headquarters for the production and use of these dangerous chemicals.
Nor is it the first time that the U.S. has fallen behind in chemical regulation. The U.S. still permits the use of atrazine, recombinant bovine growth hormone, brominated vegetable oil, dangerous hormones used in pig production, carcinogenic food additives, and more than 1,000 chemicals used in cosmetics — to name a few of the products that Europe has banned.
Update: February 2, 2019, 2:54 p.m EST
This article has been updated to clarify the legal framework governing the international transfer of hazardous waste.
Update: February 1, 2019, 1:43 p.m. EST
After the publication of this article, the EPA responded to questions posed by The Intercept and revealed that the agency has known about the import of GenX waste from the Netherlands since 2014. GenX is also known as FRD-902.
The first Notice of Intent to import “FRD-902 NL-Recovered” from the Netherlands to the United States was received on January 3, 2014. Based on an analysis of information concerning FRD-902 NL-Recovered that was provided by Chemours or listed in the Notice of Intent at that time, EPA did not object to the notices after determining that the waste did not meet the regulatory definition of a RCRA hazardous waste. Similar Notices of Intent were transmitted from the Netherlands to the United States annually. EPA received the most recent Notice of Intent on October 26, 2018.
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Sharon Lerner covers health and the environment for The Intercept and is a reporting fellow at the Investigative Fund. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, and the Washington Post, among other publications, and has received awards from the Society for Environmental Journalists, the American Public Health Association, the Park Center for Independent Media, the Women and Politics Institute, and the Newswoman’s Club of New York. Her series, The Teflon Toxin, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.