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Persistent Pollutants

PFAS-making plant wasn’t inspected for years, US EPA watchdog says

GenX emission control compliance was tracked via reports from company

by Cheryl Hogue
May 29, 2020

 

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For 8 years, the US Environmental Protection Agency relied solely on company reports to verify that a North Carolina factory controlled releases of the flurochemical GenX, the agency’s internal watchdog says in a report released May 28.

The EPA and DuPont agreed in 2009 to the conditions for the company to make GenX, which the company used as a processing aid to produce fluoropolymers. EPA subsequently did not inspect the plant to check on compliance with those conditions until after local news outlets reported in 2017 on the presence of a GenX-related substance in drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of people.

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The part of the EPA that inspects facilities in North Carolina—the agency’s Atlanta–based southeast regional office—for years was unaware of the 2009 consent order governing GenX production, the EPA Office of Inspector General says in its report. The agency’s chemical safety division, based in Washington, DC, had struck the deal with DuPont.

The consent order specifies that the plant “shall recover and capture (destroy) or recycle” GenX and its parent acid—hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA) fluoride—“at an overall efficiency of 99% from all the effluent process streams and the air emissions.” Corporate responsibility for complying with the consent order passed to Chemours when DuPont spun off that company in 2015.

GenX and HFPO-DA fluoride both hydrolyze in the environment to HFPO-DA, the chemical found in drinking water supplies downstream of the Chemours plant in Fayetteville. These three compounds are members of a family of persistent chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The EPA’s southeastern office learned about the consent order in 2017, after agency officials in Washington requested an inspection of the Chemours plant, the report from the inspector general’s office says. Until then, EPA compliance checks on the consent order “consisted of tracking and reviewing information provided by Chemours,” the report says.

Based on the eventual inspection, the EPA cited Chemours in 2019 for failing to control releases of the GenX and its parent acid.

In response to an inquiry about the status of that citation, an agency spokesperson tells C&EN, “EPA does not comment on enforcement confidential matters.”

In its quarterly report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in early May, Chemours says the citation “could have the potential to affect operations at Fayetteville.” The company maintains it broke no environmental laws. It also notes in the report that federal prosecutors have opted not to pursue criminal actions against it for potential water pollution violations.

Meanwhile, the company is embroiled in litigation over cleanup and potential liability for health harms from exposure to its fluorochemicals in drinking water. In 2018, Chemours installed technology to control HFPO-DA air emissions from its plant.

UPDATE

This article was updated on May 29, 2020 to include a comment from the EPA.

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