Beginning in 1980, the chemical plant in Bladen County, North Carolina, owned by DuPont and its spin-off company Chemours began discharging wastewater into the Cape Fear River. One of the chemicals in the wastewater was a fluorochemical called GenX, that wasn’t covered by any rule, regulation, or permit—like many other industrial byproducts, GenX was discharged, completely unregulated, into the river.
It’s not just GenX, say researchers in North Carolina. There are any number of unregulated chemicals that are simply considered “byproducts,” that are discharged into surface waters without limits or treatment. For a long time, no one paid any attention. Then GenX changed from a byproduct to a product, drawing the attention of state regulators and eventually, publicity among area residents. As a result, the practice of unregulated byproduct discharge has come under increased scrutiny, and it could potentially impact employers with surface water discharge permits.
Increased Regulatory Pressure
In 2009, DuPont discontinued the manufacture of PFOA, a perfluorinated compound used in the manufacture of Teflon, because of its health effects. The company began manufacturing GenX as a replacement. As a byproduct, GenX had been ignored; as a product, state regulators took an interest in it—but the compound was proprietary, with its formula held as a trade secret known only to DuPont and the EPA. The state’s regulators had to develop their own test for the substance in drinking water in order to quantify it, delaying their efforts to regulate it.
Area residents did not know that the Cape Fear River was contaminated with GenX until June 2017. Residents asked how long DuPont had been releasing GenX into the river; when the answer was “since 1980,” the reaction was strong. When they discovered that GenX was not the only unregulated chemical being released into their drinking water supply, they demanded action.
The state of North Carolina responded, expanding the scope of the state’s Science Advisory Board on Toxic Air Pollutants in August 2017. The scope of the Advisory Board’s work was expanded from “toxic air pollutants” to “new and emerging chemicals”—an umbrella term that includes water pollutants—and not just GenX, but a whole range of other byproducts and unregulated chemicals. The Board’s membership was also expanded, from 8 to 16 members, charged with examining new and emerging chemicals and providing guidance on how to manage the compounds to better protect public health and the environment. Among its duties, the board will help North Carolina’s Departments of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Health and Human Services (DHHS) by:
- Reviewing and evaluating contaminants released to the environment;
- Acting as consultants on DEQ’s determinations to regulate releases of contaminants; and
- Assisting the agencies in identifying contaminants of emerging concern and helping determine whether the contaminants should be studied further.
Experts on the panel will also help evaluate the human health impacts of exposure to hazardous contaminants and give input to the DHHS as the agency establishes health goals for emerging contaminants.
And of Course, Lawsuits
The lawyers responded, too. In September, the state of North Carolina filed suit against DuPont for dumping pollutants into the river. In October, lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont, seeking ongoing health monitoring for residents potentially affected by GenX.
It looks as if the practice of freely discharging unregulated byproducts into surface waters will soon come to an end in North Carolina—and probably in other places as well.