EPA to ‘crowdsource’ new ways to destroy PFAS, local advocates say agency could be doing more

EPA came to NC and made announcement on how to get rid of PFAS chemicals like Gen X
Updated: Aug. 25, 2020 at 8:44 PM EDT
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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) - The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday announced an initiative that aims to develop new ways to safely destroy per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) such as GenX.

The “Innovative Ways to Destroy PFAS Challenge,” which was unveiled by EPA Administrator Andrew Weller during a PFAS roundtable in Fayetteville, is a partnership between federal and state agencies seeking detailed plans for non-thermal technologies that would safely destroy PFAS in aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a type of firefighting foam.

Although PFAS compounds can be found in various waste streams, the challenge is focused on unused AFFF.

“Instead of just providing research dollars, we’re announcing an award is open to all researchers anywhere in the country, whether it’s an environmental organization, academic researchers, industry researchers, whatever, wherever the researchers are, we’re offering this cash award for innovative approaches to destroying PFAS,” Wheeler said in a press conference after the roundtable.

The goal of this challenge is to discover new non-thermal technologies and approaches that can remove at least 99 percent of PFAS in unused AFFF, without creating any harmful byproducts.

PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” and don’t breakdown naturally due to their strong molecular bonds.

Perhaps the most famous of the chemicals, GenX, has been the subject of investigations, lawsuits and public outcry for the last several years.

The roundtable, which was reportedly only open to the public via livestream because of the coronavirus pandemic, was hosted by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC08), and included local officials from the area immediately surrounding Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant — where GenX was dumped into the Cape Fear River and contaminated surrounding groundwater.

It did not, however, include representation from further down the river in Wilmington, said Clean Cape Fear leader Emily Donovan.

The alliance of advocacy groups was frustrated by not knowing about the roundtable until late Monday afternoon.

“I was really disappointed in the lack of representation for downstream residents and the whole downstream community. I mean, there was absolutely no one at the table to represent the 300,000 residents that are still actively drinking PFAS chemicals in their tap water,” she said. “And for the EPA to come down and only focus very specifically on one area kind of does not instill in me that sense of trust or that sense of being here to represent everybody.”

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority wasn’t aware of the gathering either.

As far as the announcement over the “crowd-sourcing” effort, Donovan said that while some areas in North Carolina have had issues with AFFF products, the greater issue is still the industrial waste containing PFAS, and the lack of oversight for them.

“The EPA is already behind on setting regulations for PFAS chemicals,” she said. “You know, when we’ve got 600, 500, which is what I believe the administrator Wheeler said, we have that many in commercial use right now. And we don’t even have one single drinking water standard for those chemicals.”

The EPA is still in the process of determining an “acceptable” level of GenX in drinking water — a study that Wheeler said he believes will be complete by the middle of this coming winter.

In the meantime, the EPA has already allowed companies to produce more than a dozen new PFAS under “low-volume exemptions.”

“We are way far behind, the EPA could do a lot more, they’re not, and they’re clearly ignoring the greater problem,” she said.

Vaughn Hagerty, a spokesperson for CFPUA, expressed similar sentiments.

“It is worth noting that federal regulators have been studying the ubiquitous spread of PFAS in our environment and the risks they pose to human health for many, many years,” he said in a statement. “Yet, we’re still waiting on enforceable regulations to prevent companies from discharging PFAS into sources of drinking water such as the Cape Fear River.”

CFPUA is in the midst of a project to upgrade its treatment plants to reduce levels of PFAS, a project expected to cost $43 million.

Wheeler also said the EPA is working to try to identify other PFAS hot-spots throughout the country before they get to the level seen in the Cape Fear Region.

They are doing so, he said, by comparing the locations of PFAS manufacturers, airports and other facilities that use AFFF, and comparing them with water tables to determine what communities may need to test for contamination.

“We’re not just sitting back waiting for issues or problems to come to us,” he said. “We’re aggressively going out looking to solve this problem for all Americans where they live.”

But Donovan is not convinced.

“We have a problem,” she said. “I think the EPA is aware of that, and I think the EPA is purposely not doing what they should be doing. Because at this point in the game, it’s very clear what you can be doing: You should be regulating them as a class, and you should be setting a standard for the entire class of chemicals, but they’re not doing that.”

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