In the first-ever such enforcement action, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered the chemical company Chemours to curb pollution from toxic chemicals its West Virginia plant dumps into the Ohio River.
While per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) discharged by the Washington Works facility have long plagued the nearby town of Parkersburg, the EPA said this is the first time it is leveraging the Clean Water Act to hold a company accountable for contaminating its surroundings with these toxic chemicals
“This order demonstrates that EPA will take action to safeguard public health and the environment from these dangerous contaminants,” EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz said in a press release.
PFAS are a large class of human-made compounds often called “forever chemicals” that break down slowly in the environment and build up in the body over time. Scientific evidence suggests PFAS are linked to risks for a range of cancers, birth defects, and other serious health problems. These dangerous chemicals have become widespread across the US, including in water sources.
Chemours is a spin-off of the chemical company DuPont, which has previously been found liable for cancer incidences tied to polluted the local water in Parkersburg. Attorney Rob Bilott famously exposed DuPont for sickening the community, a story depicted in the 2019 film ‘Dark Waters.’
Bilott is currently leading an ongoing nationwide class action suit against PFAS manufacturers on behalf of people across the US. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood.
The move by the EPA is an “excellent step,” said John Rumpler, clean water program director for the advocacy group Environment America. “But even more steps will be needed and we hope EPA takes them soon,” said Rumpler. “It is long past time for companies like Chemours to be held accountable under the Clean Water Act for releasing these toxic substances into our rivers, lakes and streams.”
PFAS should be phased out, Rumpler said. “Even if you capture [PFAS chemicals] in the wastewater, somebody has to do something to dispose of them. Ultimately, there’s always going to be some kind of toxic hazard, even if it’s not directly going into a drinking water source.”
Chemours’ Washington Works facility has a permit from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to discharge water used to manufacture fluoropolymers, a group of PFAS chemicals, into the Ohio River and its tributaries. However, the EPA determined that the facility exceeded its permit limits for liquid waste with two PFAS chemicals various times between September 2018 and March 2023.
The EPA is requiring that Chemours implement a sampling plan approved by the agency to analyze PFAS in effluent and stormwater from the facility and to develop and implement a plan that will minimize its PFAS discharge.
“We worked with EPA to agree to a consent decree and will continue to take action to address the legacy deposition that have contributed to many of the exceedances,” Chemours spokesman Thom Sueta said in an email to The New Lede. Sueta said that the company’s products support critical industries such as semiconductor manufacturing as well as emerging technologies such as hydrogen production.