Industrial Chemical Pollution in Our Water

Industrial pollution must be stopped at its source so the polluter bears the burden and cost of it, not the families and communities nearby and downstream.

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Undisclosed Pollution

Our communities deserve to know what industrial chemicals are in our water affecting our health, our families’ health and the health of our rivers and waterways. Our awareness of the number of chemicals created and in use by industry—even if not proven to be safe—that wind up in our water and communities has grown exponentially in recent decades.

In the United States, industry has the responsibility to disclose what pollutants it is putting into our drinking water sources. Contaminants discharged into our water by industry are illegal pollutants unless authorized by officials.

Yet industry conducts dangerous experiments every day on our families and communities, air, water, and soil by discharging undisclosed and potentially toxic chemicals into our drinking water, rivers, and lakes. Examples of such contaminants are 1,4 dioxane; bromides; and a family of thousands of synthetic or manufactured chemical compounds (including GenX) called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) with thousands in use. Increasingly, scientific studies tie these contaminants to health problems in people but their presence is often not disclosed by industry.

Communities Impacted

Following a lawsuit against the Chemours Company for its years of GenX and other PFAS pollution in eastern North Carolina, the Southern Environmental Law Center and its client, Cape Fear River Watch, continue working to enforce the terms of a resulting consent order with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Chemours to ensure that pollution is stopped at its source and the Cape Fear River is safe for communities. The river is the drinking water source for Wilmington and Brunswick County downstream; GenX and other PFAS were found in the treated drinking water at high levels.

Similarly, spikes of a known cancer-causing chemical in the treated drinking water for Eden and Madison, N.C., were traced back to bromides from a leaking, unlined coal ash lagoon at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek site next to the Dan River. In 2015, the U.S. Attorney secured a criminal plea deal by Duke to help downstream communities and, in 2020, SELC secured removal of the coal ash from the lagoon to dry, lined storage away from the river and lake.

A big threat from these industrial chemical pollutants is that communities are never exposed to just one, but often have repeated exposure to multiple toxic pollutants. Landfills, hazardous waste sites, and other industrial facilities often affect the same communities. Far too often, they are concentrated in communities of color and communities struggling to make ends meet.

Stopping Industrial Chemical Pollution

Too often, downstream communities are forced to spend millions of dollars filtering out avoidable pollution from upstream industries while industrial polluters are allowed to dodge their responsibility to clean up their waste. Families and communities downstream should not have to suffer the health consequences of avoidable pollution from nearby and upstream industries.

Industrial pollution must be stopped at its source so the polluter bears the burden and cost of it, not the families and communities nearby and downstream. We are working to ensure that the EPA and state environmental agencies enforce the Clean Water Act to stop pollution at the source and hold polluters accountable.