The number of chemicals created and in use by industry that wind up in our Southern rivers and lakes, drinking water, and communities has grown exponentially in recent decades. And what’s worse is that, increasingly, research is revealing that many of these industrial chemicals are toxic and permanently harmful to our health and environment.
But there’s good news.
SELC has spent the last several years fighting “forever chemicals,” or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, in the South, and federal lawmakers have just relaunched a bipartisan task force to address them at the national level, prioritizing congressional actions to tend and treat PFAS that many of us are exposed to daily. At the same time, the former head of North Carolina’s environmental agency is poised to lead EPA.
“Families everywhere deserve to know the streams, rivers, and lakes where we get our drinking water are safe."”
—Senior Attorney Geoff Gisler, Leader of SELC's Clean Water Program
“Families everywhere deserve to know the streams, rivers, and lakes where we get our drinking water are safe,” says Senior Attorney Geoff Gisler, leader of SELC’s Clean Water Program. “Industry’s persistent discharging of PFAS is both illegal and blatantly irresponsible, and we’re hopeful for meaningful federal action. During Regan’s tenure, North Carolina’s environmental agency took a position on toxic PFAS pollution that agencies across the country and the EPA should be taking now to protect our communities—stopping PFAS pollution at its source.”
PFAS is a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, and GenX. Emerging contaminants like these are known as forever chemicals because they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade, but stay in water, soil, and our bodies.
They’re used in industrial processes and in producing the coatings in everything from non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and upholstery, grease-resistant pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and waterproof clothing and outdoor gear to paint, shampoo, and fire-fighting foam.
“We have the tools to keep our communities safe and we must use all available options to hold industry accountable for its pollution,” says Gisler. “We now know PFAS exposure is sometimes linked to illnesses as serious as cancer and thyroid disease, further proof that forever chemicals need to be addressed immediately.”
Last summer after filing a lawsuit on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch to stop GenX and other PFAS pollution from the company, SELC attorneys reached a court enforeceable consent order requiring Dupont spinoff Chemours to reduce by 99 percent the amount of PFAS pollution entering the Cape Fear River through contaminated stormwater, streams, and groundwater on its site. The river supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians in Wilmington, Brunswick County, and Pender County.
“Those communities shouldn’t have to wonder if ongoing pollution from Chemours is going to make them sick,” Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette said at the time of the agreement. “This is a huge win for the Cape Fear River and the people who depend on it.”
In October 2020, SELC attorneys also reached an agreement with North Carolina’s City of Burlington to investigate the sources of industrial chemical pollution in the city’s wastewater discharges.
“This agreement and investigation takes us one step closer to making the Haw River cleaner and safer,” says Senior Attorney Kelly Moser. “With the city’s cooperation, we can identify the source of the PFAS and 1,4-dioxane pollution in Burlington’s treatment systems much more quickly than through litigation. Once the source is identified, the city can and should take steps to stop the pollution.”
Click here to read more about threats posed by PFAS pollution and the ways SELC continues to combat them.
To address the nationwide issue, the new PFAS Task Force sent a letter signed by 132 members of Congress asking the Biden Administration to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Superfund law. This includes restricting or limiting PFAS in the air, and a complete phaseout of PFAS in firefighting foam.
The work ahead
While the 2020 Water Resources Development Act excluded PFAS provisions, the EPA portion of the appropriations spending package for fiscal year 2021 included money for treatment, remediation, and cleanup programs. The legislation also urged the EPA to establish a maximum contaminant level.
Lawmakers this year plan to reintroduce a series of bills to set a national drinking water standard for PFAS, improve cleanup efforts, and detect PFAS contamination across the country.
“We’ll be watching the rollout of these federal efforts while continuing our work to confront forever chemicals in the South,” adds Gisler.