Two weeks after N.C. Newsline reported that North Carolina-based chemical company Chemours has been allowed to import 4 million pounds of GenX from its Netherlands facility to the Fayetteville Works plant over the next year, local residents and advocates are calling on Chemours to stop the shipments and for state and federal governments to better regulate toxic chemicals.
The Environmental Protection Agency said this week that the agency is legally obligated to allow the imports since the toxic chemical GenX, like other PFAS, is not regulated as hazardous waste in the U.S. PFAS are a class of thousands of harmful chemicals that have been used in manufacturing processes for decades and do not break down easily in their environment. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to a wide variety of health conditions, including various cancers, reproductive and developmental problems, thyroid problems and kidney and liver diseases.
On Sept. 8, the EPA sent a letter to Chemours authorizing the imports. Chemours has said when chemicals arrive at the Fayetteville facility, the chemical company reuses the materials in the shipments for recycling in other manufacturing processes.
N.C. Newsline, which broke the story, reported the 4 million pound-limit is 220 times the amount Chemous exported from the Netherlands in 2014. Chemors had been importing shipments to its Fayetteville plant from its Netherlands plant from 2014 through 2018, until the EPA temporarily halted the shipments to review information on them. A Chemours spokesperson said in an email to CityView on Friday that the company anticipates “the actual volumes of compound received for recycling will be far lower, closer to amounts received historically.”
In response to a social media call-out made by CityView about the news of Chemours importing chemicals, several residents expressed outrage. Gray’s Creek resident Deborah Long Burney was upset that Chemours would be allowed to continue importing harmful chemicals after it and its predecessor, Dupont, knowingly dumped toxic waste into the Cape Fear River for decades.
“They never had a right to dump their chemicals in our rivers and pollute our land,” Burney said in a Facebook comment. “They are too irresponsible to handle any more chemicals.”
Burney said she had to euthanize her dog Scottie four years ago after he was diagnosed with oral cancer. She said the dog had been drinking the “polluted well water all the time” and attributes his cancer to PFAS exposure. A recent study, which CityView reported on, found that pets living close to the Fayetteville Works Plant had high levels of PFAS in their blood.
Mike Watters, who lives just over a mile from the Fayetteville Works plant and has been advocating for environmental protections against PFAS for years, said he believes the imports are another example of North Carolina being used as a “cesspool dump point” for international companies.
“Whether they want to call it a contaminant or not, this stuff is not good stuff,” Watters said of Gen X. “Using North Carolina as the waste point for Europe is crazy because really what's happened is they don't have anywhere to dispose of their waste from the Chemours facility in the Netherlands.”
Another resident of Gray’s Creek, Arthur Bell, equated the EPA’s decision to allow the shipments to resume to the agency making “a deal with the Devil at our expense,” in a Facebook comment.
Beth Kline-Markesino, the founder of nonprofit advocacy group North Carolina Stop GenX, described the import news as a “punch to the gut,” as it coincides with the EPA’s plan to enact new regulations on six PFAS that would establish legally enforceable levels in drinking water.
“And then on the flip side of that, we hear this news that they OK’d the shipping of these chemicals,” she said. “So it's just like, you know that these chemicals are harmful, and you're allowing them to come back here. It's disgusting.”
Brunswick County Commissioners, who sent a letter on Wednesday to EPA administrator Michael Regan about the imports, have also raised concerns about the chemicals, Wilmington’s Port City Daily reported.
The news of the shipments comes as several lawsuits against Chemours and Dupont are underway. A class action against the companies, including 100,000 North Carolina residents and property owners, over toxic water pollution was authorized on Oct. 5. In addition, 2,406 individual plaintiffs, residing around the plant and in the Lower Cape Fear Region, are suing for groundwater well contamination, Watters said. He is aware of six bellwether cases includng plaintiffs nearby the plant — cases that may serve as an indicator of future outcomes — which are expected to go to trial in April 2024.
The shipments are also taking place as the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is aiming to expand its Fayetteville Works plant. A spokesperson for DEQ told CityView in an email Friday that the company is continuing “to engage with DEQ on the process for the expansion permit.”
Last week, researchers discovered 11 previously unidentified PFAS chemicals downstream from the Fayetteville Works plant, according to a study published in Science on Oct. 25. Kline-Markesino said this research suggests that Chemours has not disclosed all of its forever chemical pollutants as they are mandated to per the 2019 consent order from DEQ.
“It's just another example that Chemours isn't forthcoming with this,” Kline-Markesino said.
The imports restarting after they were temporarily halted reflect a pattern in Chemours’ efforts to evade environmental regulations, Kline-Markesino said. The company has previously been fined on multiple occasions for breaching regulatory compliance.
“But the thing is that Chemours, and even Dupont, are notorious in finding loopholes in any current governing laws, and they found a loophole within the importing of Gen X from the Netherlands,” Kline-Markesino said. “And because we don't have any regulations on PFAS, then they can import that hazardous material.”
Advocates have also raised concerns about whether Chemours is being transparent with its recycling process of the PFAS arriving from the Netherlands, its shipments and the safety of transporting the hazardous waste.
“We don't even know the harmful effects of even importing that material,” Kline-Markesino said.
“Could there be spills? Is it just Gen X that they're importing? Are they testing to see if it's more PFAS? We have no idea exactly what Chemours is going to do with those chemicals at their plant.”
A Chemours spokesperson said that the GenX shipments, once received, are reused to produce “essential fluoropolymers” that are implemented in the manufacturing of products like semiconductors and electric vehicles.
“Reclaiming and recycling HFPO-DA (GenX) is an important circularity activity that helps reduce the need to manufacture larger volumes of new, virgin HFPO-DA,” the spokesperson said. “Chemours works closely with EPA and other authorities who regularly review and approve the permits required to perform this activity.”
Chemours has said it ensured the PFAS imported from the Netherlands do not contaminate the air during the recycling process.
“Chemours’ Fayetteville Works has emissions control technologies in place to abate emissions of fluorinated compounds in accordance with our operating permits and levels contained in the Consent Order agreement with NC DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch,” a spokesperson said.
But advocates have also raised concerns about the state’s oversight of the import and recycling process, especially as a spokesperson for DEQ told N.C. Newsline that the agency was not aware that the shipments had resumed, and the EPA did not need to notify the state of the authorization.
“I feel like there's a gap in information that's coming between the EPA and DEQ,” Kline-Markesino said. “DEQ never knew about this information — this new information — and so there really needs to be transparency between the federal and state governments when it comes to PFAS and exporting or importing.”
Watters, however, believes the DEQ was aware that the shipments had restarted; he claims to have been told by a Chemours representative in September 2022, during a meeting about the proposed plant expansion, that “the shipments had restarted sometime earlier in 2021.”
Watters sent an email — which was shared with CityView — to three leadership executives of DEQ in September 2022, alerting them of the shipments. He said he never received a response.
DEQ did not immediately respond to CityView’s request for comment.
Chemours did not directly answer questions as to when the shipments restarted after they were halted in 2019, but the spokesperson said that the recycling process is “not new to Chemours or Fayetteville Works as evidenced by several media reports on the matter dating back to at least 2019.”
Kline-Markesino said she is in talks with a member of parliament in the Netherlands, Sandra Beckerman, who represents the area where the Chemours plant in Dordrecht, Netherlands, is located. She said Beckerman has already “brought it up in parliament” and has shared a list of questions she’s planning to ask legislators there. Beckerman did not immediately respond to CityView’s request for comment.
“Right now, we're discussing ways that we can stop this shipment from occurring,” Kline-Markesino said.
Kline-Markesino added that she is organizing a protest against the imports, which will take place outside the Fayetteville Works plant on Nov. 18. She said activists from the Netherlands will be present and encouraged local residents to join in.
“We really want everybody to come out and help support us at the Fayetteville Works plant and protest with us,” she said, “and also call their representatives to demand that Chemours doesn't expand their plant and that we don't ship in any Gen X from the Netherlands.”
While scientists have been able to correlate PFAS with a myriad of diseases, they have not yet been able to show a definitive causal effect, leaving those most affected often feeling without recourse. Eric Schwarz, who lived with his wife less than a mile from the Fayetteville plant, said his wife is battling stage 4 colon cancer and has “extremely high” levels of PFAS in her blood.
“We can’t hold these companies accountable because we can’t prove her cancer is from the PFAS,” he said in a Facebook comment.
For long-time advocates, such as Watters and Kline-Markesino, the fight against PFAS is both about taking on a systemic problem and grappling with a deeply personal issue. Watters said he has extremely high levels of PFAS in his blood and suffers from a rare blood cancer associated with PFAS exposure — he had a heart attack in April because of it. Lives are at stake because of the contaminants, he said.
“I never believed that we needed to totally eliminate PFAS chemicals,” he said. “I'm starting to lean that way now — we're basically killing ourselves.”
In 2016, Kline-Markesino lost a baby boy who had developmental and placenta problems, both linked to PFAS exposure; the loss of her baby happened just six months prior to news breaking that Chenours was polluting the Cape Fear River with GenX.
Though she recognizes that she’ll “never know 100%” if the toxic chemicals caused the problems, Kline-Markesino wishes the state and federal governmental regulators would take a more proactive approach to stopping the pollution.
“It's sickening to know that DEQ and the EPA knew for decades about this and never disclosed it to all of us,” she said. “I can't help but wonder if we would have known sooner if my son would be here today.”
Correction: A preview version of this article incorrectly stated that Mike Watters was one of the first six bellwether cases in the individual plaintiff lawsuit against Chemours. Watters is not a plaintiff in a bellwether case; the story has been updated to reflect his relationship to the lawsuits. CityView Today apologizes for this error.
Contact Evey Weisblat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-527-3608.