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UN says PFAS contamination is human rights violation as EPA reverses shipment decision 


In the span of a few days, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its consent for Chemours to import up to 4.4 million pounds of GenX chemical waste from the Netherlands, while the United Nations declared the decades-long contamination of the Cape Fear region with PFAS a human rights violation. 

Those events — Wednesday of this week and on Nov. 23, respectively — put an exclamation point on an eventful November that brought national and international scrutiny of Chemours and its Fayetteville Works plant. 

In Fayetteville, some residents living near the plant say they are still dealing with issues accessing safe water and from chronic health problems that have been linked to exposure to PFAS, a class of harmful chemicals that can cause damage to a wide range of bodily systems and is linked to increased risk of various cancers.

Here’s what you need to know about the recent news:

United Nations involvement

On Monday, independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council made public their investigation into PFAS contamination in the Lower Cape Fear region. As a result of that investigation, the U.N. group sent letters to Chemours, DuPont, Corteva, and the governments of the United States and the Netherlands, alleging each party’s involvement in the pollution of toxic forever chemicals, such as PFAS, from the Fayetteville Works plant. 

The letters were written in response to communication filed by Berkeley Law’s Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of the Clean Cape Fear grassroots advocacy group, Clean Cape Fear said in a statement.

The human rights experts outlined a variety of concerns about Chemours and DuPont’s “failure to fully assume responsibility and adequately address the negative impacts of their activities on the communities of the Lower Cape Fear River watershed.” 

The U.N. group also raised concerns about the U.S.’s — including the EPA and N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) — failure to adequately regulate the companies and the Netherlands’ decision to allow Chemours to ship hazardous waste to the U.S. 

“We remain preoccupied that these actions infringe on community members’ right to life, right to health, right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment, and the right to clean water, among others,” the U.N. experts wrote. 

Chemours, Corteva and the Netherlands responded to the allegations in the letters, but the U.S. and DuPont have not responded so far. 

To read the letters and responses, click on the links provided: U.N. letter to Chemours, U.N. letter to DuPont, U.N. letter to Corteva, U.N. letter to U.S., U.N. letter to Netherlands; Chemours response, Corveta response, Netherlands response

EPA shipment decision reversal 

On Wednesday, the EPA reversed its decision to allow Chemours to import up to 4.4 million pounds of GenX chemical waste to the Fayetteville Works Plant from the company’s plant in Dordrecht, Netherlands. 

That reversal came after immense public pressure — including from Cumberland County commissioners and Gov. Roy Cooper — to halt the imports. Local advocacy groups also lobbied for the agency to reverse the decision, holding a protest outside the Chemours plant on Nov. 18 and garnering over 1,100 signatures for a petition they sent to the EPA Tuesday. 

The reversal was announced via a response letter Wednesday to the governor’s Nov. 3 letter, urging the agency to withdraw consent for the shipments. In reversing its decision, the EPA cited Chemours’ acknowledgement on Nov. 13 that it supplied incorrect data to the EPA that ultimately informed the agency’s initial approval of the shipments. 

“In addition to the inaccurate information Chemours provided regarding these imports, it has a history of PFAS releases, which raises concerns about the company’s ability to take measures that fully protect public health and the environment,” the EPA announcement said.

In Chemours’ acknowledgement, the company said an error had occurred “in calculating the requested permitted volume that was not identified during the approval process,” and the actual shipments “will remain at historical levels,” far below 4.4 million pounds. 

Local N.C. advocates hailed the EPA’s decision, with many expressing excitement on social media.

“Thank you to all who signed our letter and sounded the alarm,” Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, said in a Facebook post announcing the news. “We gathered over 1,100 signatures and sent our letter to the EPA earlier this week. People power got this one done! Well done, friends!”

Still, some advocates have also questioned why the error was not initially caught by the EPA and the vast amounts of public pressure seemingly required for the EPA to reexamine its decision.

Mike Watters is a leader of the local advocacy group Gray’s Creek Residents Against PFAS in Our Wells and Water. Watters believes, given Chemours’ track record, there’s “much more to the story” than has been publicly revealed so far about the shipments. 

“Reality, in my opinion, they knew that way before this point,” Watters said in a message to CityView, in regard to the processor error acknowledged by Chemours on Nov. 13. “Questions were being asked and things started to get sticky for them.” 

Contact Evey Weisblat at eweisblat@cityviewnc.com or 216-527-3608.

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PFAS, Chemours, forever chemicals, Dupont, United Nations, EPA