In a small city on the banks of a river, there is growing concern about the discharge of a perfluoroalkyl chemical known as GenX into the river by international chemical manufacturing company Chemours. The local water plant cannot filter out the substance; and local people demand “complete openness” of the plant, stricter rules and better supervision of production. Months after the initial discovery, Chemours was still found to be discharging the chemical directly—even though it was no longer allowed to do so. Environmentalists called that it was “time to work differently: First, research into [the environmental and public health effects] of a substance, and only then permission to discharge.”
Sure, it’s our story, but the one above was compiled from reporting by two newspapers from the Netherlands (Algemeen Dagblad and NRC Handelsblad) about a Chemours plant manufacturing GenX and other fluorochemicals in the Dutch city of Dordrecht. The story first broke in March of 2017; some 750,000 people are thought to be affected in cities along the Merwede River, including Rotterdam, Ritterkerk and Hendrik-Ido-Craft, among others. Oasen, their utility authority and water plant, cannot filter the substance either.
In March the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment ruled that residents near the plant had been exposed to “more than responsible” amounts of PFOA, as determined in Europe in 2013 to be a “very hazardous substance.” In April Chemours was forced to reduce their emissions from 6,400 kilos per year to 2,000 kilos per year. In June they were found not to be using a mandatory water treatment plant. June also saw the first mention of our crisis in the Cape Fear River.
Seeing as the Dutch are a few months ahead of us on their timeline, I thought I would future-surf a bit and try to find hypotheses about what we might expect in coming months, based on Chemours’ behavior elsewhere in the world.
On July 21, a story broke how pollution was more serious than originally thought. Traces of PFOA, which Chemours claimed to have stopped producing at Dordrecht in 2013, were found in high concentrations incompatible with Chemours’ claim. PFOA was found by toxicologists from Amsterdam’s VU (Vrije Universiteit) in the grass around the plant, which had been growing and getting mowed for the last five years. One researcher, Jacob de Boer, speculated Chemours might never have stopped manufacturing and emitting PFOA at all, even though they said they had.
Due to this, Martin Van Den Berg, another toxicologist at VU, went further than his colleagues have on our side of the pond (so far). He cautioned people living near the plant should stop eating produce from their own gardens. The reason?
“The poison is not only in the leaves but in the entire crop, because the plant also absorbs contaminated water from its roots.”
Jacob de Boer added, “Here you have to leave a warning. Just do not eat fruits and vegetables from the garden. Do not really do this. It is a concern. They are persistent and toxic substances.”
The unscrupulous behavior of Chemours abroad indicates the company can be trusted about as far as it can be thrown (given the weight of all the manufacturing equipment and accumulated mass of bullshit they have been spouting since June 8, it isn’t very far at all, in this writer’s opinion). We must wonder where else in the nation, or around the globe, a similar story is lurking, waiting to be exposed. A cursory search of Chemours’ website reveals they have 35 production facilities worldwide: 25 in North America, four in Europe, Africa and Middle East, four more in Asia and the Pacific, and two in South America.
A short foray onto Google Earth shows Chemours plants perched on several major rivers in the eastern part of the country: on the banks of the James River in Virginia, just below Richmond; on the Delaware River in New Castle, south of Chemours HQ in Wilmington, DE; the infamous Washington Works Plant near Parkersburg, WV (site of the successful class-action lawsuit against DuPont and Chemours), and further down the Ohio River in Louisville, KY; on the Tennessee River in New Johnsonville; on the banks of Bay St. Louis in Pass Christian, Mississippi, which empties out into the Gulf of Mexico just north of New Orleans; and in Ingleside, Texas, where everything is bigger, on the lapping shores of Corpus Christi Bay.
And that’s just in America.
Similar incidents have happened in the Veneto region of northeast Italy, which encompasses such Shakespearean locales as Padua and Verona. There, it was a company called Miteni, but the story was the same: PFOA was found in the drinking water and eventually in the bloodstream of citizens from surrounding areas. Over 350,000 people were exposed.
By far the worst culprit is, unsurprisingly, China. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (summarized as follows in a Greenpeace pamphlet on PFC pollution):
“Facilities in Shandong province, as well as other facilities in China, are scaling up their manufacture of PFOA to meet domestic and international demand, as the result of a commitment by eight leading manufacturers of fluorochemicals in the United States and Europe to work toward the elimination of PFOA as part of an [sic] U.S. EPA stewardship program.”
So, while Chemours might not be pumping the toxic stuff into our drinking water, it’s still being made overseas—out of sight, out of mind, right?—and in staggeringly huge amounts. Perfluoridated compounds were found in concentrations of 496,000 ng/L in the Xiaoqing River in China. Another river, which was receiving effluent from a plant belonging to the Dongyuechem company (an “excellent supplier” of our old friend, Daddy DuPont), was found to have the preposterously high fluorochemical concentration of 1,860,000 ng/L—one of the highest ever recorded.
Though it certainly remains a local problem, we must look beyond the Cape Fear River to see the larger picture. Perhaps, by cooperation, by building a community larger than our own, to hold these companies accountable, something can be accomplished. Once the chemical is made, it stays made forever. Our planet is a closed system: Like it or not, the problems of our neighbors halfway around the world eventually become our problems, too. The truth of ecology is that everything—everything—is connected.
My advice to other cities facing this burden remains the same as what I would tell a heartbroken ex after a scandalous break-up: You should probably get tested. What do you have to lose?