Environmentalists in North Carolina are urging the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commission to investigate EPA, North Carolina regulators and DuPont and Chemours for alleged human rights violations stemming from PFAS contamination of drinking water, marking the first-ever petition to the UN to cite PFAS contamination as a human rights violation under international law.
Clean Cape Fear, a grassroots environmental group in Wilmington, NC, April 27 filed a 36-page request with a UN Human Rights Commission official responsible for investigating, reporting on and making recommendations to governments and business over human rights violations tied to toxic chemicals, asking that he investigate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination stemming from the lower Cape Fear River watershed and send “allegation letters” to various parties, including EPA.
While the UN Commission has no governing authority in the United States -- holding only “soft law” powers -- UN Special Rapporteur Marcos Orellana, to whom the letter was addressed, “can contribute markedly to public awareness of specific, serious, localized violations of human rights -- especially where the media and civil society groups amplify his messages -- and thus magnify domestic political pressure for solutions,” says Claudia Polsky, director of the UC Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, who helped prepare the request.
At issue is PFAS contamination allegedly stemming from Chemours’ Fayetteville, NC, facility, where it currently manufactures GenX chemicals -- a next-generation PFAS. DuPont previously operated the facility, which previously produced perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) before the chemical was phased out in the United States.
Environmentalists allege that the two companies have for decades contaminated the Cape Fear River with PFAS; the river supplies half a million residents with drinking water, according to an April 27 press release from the group. They also contend that the contamination has polluted more than 6,000 private wells.
Clean Cape Fear co-founder Harper Peterson says the state and federal governments have taken “small steps . . . to make things right, but we need real action, once and for all.”
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for its part says in a 2022 PFAS action strategy that it has been aggressive in managing PFAS risks, in the absence of federal standards, noting for instance that through a court-approved consent order it has stopped ongoing wastewater discharges of GenX chemicals and related compounds from the Chemours’ facility and nearly eliminated air emissions of these from it.
But the group is calling for more action, particularly as Chemours is seeking an expansion of the plant. It “demands, among other remedies, that corporate polluters be held accountable for water treatment and clean-up costs for all impacted residents, and that North Carolina regulators deny Chemours the permit it currently seeks to expand production of PFAS chemicals at its Fayetteville Works facility,” the group says in the press release.
Polsky in the release says, “The Cape Fear River toxic exposure crisis has its origins in weak U.S. chemical safety laws, the underenforcement of laws that do exist, and political leaders’ insufficient will to hold polluters to account.” She adds, “Clean Cape Fear’s detailed communication to the Special Rapporteur on Toxics provides a legal road map for restoring Cape Fear communities to health, and for preventing further PFAS harms in North Carolina and beyond.”
Polsky tells Inside PFAS Policy that some of the requests are broad, with national implications. For instance, the group lists as priorities, EPA designating PFAS as a class of “hazardous substances” under both the Superfund law and Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, in order to expand responsible parties’ liability for PFAS cleanups and ensure cradle-to-grave management through safe disposal.
The group also says EPA should ban non-essential uses of PFAS and should accelerate, through research and grants, efforts to develop safe substitutes.
Among other measures, the petition also lists as a priority for EPA to use its Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) authority to require both DuPont and Chemours “to identify each and every PFAS type and quantity ever produced at Fayetteville Works, and to generate and make public data on the toxicity, environmental fate and transport, and human and ecological effects of these chemicals.”
Other priorities the group calls for are specific to the Chemours plant. These include a call for Chemours to withdraw its expansion plans, and DEQ to deny permitting of such an expansion; Chemours to pay for treatment of drinking water to residents in the area; Chemours and DuPont to fund a large, independent set of epidemiological studies to determine ties from PFAS exposures caused by the plant to health conditions; and DEQ to consult with residents to identify additional potential mitigation measures.
Clean Cape Fear is among the environmental groups currently appealing a court ruling that dismissed the groups’ lawsuit over EPA’s handling of their TSCA petition that called for in-depth tests on each of the 54 PFAS linked to contamination in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River Basin. -- Suzanne Yohannan (firstname.lastname@example.org)