HomeScience & EnvironmentNorth Carolina ‘Forever Chemical’ Plant Violates Human Rights, U.N. Panel Says

North Carolina ‘Forever Chemical’ Plant Violates Human Rights, U.N. Panel Says

The dumping of contaminated wastewater by a chemical plant on the Cape Fear River began more than four decades ago, making the river water unsafe to drink for 100 miles.

This week, in response to a petition by community groups in North Carolina, a United Nations panel called the pollution a human rights issue.

The U.N. concerns about human-rights violations, the kind of claims that Americans might be more used to seeing leveled at foreign countries, broaden the scope of a global fight over the harms from what are known as forever chemicals, or by their acronym PFAS. They are the subject of a yearslong dispute over their dangers.

Chemours, the chemicals giant that took over the plant in 2015, and DuPont before it, “are completely disregarding the rights and well-being of residents” along the river, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said.

The pollution continues “even as DuPont and Chemours had information about the toxic impacts of PFAS on human health and drinking water,” they said, using the acronym for polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of chemicals, many of which are toxic.

Chemours said it was “committed to responsibly manufacturing and producing products in a manner consistent with international principles.” The products it makes at its plant at Fayetteville, N.C., contributed to “vital technologies for green hydrogen, electric vehicles and semiconductor manufacturing,” the company said. Chemours is currently moving ahead with plans to expand the Fayetteville plant.

DuPont has rejected claims that it bears responsibility for the Fayetteville plant, which it spun off as part of a corporate restructuring in 2015.

PFAS are human-made chemicals that companies have used to make a wide range of water- or grease-resistant products including nonstick cookware, pizza boxes, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, firefighting foam and some cosmetics. They don’t naturally break down and instead accumulate in the environment and in the blood and organs of people and animals.

Research by both chemical companies and academics have shown that exposure to PFAS has been linked to cancer, liver damage, birth defects and other health problems. A newer type of PFAS, GenX, which Chemours makes at its Fayetteville plant, was designed to be a safer alternative to earlier generations of the chemicals. New studies, however, are discovering similar health hazards.

State regulators have repeatedly fined the Fayetteville plant for exceeding emissions limits, and, over the years, the Environmental Protection Agency has also issued a string of violations. In 2021, the agency started requiring chemical manufacturers to test and publicly report the amount of PFAS in household items as part of what it calls its PFAS Strategic Roadmap, a strategy to protect public health and the environment.

Still, the U.N. panel, made up of special rapporteurs from its Human Rights Council, said both the E.P.A. and local regulators had “fallen short in their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuses.” That included failing to provide affected communities in North Carolina “with the type and amount of information necessary to prevent harm and seek reparation,” the panel said.

The E.P.A. declined to comment. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Local environmentalists called on Chemours to halt its expansion in Fayetteville and focus on cleaning up the pollution.

“We still have residents in our region who do not have access to clean, safe drinking water,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which petitioned last year for the United Nations to open a human rights investigation.

“We’re finding PFAS along our beaches, in locally grown produce and locally caught fish. It’s also in our air and rainwater,” she said. Yet “Chemours wants to expand production and make more PFAS.”

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