New Jersey Is Making Companies Pay for Toxic Contamination — Shining a New Light on a Little-Known Offender
New Jersey laid financial responsibility for dealing with PFAS contamination squarely at the feet of the chemical companies responsible for it. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued a directive on Monday ordering five companies to pay the costs of dealing with the toxic chemicals that have been associated with numerous health problems, including cancer. The companies include 3M, which created both PFOA and PFOS; DuPont, the chemical giant that used PFOA to make Teflon since the 1950s at the now massively contaminated plant Chambers Works; and DuPont’s spinoff, Chemours.
Monitoring, research, and cleanup of the chemicals, which the state has already begun, is likely to ultimately total “hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to the order.
The hefty price tag reflects the state’s serious PFAS problem. New Jersey is thought to be one of the states most contaminated with these chemicals.
The hefty price tag reflects the state’s serious PFAS problem. New Jersey is thought to be one of the states most contaminated with these chemicals. Seventy percent of drinking water samples taken from 20 of New Jersey’s 21 counties contained at least one compound from the class of chemicals, according to research done in 2009 and 2010. And, last year, another state study showed that all surface water samples taken from 11 waterways and ecosystems around New Jersey contained PFAS. All the fish found there contained the chemicals as well. The state is also home to military bases that have been contaminated by firefighting foam, as well as several industrially polluted sites.
The order also announced the state’s intention to propose the lowest drinking water limits in the country for both PFOS and PFOA on April 1.
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New Jersey, which has led the country in setting stringent safety levels for PFAS chemicals, is the first state in the U.S. to use these numbers to force cleanup costs onto the two mammoth companies.
But the state’s order also shines a light on a company that is not a household name: Solvay. A division of a Belgian chemical company, Solvay Specialty Polymers USA began using a compound known as PFNA in West Deptford, New Jersey, in 1990.
The largely untold story of PFNA, which Solvay used to make specialty plastic for semi-conductors and lithium batteries, parallels that of PFOA in several important ways. Like DuPont’s notorious chemical, PFNA was found to persist indefinitely in nature and harm pregnant mice and their developing offspring in lab experiments. Also like DuPont’s PFOA, PFNA also got into the air and water near the plant where it was used. A 2015 report Solvay submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency showed that more than 100 water samples around its plant contained PFNA. According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s order, 83 wells around the site are now contaminated with PFNA and PFOA. And, like PFOA, the chemical at the Solvay plant was also accumulating in the blood of workers, according to a report filed with the EPA in 2004.
There is another unfortunate parallel between the two PFAS chemicals. Like the residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who had PFOA from a nearby DuPont plant in their bodies for years, the people of West Deptford, too, wound up being unwitting receptacles of a substance produced by their local chemical factory. In 2015, Solvay submitted a document to the EPA showing that the blood of seven people living near the plant had very elevated levels of PFNA. In one case, the level was 63 times the national average. Research has also shown that the chemical can be passed to infants through breast milk.
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