Earlier this year, federal and state researchers reported finding a new, potentially dangerous chemical in soil samples from multiple locations in New Jersey. The compound was a form of PFAS, a group of more than 5,000 chemicals that have raised concerns in recent years because of their potential link to learning delays in children and cancer, as well as their tendency to last in the environment for a long time.
But the new revelations, reported in the June issue of Science magazine, stoked concerns among water-quality researchers and advocacy groups for other reasons, too. It underscored how easy it is for manufacturers to phase out their use of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) once the substances have been regulated, and replace them with newer, related compounds that researchers know even less about. And it showed how difficult it is for regulators to track and oversee these new compounds.
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The authors of the Science report, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey department of environmental protection (DEP), identified the West Deptford, New Jersey, plant of a company called Solvay Specialty Polymers USA, a division of the Belgian chemical giant Solvay SA, as the likely source of the contamination.
Solvay, in a statement to Consumer Reports, denies it is responsible.
But Solvay has been cited by the New Jersey DEP in the past for contamination of soil and water with an older, now-regulated PFAS compound. And the company has used a replacement PFAS at the facility for years, despite having failed to implement an official way for regulators or independent researchers to analyze whether the new compound is present in the environment, according to documents obtained by Consumer Reports through a public records request.
Through that request, CR sought documents and communications between Solvay and the agency related to the chemicals identified in the Science study, and received more than 240 pages of filings that highlight the company’s use of a PFAS replacement at its facility.
The records shed light on the struggle that regulators in New Jersey face in identifying the environmental risks posed at the Solvay plant, as well as the debate between both sides over how to remediate the company’s substitute compound and limit new types of PFAS from being used in the future.
The New Jersey DEP tells CR it believes Solvay is using “one or more” of the replacement compounds identified in the Science study at the company’s facility. The replacements are “expected to have toxicity” and other properties similar to currently regulated PFAS compounds, the agency says. The DEP declined to answer questions about whether Solvay’s replacement compounds have been detected in public water supplies.
“The DEP will continue to use the best science available to evaluate emerging contaminants to protect New Jersey’s public health and environment,” the DEP says.
Environmental and health advocates say that because it takes years to assess the risk of chemicals like Solvay’s new substitute, PFAS should be regulated as a group, with new compounds subject to the same regulations as previously identified ones.
We don’t want to continue on this toxic treadmill
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, objects to that idea, saying that each compound is different, so the compounds should be regulated individually.
Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization, says that approach is impractical and unnecessary. “We don’t want to continue on this toxic treadmill,” he says, “where one PFAS chemical is phased out only to be replaced by one of literally thousands of others that have similar chemical structures and can reasonably be expected to pose similar environmental and health risks.”
A fraught history
Until 2010, Solvay had used a PFAS compound at its New Jersey manufacturing facility called PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), which preliminary research indicates may be linked to immune system and liver problems. A year earlier, New Jersey’s DEP detected the contaminant in public water supplies in Paulsboro, a community near the plant. The New Jersey DEP now attributes continued PFNA contamination around the facility to Solvay.
The company retained a licensed remediation expert to assess that claim, and says it has spent more than $25m in the process. In April, the company told the DEP that it remains committed to investigating and remediating PFNA impacts attributed to the West Deptford facility, according to records obtained by CR.
But the company steadfastly denies responsibility for all PFNA contamination. In an April 21 letter to the DEP, Solvay alleges the department has maintained a “long-held erroneous belief” that the company is responsible for all PFNA contamination near its facility, and points to what it says are other possible nearby sources, including a former manufacturing site and a fire-training academy that uses firefighting foam, a known source of PFAS.
Related: Four ways to avoid PFAS in your water
“DEP has yet to act on this information, either to investigate and remediate these PFAS discharges itself, or to require the dischargers to do so,” the company says.
The DEP declined to comment about Solvay’s claim. But the agency has previously said Solvay’s science does not support the conclusion that alternative sources are to blame for PFNA contamination.
In 2018, New Jersey adopted strict limits on how much PFNA can be present in drinking water. And a year later, the state directed multiple companies, including Solvay, to address PFAS contamination in the state. The state claims in the directive that Solvay knew it was discharging “large amounts” of PFNA into the environment from the facility at least as early as 1991. The company, the state alleges, “knew or should have known of the adverse effects of PFNA exposure” because an industry group of which it is a member had conducted toxicology studies in the 2000s.