This is the second of a two-part investigation into how a lack of federal regulations and state oversight allowed 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen, to be trucked in wastewater sludge from DAK America, a plastics plant in Fayetteville, to McGill Environmental, which used the material to make compost. Part 1 about McGill Environmental, which received the material, ran yesterday. Today, Policy Watch examines the source of the 1,4-Dioxane, DAK Americas, and delves into the lack of regulations that make this contamination possible.
On the The Progressive Pulse blog, read how we got the story, the documents we used, and the ethical issues we faced throughout the investigation.
The DAK Americas plant consumes 50 acres of a sprawling 300-acre industrial complex on Cedar Creek Road in southeast Fayetteville, along the banks of the Cape Fear River. Trucks idle at the gate, awaiting approval from security. Stacks exhale steam into the air; a fluorescent orange windsock flutters in the breeze.
Across from DAK is Belmont Park, a modest subdivision originally constructed in the early to mid-1970s whose streets are barely wide enough for two cars to pass. In front of the plant is a row of one-story brick homes, their backyards facing the stacks, the steam, the trucks. Most of the houses in this neighborhood were built even before chemical company Rohm and Haas began making plastic polyester resins here in 1975. Since then, these residents have been gradually hemmed in by titans of the chemical industry: DuPont, Monsanto, Wellman Fibers — and now DAK Americas.
DAK doesn’t make 1,4-Dioxane, but instead generates it from manufacturing PET, a widely used plastic polymer resin.
With ten manufacturing plants in North and South America, DAK is one of the world’s largest PET producers. Nearly all plastic bottles for drinking water and soft drinks sold in the US are made with PET, signified by the Recycling Identification Number 1.
The EPA does not regulate 1,4-Dioxane. Nor does the EPA classify the compound as hazardous, even though the agency has determined it likely causes cancer. Even though it persists in the environment and doesn’t break down. Nor does the Food and Drug Administration, even though 1,4-Dioxane is found in cosmetics, cleansers, shampoos and lotions.
Instead, the EPA has set a health screening goal of 0.35 parts per billion in drinking water, which is not legally enforceable. The state has adopted the same goal for drinking water supplies, and set a threshold of 3 ppb in groundwater. Not even voluntarily is 1,4-Dioxane regulated in sludge, also known as wastewater residuals, or in compost.
The consequence of these weak state and federal regulations is that 1,4-Dioxane from DAK’s Fayetteville plant has polluted the air, river and groundwater. It has also contaminated the plant’s sludge — and at least some of McGill Environmental’s compost that used DAK sludge as raw material earlier this year.
A four-month Policy Watch investigation found very high concentrations of 1,4-Dioxane in a shipment of sludge from DAK to McGill Environmental, a composting facility in Sampson County: It was present in the waste at a concentration of 20,400 parts per billion, higher than levels the EPA has found at some hazardous waste landfills.
It’s uncertain if previous shipments were also contaminated, but there have been many: From 2015 to 2017, DAK sent 1,465 tons of sludge from its Fayetteville plant to McGill Environmental in Sampson County. And on just one morning earlier this year, the company shipped seven tons of sludge to McGill – sludge that contained 1,4-Dioxane at a level of 20,400 parts per billion. That’s higher than some levels found in liquid at two hazardous waste landfills in California.
DAK did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
There is a long history of 1,4-Dioxane contamination on Cedar Creek Road, one that predates DAK by more than 30 years. In the early ‘80s, Rohm and Haas manufactured PET here, and reported a spill of a half-ton of ethylene glycol, also used to make 1,4-Dioxane. At the time, neither the state nor the EPA sampled for 1-4, Dioxane, but state records show that environmental and health officials were concerned that Belmont Park residents could be exposed to the plant’s other hazardous contaminants through community drinking water wells. Those homes have since been connected to Fayetteville’s public water utility, according to city officials.
(On the same tract, Monsanto manufactured polyester at one plant, and at another, glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide RoundUp that has been linked to cancer. The factories have since closed.)
Plastics continued to be manufactured at the site in 1988, when DuPont arrived and began producing PET – as did a DuPont subsidiary, Teijin Films. In November 2001, DuPont Teijin Films notified state environmental regulators that it had released 1,4-Dioxane into the groundwater, resulting in contamination above state standards. Seven months later, additional tests showed 1,4-Dioxane still present in shallow groundwater, possibly from a leaking wastewater system that crossed the site.
To clean up the contamination, DuPont officials recommended fixing the leak, sampling groundwater wells twice a year and deploying “natural attenuation” — essentially doing nothing — unless concentrations of the compound increased or threatened the Cape Fear River. DEQ, then known as DENR, agreed.
But the chemical respite, if it existed, was short-lived. DAK, which purchased several buildings from DuPont, soon encountered its own problems, according to state records. Because of concerns about 1,4-Dioxane contamination throughout the Cape Fear River Basin, DEQ has required DAK since 2002 to monitor the amount of the compound it discharges into the river. That monitoring must now occur monthly.
In 2005, two monitoring wells onsite showed increasing concentrations of 1,4-Dioxane. That summer, DAK repaired two underground sewer lines that had been disconnected, speculating they were the source of the leak.
However, monitoring wells continued to show varying concentrations of the compound, and four years later, in 2009, DAK concluded there was “most likely an additional problem with the process wastewater sewer system,” state records show.
DAK found another leak, took the process wastewater system out of service, and installed an above ground sewer line. Most of the groundwater monitoring now indicates levels of 1,4-Dioxane are stable or decreasing, state records show, but a few continue to fluctuate. In 2016, one well had levels of 1,4-Dioxane as high as 17,000 parts per billion, according to a 2017 report to DEQ.
The wastewater treatment plant is like Grand Central Station, where much of the plant’s effluent – such as lab and manufacturing process waste, maintenance washes, toilets and sinks — converges and is treated using a variety of chemical and biological methods before being released into the Cape Fear River. The stew-like leftovers – sometimes referred to as “residuals” – are shipped offsite, including to McGill Environmental.
After Policy Watch alerted DEQ to the high levels of 1,4-Dioxane in DAK sludge, the agency consulted with the company about managing the compound, as well as PFAS, in its sludge, said Laura Leonard, DEQ spokeswoman. DEQ has also tried to determine how the sludge contamination occurred. The plant does not have advanced treatment technologies to completely remove 1,4-Dioxane from its wastewater. (Even among municipal systems, the expensive technology is uncommon.) DEQ said the contamination level found in the sludge sample – 20,400 parts per billion – closely tracks with the levels in the plant’s wastewater. DEQ officials speculated that the wastewater treatment basins removed some of the compound, and it settled in the sludge at concentrated amounts.
Later this year, the EPA is expected to release its long-awaited assessment of the environmental and health risks of 10 chemicals: 1,4-Dioxane and methylene chloride, both found in DAK sludge, are among them.
“We’re not very optimistic,” said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization headquartered in Washington, DC. “The trend under this administration is that the risk evaluations get narrower and narrower.”
The EPA has already announced it is not evaluating the potential dangers of 1,4-Dioxane in sludge and compost, even though it notes that some studies have found it in chemical plant effluent. In a preliminary document, the EPA said “1,4-Dioxane has not been measured and is unlikely to be present in sediment, sludge, soil or dust, based on its physical and chemical properties.”
Even if finished compost doesn’t contain 1,4-Dioxane, the compound still can jeopardize worker health. At McGill, employees could be exposed to hazardous vapors as the tons of sludge pour from the truck into the pit.
But the EPA isn’t examining the occupational hazards associated with the compound, even though it is required to consider potential health effects on vulnerable populations. “The EPA is relying too heavily on PPE — personal protective equipment,” Benesh said. “Or they’re referring it to OSHA,” another weak regulator.
OSHA has set an exposure limit for 1,4-Dioxane of an average of 100 ppm in the air over eight hours. But the agency says it “has recognized that many of its limits are outdated and inadequate for ensuring the protection of worker health.” It now recommends that employers follow the California’s workplace limit for air of just 0.28 ppm.
It’s uncertain if McGill employees working near the pits are required to wear protective gear, such as respirators. But in a court deposition involving an unrelated wrongful death case filed in 2014, McGill president Noel Lyons testified that in dusty conditions workers must wear masks, but otherwise no breathing protection or respirators are required.
While federal rules regarding 1,4-Dioxane in compost are non-existent, North Carolina has an opportunity to strengthen its own. The Environmental Management Commission is scheduled to readopt the state’s solid waste compost rules this year. (Compost facilities are regulated under either the Division of Waste Management or the Division of Water Resources, depending on the type and amount of material they accept. Because McGill receives large amounts of sludge and animal manure, it is permitted under the Division of Water Resources.)
But the proposed changes, unveiled in March, fail to require testing compost or “feedstock” (the industry term for the materials that go into producing compost) for 1,4-Dioxane, PFAS and other emerging contaminants. DEQ’s Division of Waste Management is scheduled to make a second presentation at the EMC’s May 9 meeting; a public comment period is scheduled to begin in June.
Instead, the draft changes benefit only the composting industry. Facilities could go 10 years between permit renewals, instead of five, sharply curbing the opportunity for public comment on the operations.
EMC member Shannon Arata said the commission has not discussed the problem of emerging contaminants in compost and feedstock. “I encourage people to comment on the rules,” Arata said.
Without requirements for companies to test for 1,4-Dioxane, PFAS and other emerging compounds – and to keep it out of the feedstock — compost and fill will likely continue to contain these contaminants. In turn, consumers will apply the material on farm fields and golf courses, public playgrounds and private gardens – believing, in some cases falsely, that it is healthy and beneficial.
What next? Opportunities for public comment as state updates compost rules
The Environmental Management Commission (EMC) is expected to readopt the state’s compost rules later this year. While state environmental officials have issued a first draft of proposed amendments, public input can help to compel the EMC and DEQ to make additional changes.
At its next meeting, the EMC is scheduled to hear a presentation by the Division of Waste Management on the content and impact of the rules. The meeting will take place Thursday, May 9, 9:00 a.m. in the Ground Floor Hearing Room of the Archdale Building (which is located just north of the Legislative Building at 512 N. Salisbury St. in downtown Raleigh).
You can find the agenda for the meeting by clicking here as well as a helpful PowerPoint presentation on the subject prepared by Division of Waste Management staff under Agenda item #2, or by clicking here.
Although the formal comment period doesn’t begin until June 17, the public can weigh in on the issue (or any issue) any time. You can contact EMC members directly; the DEQ website contains a directory that includes the contact information for each member. A public hearing could happen as early as July.
What next? Opportunities for public comment as state updates compost rules