Congressional testimony on PFAS and accountability by DuPont, Chemours and 3M was damning
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida, glared with the intensity of a welder’s torch at top officials from three chemical titans — DuPont, Chemours and 3M — seated at a table in a congressional hearing room.
For more than two and a half hours on Tuesday, Wasserman Schultz and many of her colleagues on the House Oversight and Reform Committee grilled and castigated company officials over their refusal to accept responsibility for the widespread contamination of drinking water by perfluorinated compounds.
In North Carolina, these compounds have been detected in public drinking water supplies in several cities and towns, including Wilmington, Cary, Pittsboro, Maysville and Fort Bragg’s water system. They have been discovered in private drinking water wells, and in Lake Michie, Jordan Lake, Cape Fear River and the Haw River. They have been found in the urine or blood of North Carolinians — including that of workers at DuPont’s Fayetteville Works plant, according to state Department of Labor documents.
Corporate representatives blamed one another for the nationwide contamination. They dodged questions. 3M’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, Denise Rutherford, despite being under oath, falsely claimed — or lied — that there were no human illnesses linked to exposure to these compounds.
Known collectively as PFAS, this class of 5,000 compounds is used in hundreds of consumer and industrial products, including food packaging, waterproof clothing, medical devices and firefighting foam.
PFAS have contaminated soil, air and water — including that used for drinking — worldwide. Soldiers and firefighters, because of their exposure to PFAS-contaminated foam used in training exercises, are especially at risk of becoming seriously ill, and some have developed cancer.
“Are any of your companies, who were responsible for using these chemicals that firefighters and military service members were exposed to, planning any type of compensation to harmed victims?” Wasserman Schultz asked the trio.
“Our focus is to reduce the firefighting foam we use on our sites and clean up the sites we operated,” replied DuPont Chief Operations and Engineering Officer Daryl Roberts.
“So, no,” the congresswoman interjected.
“We’ll continue to focus on sites …”
“So no. Yes or no?”
“ … within our control.”
“That’s not a yes or no answer.”
“We’re focusing …”
“Let the record reflect the gentlemen essentially said no.”
For nearly 50 years DuPont owned the Fayetteville Works plant near the Cumberland-Bladen county line. For 13 of those years, the company manufactured PFAS, not only discharging them into the Cape Fear River, but exposing their workers to the compounds.
DuPont publicly denied any evidence of harm, Rob Bilott, the attorney who won a landmark class-action suit against the company, testified at the hearing. In fact, he told Congress, DuPont’s public statements contradicted its internal science, which showed in the 1970s its employees at the Washington Works plant in West Virginia had high concentrations of PFOA in their blood. The company also knew its workers exposed to PFAS had higher rates of cancer.
In 2002, the same year DuPont began manufacturing PFAS in Fayetteville, it began offering a voluntary blood monitoring program for its workers, according to N.C. Department of Labor documents.
Prompted by an inquiry by the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources — now the Department of Environmental Quality — OSHA inspected the facility in early 2006. Monitoring records of 33 employees from 2005 and 2006 showed workers exposed to PFOA, a type of perfluorinated compound, had higher than normal levels of the contaminant in their blood: less than 1 part per billion to 4.54 ppb.
But these levels occurred after just three years of exposure. PFOA and similar fluorinated compounds remain in the body and can accumulate. OSHA found that the blood levels of PFOA had increased in several employees within just six months.
(Last year, a Department of Health and Human Services study of 30 residents living near the Fayetteville plant showed blood levels of PFOA as high as 34.6 parts per billion. In the general U.S. population, it is 14 ppb.)
OSHA inspectors also found a break room table, a restroom door and a protective suit — which had been decontaminated — also had been contaminated with PFOA.
The blood monitoring and subsequent revelations about the Fayetteville workers occurred as DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA — prompted by Bilott’s findings — over the company’s alleged cover-up of the environmental and human health threat posed by the compounds.
Yet because there were no regulations for PFOA exposure in the workplace, OSHA could not cite DuPont for the problems at Fayetteville. It could only recommend ways for the company to reduce the chance of exposure.
Chemours President of Fluoroproducts Paul Kirsch took his turn in the barrel before the U.S. House committee. “Chemours has never been involved in manufacturing PFOA or PFOS,” he told Wasserman Schultz, deflecting whether the company would compensate people harmed by the compounds.
“So your answer is also no.”
“Congresswoman,” said Denise Rutherford, 3M’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, “we have been active for many, many years in our communities in remedia …”
“Yes or no?
“I will reiterate my statement that our evidence does not indicate there have been any adverse human health effects caused by these foams.”
“That’s not accurate,” Wasserman Schultz said, “based on documents provided to the committee and the military.”
In fact, Bilott’s class-action lawsuit prompted a comprehensive medical study of 70,000 participants living near DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, W.V. The seven-year study showed that those exposed to PFOA or PFOS had a higher incidence of testicular and kidney cancer, high blood pressure during pregnancy, birth defects, ulcerative colitis and elevated cholesterol.
Many of these people had been exposed to the compounds through drinking water. But firefighters and soldiers can be exposed not only though drinking water, but also firefighting foam that is used in training exercises.
The Environmental Working Group this week released another list of military installations where PFAS had been detected in drinking water. EWG obtained the data through the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2016, Fort Bragg, home of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, in Fayetteville reported five types of PFAS in drinking water. The total concentration was 62.14 parts per trillion. State health and environmental officials have recommended that people not drinking water with total PFAS concentrations at 70 ppt or above — or at 10 ppt for any individual compound.
Based on the number of PFAS and their total concentration, at least one of the compounds at Fort Bragg must have exceeded the 10 ppt threshold.
Fort Bragg officials could not be reached to provide further information about how the base addressed the drinking water contamination.
A federal defense spending bill contains several provisions to address PFAS at military bases: Expansion of the monitoring and reporting of the compounds; phasing out the use of firefighting foams that contain PFAS by 2025, and prohibiting the use of PFAS-contaminated food packaging for meals ready to eat (MRE’s).
The House version of the bill would designate PFAS as hazardous substances under Superfund law. This would jump-start the cleanup process, Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told Policy Watch, and responsible companies would have to pay their fair share of the cleanup costs. “It’s the first time Congress has begun to comprehensively address PFAS contamination,” Faber said. “It’s a big moment.”
However, President Trump has vowed to veto the measure if Congress passes it with these provisions.
In North Carolina, a bill that would have prohibited the use, manufacture and sale of PFAS-contaminated firefighting foams never received a full hearing. Despite bipartisan support of four primary sponsors — Reps. Pricey Harrison, Chuck McGrady, Jon Hardister and John Faircloth — and 33 co-sponsors, the House version was exiled to the environment committee on April 4. The Senate counterpart, which had only Democratic support, died in the Rules Committee on the same day.
“It’s unfortunate that our bill is stuck in committee due to industry push-back,” wrote Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, on Twitter. “We know these chemicals are public health hazards and we should do everything we can to limit citizen exposure.”T he nearly three hours of testimony was intended to address corporate accountability for PFAS contamination. “Let’s not get into the rabbit hole of more research is needed. It’s an excuse for inaction,” said U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat from California. “If these chemicals are killing people, let’s stop using them and get them out of the environment.”
But none of the companies had accepted responsibility.
Instead DuPont and Chemours officials fired barbs regarding who produced what and when. In 2015, DuPont spun off Chemours, allegedly to avoid liability for the cleanup of PFOA, PFOS and their toxic replacement GenX. Chemours has since sued DuPont, in part, for underestimating the remediation costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Kirsch of Chemours touted the company’s multi-million dollar investment in technology at its Fayetteville Works plant to reduce air emissions by 99 percent. But he didn’t say that these investments were required under a $13 million consent order between the company, the state Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch.
Similarly, Rutherford of 3M told the committee that the company had voluntarily stopped manufacturing PFOA and PFOS in 2002. What she failed to mention is that 3M did so only under pressure by the EPA.
Rutherford repeatedly denied that the scientific evidence showed the compounds harmed human health. She made these claims even though documents revealed in a lawsuit filed by the state of Minnesota showed 3M’s own scientists knew of the compound’s environmental and health threats. She also touted that levels of PFOA and PFOS have decreased in humans by more than 70 percent.
“If the compounds aren’t hazardous,” Rouda asked Rutherford, “then why in the hell do you care about the reduction in blood levels?”
(After the hearing, Faber told Policy Watch that “3M officially joined the Flat Earth Society yesterday.”)
Since the EPA has been sluggish, if not glacial, in regulating these compounds, Congress must step in, several committee members said.
“All of you play a part in this national emergency,” Wasserman Schultz told the three company officials. “I don’t know how you sleep at night.”