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Friday, November 17, 2023

Our waste plastic problem hasn't peaked yet

EPA data shows US toxic PFAS waste problem is worsening, watchdog group says


The average amount of waste containing toxic PFAS chemicals that is shipped around the US each month has almost quadrupled since 2018, according to an analysis of government data by a watchdog group.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data points to about 10,344 shipments totaling almost 27 million kilograms of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) waste in the last five years, since the agency first began collecting the data.

The findings, released Nov. 9, reflect “a small percentage, we believe, of the amount of PFAS waste that is being generated, transported, stored, and disposed of in the US,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which authored the report. “There’s no reporting requirement.”

The EPA data supports the need for the agency to regulate PFAS under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C, which authorizes the agency to set regulatory standards for the management of hazardous waste from “cradle to grave,” says the report. PEER and the Environmental Law Clinic at Berkeley, on behalf of the Green Science Policy Institute and community groups around the country, petitioned the EPA in 2019 and 2020 to regulate PFAS as hazardous waste.

The EPA did not respond to request for comment.

Exposure to PFAS “forever chemicals,” which do not break down naturally, has been linked to health problems including thyroid, kidney, and testicular cancer, as well as ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and hypertension during pregnancy. About 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People are exposed to the chemicals in water or food, the air they breathe, or from using products made with PFAS.

To better understand the PFAS waste circulating around the US, PEER analyzed data from an EPA database that collects information from the agency’s electronic system for forms that accompany hazardous waste shipments. The researchers found that the average quantity of PFAS waste transferred per month has risen from 139,267 kilograms between June and December of 2018 to 545,734 kilograms between January and July of 2023, with a high of 682,325 kilograms per month in 2020.

The three largest sources of PFAS waste listed in the database are Naval Base San Diego’s hazardous waste facility, American Airlines, and the chemical company Chemours, a spin-off of DuPont. The largest receivers of PFAS waste were large facilities in Beatty, Nevada, Deer Park, Texas, and East Liverpool, Ohio.

The East Liverpool facility incinerates PFAS and is eighteen miles from the town of East Palestine, which was exposed to an onslaught of pollutants after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials last February.

“Incineration does very little to destroy these chemicals,” says the report. In 2022, the Defense Department banned incineration of PFAS-containing firefighting foam by the military. Landfilling PFAS, another common method of disposing of the chemicals, has caused “extensive groundwater contamination throughout the [US],” says the report.

The PFAS waste documented in the EPA data was also commonly mixed with other fuels and then burned, discharged into wastewater treatment systems, or injected underground.

In September, the EPA approved a request by Chemours, a spin-off of DuPont, to import 4.4 million pounds of a type of PFAS called GenX to North Carolina from a Chemours facility in the Netherlands. The company will likely “reclaim” PFAS from the waste, then send what’s left to landfills or incinerate it, said Whitehouse. 

Reclaiming and recycling PFAS “helps reduce the need to manufacture larger volumes of new, virgin [GenX],” a company spokesperson said to the site NC Newsline in an email. Since PFAS are not regulated as hazardous waste in the US, the EPA is essentially unable to reject PFAS waste imports.

If the EPA continues to resist regulating PFAS as hazardous waste, the problem is likely to balloon, turning the US into “an attractive dumping ground” as companies in other countries grapple with where to put their toxic refuse, says the PEER report.

“With Europe, as they start heavily regulating PFAS, a lot of the companies there are going to be looking to find ways to get rid of their waste,” said Whitehouse. “There’s certainly a heightened risk that waste will be coming from Europe into the US unmonitored, and from Canada or Mexico too.”