by Olivia Rosane
United Nations human rights experts have expressed concerns over “alleged human rights violations and abuses” against people living along the lower Cape Fear River in North Carolina due emissions of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, from a Fayetteville chemical plant.
Five UN experts signed letters to Chemours—the plant’s current operator—as well as DuPont, Corteva, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Dutch environmental regulators. The action marks the UN Human Rights Council’s first investigation into an environmental problem in the U.S., The Guardian reported Nov. 28.
“We are especially concerned about DuPont and Chemours’ apparent disregard for the well-being of community members, who have been denied access to clean and safe water for decades,” the UN experts wrote in the letter to Chemours.
The Fayetteville Works manufacturing plant has been releasing toxic PFAS into the environment for more than four decades, according to the allegations detailed in the letter. PFAS dumped in the Cape Fear River have made it unsafe to drink for 100 river miles, and pollution from the plant has contaminated air, soil, groundwater, and aquatic life.
PFAS are a class of chemicals used in a variety of products from nonstick, water-repellent, or stain-resistant items to firefighting foam. They have been linked to a number of health issues including cancers and have earned the name “forever chemicals” for their ability to persist in the environment and the human body. One study found PFAS in 97 percent of local residents who received testing.
The letter also repeated allegations that DuPont, the plant’s previous owner, and Chemours, a spinoff company, had not taken responsibility for cleaning up the local environment and compensating community members, and that DuPont had known about the dangers of PFAS for several years, but chose to hide this information from the public.
“We remain preoccupied that these actions infringe on community members’ right to life, right to health, right to a healthy, clean, and sustainable environment, and the right to clean water, among others,” the UN experts wrote.
The letters were sent in response to a request made in April by Berkeley Law’s Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of local environmental advocacy group Clean Cape Fear. In the request, the groups said the matter was particularly urgent because Chemours plans to expand its making of PFAS at the plant.
The UN experts, or special rapporteurs, reviewed existing legal and scientific documents and media reports, rather than completing their own investigation, NC Newsline reported. They sent the letters in September, but made them public on Thanksgiving, 60 days later, according to Clean Cape Fear. During that time, Chemours, Corteva, and the Dutch regulator responded, but DuPont and the EPA did not.
“We are grateful to see the United Nations take action on behalf of all residents in our region suffering from decades of human rights abuse related to our PFAS contamination crisis,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan said in a statement. “Clearly, the UN recognizes international law is being violated in the United States. We find it profoundly troubling that the United States and DuPont have yet to respond to the UN’s allegation letters.”
Clean Cape Fear called Chemours’ response “classic corporate gaslighting.” Chemours claimed to be “a relatively new company,” despite being staffed by senior DuPont executives, focused mainly on the PFAS GenX despite the presence of several other pollutants, and focused on the impacts on private well owners, ignoring public utility customers who must pay to filter their own water because of PFAS contamination.
However, the letter did acknowledge that Chemours knew about the PFAS pollution before the public learned of it in 2017 and tried to both resolve it internally and prevent the public from finding out.
“If corporate malfeasance had a name in N.C., it would be Chemours,” said Rebecca Trammel, leadership team member of Clean Cape Fear and founder of Catalyst Consulting & Speaking. “Impunity is the accomplice of injustice. It is the obligation of governments and regulatory agencies to ensure that innovation, economic gain, and progress are in service of humanity, not at its expense. I extend my deepest thanks to the United Nations for its defense of our right to safe water and life itself.”
The letter to the EPA focused in part on its failure to study the health impacts of PFAS exposure on the community, while the letter to the Netherlands focused on imports of GenX from that country to Fayetteville Works.
Clean Cape Fear said it hopes the letters will put pressure on both the private companies and the government regulators to act.
“We hope the UN’s action will induce shareholders to bring DuPont and Chemours in line with international human rights law,” the group tweeted, noting that both companies are publicly traded.
“We also hope that the risk of being named a violator of international human rights laws will give the U.S. EPA the political courage to do what it must to curb toxic PFAS pollution in North Carolina and nationwide,” the group added.