Polluters of ‘Forever Chemicals’ No Longer Getting a Pass, EPA Head Pledges

This 2018 photo shows the signage of the Fayetteville Works plant where the Delaware-based Chemours Company manufactures C3 dimer acid, also known as GenX. The chemical has entered the Cape Fear River, a source of drinking water for much of the southeastern part of North Carolina for an unknown time period. (Photo via AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Michael McElroy

October 19, 2021

The EPA took major steps this week to stop toxic PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” from getting into drinking water and NC communities. 

Thousands of dangerous “forever chemicals” polluting drinking water and waterways in communities throughout the country will finally be addressed, the Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday.

The problem has been particularly acute in North Carolina where Harvard researchers found unsafe levels of the toxic chemicals, known as PFAS, in drinking water. 

At a news conference in Raleigh Monday, Michael Reagan, the head of the EPA and a Goldsboro native, announced several new measures that will establish national monitoring guidelines and policies to clean the chemicals from the environment. 

Other federal regulations will limit how much manufacturers can release, and the EPA will hold companies responsible for both past and future pollutants, Regan said at the news conference in Raleigh. 

The full health effects of the chemicals are unknown, but several studies have linked exposure of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl) to increased risks of thyroid cancer, kidney disease, high cholesterol, and other health problems. 

These chemicals are everywhere and ever-lasting. Human-made and consisting of carbon and fluoride compounds, they leach from takeout containers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn containers into food. They also find their way, like other pollution, into streams, rivers and oceans from leaks and runoff at factories and other places.

But there has not been a large-scale effort to regulate them until now.

PFAS Pollution Present in Many NC Towns, Rivers

The problem and exposure is particularly serious in North Carolina, even if the data is incomplete as a result of the lack of national standards.

Regan was the the head of the NC Department of Environmental Quality under Gov. Roy Cooper before joining the Biden administration. In North Carolina, Regan prioritized cleanup and regulation of these chemicals at the state level, pursuing a 2017 investigation and clean-up effort after unsafe amounts of the PFA chemical GenX was found in the Cape Fear River. That contamination has been linked to the Chemours industrial facility in Fayetteville. 

The new EPA measures, Regan said, would be able to both prevent and clean up such pollution in the future.

According to the new “roadmap,” the EPA will, among other things:

  • Set “aggressive timelines” to establish universal limits for levels of the chemicals  in drinking water. 
  • Officially designate the chemicals as hazardous substances, to allow the agency to fine polluters.
  • Review past decisions on PFAS that may have been too lenient. 
  • Increase monitoring and research efforts, and strengthen clean-up policies for existing pollutants.

According to a 2016 study by Harvard researchers, North Carolina was among the states with the largest number of areas found to contain PFAS in drinking water.

And as NC Policy Watch reported Monday, recent studies conducted by researchers at NC State University found PFAS in foam that washed up on the NC coast and coastal waterways, including spots at Oak Island, Southport, and along the Cape Fear River.

The new measures were proposed by a commission Regan formed this spring to look at the best way forward under existing laws. The EPA will enforce the provisions under the Clean Water Act, the Superfund law and others. 

“These actions are critical, but they are not enough,” Regan said. “Every level of government, from local to state to tribal to federal will need to exercise increased and sustained leadership to ensure that we protect the American people.”

Regan acknowledged that the EPA’s moves under the Trump administration left many environmental advocates wondering if the agency could be trusted.

“So many communities have been let down before, time and time again,” he said. “You’re tired of us sounding the alarm. You’re tired of worrying. You’re tired of feeling like no one is listening.”

He added: “One thing that I’ve learned throughout my career is that trust must be earned.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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