PAULSBORO Environmentalists are calling on the federal government to investigate their concerns that a South Jersey chemical plant may be contaminating drinking water with carcinogenic chemicals, and accusing state officials of years of inaction on the issue.
The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an advocacy group that seeks to protect the river’s watershed, says public health is threatened by the presence of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in groundwater around Paulsboro and West Deptford, where the chemical manufacturer Solvay Solexis has a factory.
The environmental group is requesting that the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conduct a public health assessment on Paulsboro’s water after what it says was the failure of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection to conduct new tests or publish results of a previous analysis of the water near the town.
As of Thursday, the federal agency had not responded to the group’s request, while the DEP said only that it has recommended that the company and the Paulsboro water department conduct their own tests.
“We turned to ATSDR because New Jersey is ignoring the problem and we need an outside investigation to provide the attention this pollution issue requires,” said Tracy Carluccio, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s deputy director.
Concerns about possible PFC contamination at Paulsboro followed the spill of toxic vinyl chloride after a freight train derailment there in November 2012, and after a local refinery started processing heavy crude oil shipped from Canada’s controversial tar sands.
Paulsboro “seems to have any major toxic chemical problem that you could find in the country,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
PFCs, used in household products such as Teflon and industrial applications such as lubricants and pesticides, can cause testicular and kidney cancer and increased cholesterol in humans, and are linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animals, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said.
The chemicals have been found in many locations throughout the state, but are at their highest in Paulsboro, about two miles from the Solvay plant, and in Salem County about six miles from a factory operated by DuPont Co.’s Chambers Works, DRN said.
A category of the chemicals, PFOAs, has been found at “low” levels throughout the state, according to the DEP, based on its most recent tests in 2009.
Those tests on 29 public water systems, its second assessment of PFCs in drinking water, have still not been published. Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the department, said the delay was due in part to the slow pace of the scientific process and to the state’s seeking guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on safe limits for PFCs. The EPA’s own provisional limit is 0.4 parts per billion, 10 times higher than the state’s mark.
Hajna said it was normal for parties other than the DEP to conduct such tests. He said DEP officials would review test results.
“We suspect that Solvay Solexis is the source,” Hajna said, but added that it was unclear how the contaminants got into the water. “We don’t know what the pathway was,” he said. “This could have happened from aerial discharge.”
Solvay spokesman Chuck Jones said the company was cooperating with DEP to investigate any contamination by PFNA, a type of PFC.
“Solvay is currently working with the department to address concerns relating to PFNA and local water supplies,” he said in a statement. “We anticipate developing a technical plan to gather more data and determine further actions as appropriate. Solvay will likewise continue to keep local authorities apprised of its progress.”
The DRN’s Carluccio said Solvay’s own sampling should be split with an outside entity, and that testing should be done by an independent body that is competent to detect the low concentrations of PFCs believed to be in Paulsboro’s water.
The delay in further testing and establishment of safe limits on the chemicals follows a three-year hiatus in the work of the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute, a statutory body that advises the department on safe drinking water limits.
That panel has not met since 2010 because it lost its chairman and several board members, Hajna said, but it is expected to resume its work in early fall to consider PFCs and other issues. Under pending legislation, the panel is due to get additional members representing industry, a change opposed by environmentalists.
In Paulsboro, some residents worry about their water, but none is so far willing to publicize concerns, Carluccio said.
“The evidence is clear that the public has been exposed and is likely still being exposed to dangerous levels of PFNA and is unaware of the potential health threats this poses,” the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said in a letter to ATSDR in August.
Despite DRN’s efforts to get the federal government involved, the group said the Department of Environmental Protection was still in a position to act on Paulsboro’s water issue.
“We really want them to do a third round of testing now for PFCs throughout the state and to focus immediately on the Solvay-affected region and the water sources there,” Carluccio said.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry did not return a phone call seeking comment on whether it will launch a public health investigation.
Paulsboro Mayor W. Jeffery Hamilton said the city’s water department would test public water supplies for PFCs “very, very soon.”
“We are very concerned about it so we are testing,” he said.
The city’s two-year-old water-treatment plant tests regularly for a variety of contaminants, Hamilton said, but those do not include PFCs because those chemicals were not listed as contaminants by the DEP and the EPA when the plant was set up.
Hamilton said he had received no complaints from residents about any health problems related to water quality.
Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.