Earlier this year, state and federal researchers reported finding a new, potentially dangerous chemical in soil samples from multiple locations in New Jersey. The compound was a form of PFAS, a group of more than 5,000 chemicals that has raised concerns in recent years because of their potential link to learning delays in children and cancer, as well as their tendency to last in the environment for a long time.

But the new revelations, reported in the June issue of Science magazine, stoked concerns among water-quality researchers and advocacy groups for other reasons, too. It underscored how easy it is for manufacturers to phase out their use of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) once the substances have been regulated, and replace them with newer, related compounds that researchers know even less about. And it showed how difficult it is for regulators to track and oversee these new compounds.

The authors of the Science report, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), identified the West Deptford, N.J., plant of a company called Solvay Specialty Polymers USA, a division of the Belgian chemical giant Solvay S.A., as the likely source of the contamination.

Solvay, in a statement to CR, denies it’s responsible.

But Solvay has been cited by the New Jersey DEP in the past for contamination of soil and water with an older, now-regulated PFAS compound. And the company has used a replacement PFAS at the facility for years, despite having not implemented an official way for regulators or independent researchers to analyze whether the new compound is present in the environment, according to documents obtained by Consumer Reports through a public records request.

Through that request, CR sought documents and communications between Solvay and the agency that were related to the chemicals identified in the Science study, and received more than 240 pages of filings that highlight the company’s use of a PFAS replacement at its facility.

The records shed light on the struggle that regulators in New Jersey face in identifying the environmental risks posed at the Solvay plant, as well as the ongoing debate between both sides over how to remediate the company’s substitute compound and limit new types of PFAS from being used in the future.

The New Jersey DEP tells CR it believes Solvay is using “one or more” of the replacement compounds identified in the Science study at the company’s facility. The replacements are “expected to have toxicity” and other properties similar to currently regulated PFAS compounds, the agency says. The DEP declined to answer questions about whether Solvay’s replacement compounds have been detected in public water supplies.

“The DEP will continue to use the best science available to evaluate emerging contaminants to protect New Jersey’s public health and environment,” the DEP says.

Environmental and health advocates say that because it takes years to assess the risk of chemicals like Solvay’s new substitute, PFAS should be regulated as a group, with new compounds subject to the same regulations as previously identified ones.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, objects to that idea, saying that each compound is different, so the compounds should be regulated individually.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization, says that approach is impractical and unnecessary. “We don’t want to continue on this toxic treadmill,” he says, “where one PFAS chemical is phased out only to be replaced by one of literally thousands of others that have similar chemical structures and can reasonably be expected to pose similar environmental and health risks.”

A sign for the chemical company Solvay.
Photo: AP

A Fraught History

Until 2010, Solvay had used a PFAS compound at its New Jersey manufacturing facility called PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), which preliminary research indicates may be linked to immune system and liver problems. A year earlier, New Jersey’s DEP detected the contaminant in public water supplies in Paulsboro, a community near the plant. The New Jersey DEP now attributes continued PFNA contamination around the facility to Solvay.

The company retained a licensed remediation expert to assess that claim, and says it has spent more than $25 million in the process. In April, the company told the DEP that it remains committed to investigating and remediating PFNA impacts attributed to the West Deptford facility, according to records obtained by CR.

But the company steadfastly denies responsibility for all PFNA contamination. In an April 21 letter to the DEP, Solvay alleges the department has maintained a “long-held erroneous belief” that the company is responsible for all PFNA contamination near its facility, and points to what it says are other possible nearby sources, including a former manufacturing site and a fire-training academy that uses firefighting foam, a known source of PFAS.

“DEP has yet to act on this information, either to investigate and remediate these PFAS discharges itself, or to require the dischargers to do so,” the company claims.

The DEP declined to comment about Solvay’s claim. But the agency has previously said Solvay’s science does not support the conclusion that alternative sources are to blame for PFNA contamination.

In 2018, New Jersey adopted strict limits on how much PFNA can be present in drinking water. And a year later, the state directed multiple companies, including Solvay, to address PFAS contamination in the state. The state claims in the directive that Solvay knew it was discharging “large amounts” of PFNA into the environment from the facility at least as early as 1991. The company, the state alleges, “knew or should have known of the adverse effects of PFNA exposure” because an industry group of which it is a member had conducted toxicology studies in the 2000s.

The Next Struggle

While New Jersey and Solvay continue to battle over the company’s history with PFNA, state regulators are actively working to assess the risk of Solvay’s replacement PFAS and to set conditions for its use.

New Jersey asked Solvay last December to cover costs for investigating the safety of its replacement PFAS (referred to as “Solvay’s product”) and how to remediate it, according to the April letter Solvay sent to the DEP. The company balked.

The reason? No official remediation standards for the new compound are yet approved, the company says, so it cannot be legally required to pay for the work. Nor has the state approved an official analytical method to detect the compound in environmental samples.

“Companies that manufacture and produce PFAS compounds should be required to both develop sensitive methods for detecting their compounds in the environment and provide analytical standards to researchers.”
Dave Andrews, senior scientist, Environmental Working Group

The dispute puts the state in a tough predicament: How can it approve a testing method or remediation standard for a compound it knows little about?

Dave Andrews, senior scientist at the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, doesn’t think determining the methodology should be the state’s job. Andrews co-authored a June letter on PFAS regulations to the journal Environmental Science & Technology, arguing that PFAS compounds should be managed as a class.

“Companies that manufacture and produce PFAS compounds should be required to both develop sensitive methods for detecting their compounds in the environment and provide analytical standards to researchers,” he says.

Solvay tells CR it’s currently working with a lab to develop analytical methodologies for testing its replacement compound.

More recently, after meeting with New Jersey’s DEP to discuss how to develop methods for determining the safety of Solvay’s PFAS replacement and to test for those compounds in the environment, Solvay proposed a legally binding judicial decree to address the use of its replacement PFAS, the April 2020 letter says.

New Jersey declined Solvay’s offer, writing in a June 22 letter that the company failed to detail “concrete steps Solvay is willing to take to proactively and aggressively bring itself into compliance with New Jersey’s environmental laws and standards.”

“Unfortunately,” the letter says, “while the Department appreciates Solvay’s efforts, the response lacks a specificity of commitment to convince the Department that further active negotiations will be fruitful.”

Among other things, the state says Solvay refused to address contamination of public and private water supplies that the DEP determined were affected by the company’s PFAS compounds, how to eliminate and dispose of PFAS discharges, and whether it would agree to conditions to introduce new replacement compounds going forward.

Andrews, at the Environmental Working Group, says that the state’s response indicates it “is unwilling to allow Solvay to walk away from the mess they created and must take significant action, including paying for cleanup of contamination already in the environment and the elimination of future contamination.”

Solvay says it can’t comment on its discussions with the state. “However, Solvay continues to respond to information requests by NJDEP and fully intends to maintain an active and ongoing dialogue with the Department, as we have since 2013,” the company says. It also says that it has provided toxicology reports and safety data on the replacement product to the New Jersey DEP and the EPA for review.

The New Jersey DEP declined to release that data to CR, citing state law that prohibits the release of records deemed trade secrets. And a spokesperson for the EPA says it has no such studies from Solvay, which didn’t respond to requests for comment on the apparent discrepancy.

A Call for Transparency

Consumers can try to address PFAS contamination in their home by having their drinking water tested, installing a reverse osmosis water filter if PFAS is found, and avoiding products—such as stain-resistant fabrics, microwave popcorn bags, and nonstick cooking pans—known to contain the compounds.

But experts say that because only regulators and industry have insight into the potential risks of Solvay’s product—or any new PFAS replacement—consumers should demand that relevant information be publicly disclosed, not kept guarded as a company “trade secret.”

“Information related to chemical risk should not be held as confidential business information,” says Alissa Cordner, co-director of the PFAS Project at Northeastern University in Boston.

The New Jersey DEP says that Solvay has claimed that all documents pertaining to its PFAS replacement are “confidential business information.” But the agency has notified Solvay that it “does not believe certain information” provided by the company qualifies for that status. As both sides sort through Solvay’s ongoing confidentiality requests in private, the DEP remains prevented from releasing additional documents to CR.

Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy, says that if Solvay has toxicology and safety data on the new product, the company should release it for independent researchers to review.

“From a public health standpoint, Solvay has an obligation to be as transparent as possible,” Ronholm says. “Any attempts to deflect the issue should put consumers on alert.”

There’s always an alternative option: New Jersey regulations (PDF) allow for the immediate release of the safety records—as long as Solvay consents to disclosure.

But the company didn’t respond to questions from CR about whether it would agree to release the information. CR has appealed the DEP’s withholding of the safety data.

“The availability of so many substitute PFAS chemicals creates a significant burden for regulators,” Ronholm says. “That’s why it’s imperative for them to be aggressive in holding companies accountable.”