​The headquarters of Chemours Company is seen on October 11, 2021.

The headquarters of Chemours Company is seen on October 11, 2021.

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

North Carolina Group Asks UN to Probe Chemical Company's PFAS Pollution

Local residents have accused Chemours of violating their human rights by discharging "forever chemicals" into the Cape Fear River watershed.

A citizen-led organization in North Carolina on Thursday asked the United Nations to investigate several alleged human rights violations related to the release of "forever chemicals" from Fayetteville Works, a manufacturing plant previously owned by DuPont and now owned by a spin-off company called Chemours.

Roughly half a million people live in the Cape Fear River basin between Wilmington and Fayetteville, where the Chemours-owned facility has produced per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for more than four decades, poisoning the region's air, soil, and water and undermining public health in the process.

In a letter to U.N. Special Rapporteur Marcos Orellana, Clean Cape Fear and the University of California at Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic wrote that due to chronic exposure to "dangerous quantities" of PFAS, area residents are facing an "environmental human rights crisis."

PFAS are a class of hazardous synthetic compounds widely called "forever chemicals" because they persist in humans, animals, and ecosystems for years on end. Scientists have linked long-term human exposure to PFAS—used in dozens of everyday household products, including ostensibly "green" and "nontoxic" children's items, as well as firefighting foam—to numerous adverse health outcomes, including cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, immune system damage, and other negative effects.

"Incredibly—and without meaningfully redressing past and ongoing harm from its toxic air emissions and discharges into the Cape Fear River, and the resulting widespread contamination of local drinking water—facility owner Chemours now proposes to expand its production of PFAS," says the letter. "Pursuant to your mandate under Human Rights Council Resolution 36/6, we seek your urgent intervention to actualize local residents' human rights to safe drinking water, bodily integrity, health, a life with dignity, and an environment free from toxic contamination."

As The Guardian reported Friday, Clean Cape Fear and the Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic are asking Orellana to "pressure regulators to stop the Fayetteville Works expansion, ensure clean water in the region, conduct an epidemiological study, hold Chemours financially responsible for cleanup and ban the entire PFAS for non-essential uses, among other measures."

According to the newspaper:

If the U.N. human rights commission chooses to investigate, a special rapporteur would fact-check the allegations in the communication, then issue "pointed" allegation letters to regulators, Chemours, and other culpable parties detailing problems and posing questions, said Claudia Polsky, director of UC Berkeley Law Clinic.

Businesses and governments would have a chance to respond, and usually do, Polsky said. International law is not legally binding, but the process would "put recipients on the defensive" and provide a platform on which the region's compelling human rights violation narrative is told "to the world at large," Polsky said. That would put tremendous pressure on the government to act, she added.

"It’s not just words in the wind," Polsky said, adding that it can also "provide cover and give backbone to agencies to do things they may want to do, but feel browbeaten by industry."

Researchers first documented pervasive PFAS pollution throughout the area in 2017. Inhabitants of the region are "in disbelief that we are still living with this," said Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan, who resides near Wilmington.

"We're nearly six years into this and my kids still go to a school that has water with high levels of PFAS," she added. "Everyone is aware of the problem... and is outraged, and we're all asking, 'Why is this still going on?'"

According to the group's letter to Orellana, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality "are also, through regulatory timidity and enforcement half-measures, responsible for acquiescing in past and ongoing human rights violations."

"The pervasive toxification of human bodies and the ecosystem of the lower Cape Fear River watershed with PFAS that persist essentially forever lends particular urgency to controlling these toxics at their source," the letter states.

The U.N. human rights commission has yet to probe an environmental crisis in the United States. A 2021 investigation of forever chemical pollution in Veneto, Italy, "inspired" Clean Cape Fear to take the step, Donovan told The Guardian.

"There's a lack of accountability," said Donovan, "so we'll ask anyone who is willing to help, and we thought, 'Maybe that's the kind of leverage that we need.'"

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