A chemical company operating in West Deptford said it has begun testing public water supplies for PFCs, a potentially carcinogenic class of chemicals that has been previously detected there, in an effort to find the source of the contamination.
The announcement by Solvay Solexis came days after officials in nearby Paulsboro said they had found radium exceeding the federal health standard in the public water supply, and had shut down a well where it had occurred, albeit some nine months after the contamination was first detected.
A state Department of Environmental Protection official played down the radium report, saying it was a minor technical violation, while an environmentalist argued that it showed residents had been exposed to an elevated risk of cancer and that state and local officials had failed to stop the contamination immediately when it was discovered.
The reports underline concern about air and water contamination in and around Paulsboro, where officials have found New Jersey’s highest recorded level of PFNA — a subset of PFCs — and where factories, port facilities and a refinery represent a cluster of potential pollution sources. Contamination concerns intensified with the spill of toxic vinyl chloride from a derailed freight train in November 2012.
In West Deptford, Solvay said it has started an “extensive voluntary technical investigation” into whether PFCs are contaminating public water systems near its plant, whether the chemicals are polluting surface water and sediments near the Delaware River, and whether groundwater monitoring wells are being affected.
The company said it is taking samples from public water-supply systems near the plant, from surface water and sediments in selected locations near the Delaware River; and from some groundwater monitoring wells. It will also monitor airborne PFC emissions from the plant.
State officials have said that Solvay is the likely source of contamination.
Plant manager Geoff Pass said in a statement that the company is “committed to getting it done as quickly as possible in coordination with NJDEP and our local community so that we can better understand the current situation, possible causes and appropriate follow-up steps.”
The company, which produces materials used in architectural coatings, plastic parts manufacturing and automotive applications, said it eliminated PFNA from its West Deptford operation in 2010, and participates in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program to cut the chemical in waste streams by 95 percent.
PFCs, used in household products such as Teflon, and industrial applications like lubricants and pesticides, can cause testicular and kidney cancer, as well as increased cholesterol in humans, and are linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animals, according to Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that is campaigning against the use of the chemicals.
In August, DRN called on the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct a public health investigation into PFNA and other PFCs released from the Solvay site.
The possibility that PFCs have contaminated public water supplies with cancer-causing agents is worrying the Township of West Deptford, which is considering conducting an independent investigation, said Samuel Cianfarini, a township committeeman.
“We just want to get where the truth is,” Cianfarini told NJ Spotlight.
He said Solvay appears to be “doing what it can” to identify the pollution source but is hindered by the lack of formal standards establishing safe limits for PFCs. The standards, known as Maximum Contaminant Limits, or MCLs, are set by state or federal governments for many potentially toxic substances.
“I’m concerned that the DEP doesn’t have MCLs for these chemicals,” Cianfarini said. “Can you really expect corporations to do something that even your government agencies have not established standards for?”
According to Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper, such limits could have been established by the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a statutory panel that advises the state DEP, but which has not met since 2010 because, she said, it was “shut down” by the Christie administration.
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, denied the DWQI had been shut down. In fact, he said, it had not worked for the last three years because some of its 11 members dropped out, and that they were not replaced because officials were preoccupied with the long-term emergency created by Sandy and other storms.
The panel is now awaiting new members, including three due to be appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, and is expected to resume its work by the end of 2013, Ragonese said.
Meanwhile, there is a federal MCL for two kinds of radium found in a Paulsboro water well, and officials are working to bring that back down to within the legal limit.
In late October, the city’s water department issued a notice saying that the two isotopes, Combined Radium 226 and 228, were first found to violate the MCL for drinking water on January 15, and that the levels rose further in later tests on April 9 and July 16.
The first sample reported by the department registered 5.91 pC/L in January – above the official limit of 5 — rising to 6.67 in April, and 7.11 in July.
The contamination was coming from one well, which was shut down on Sept. 30, according to the notice.
The department said the discovery of the violations does not constitute an emergency, and that there is no need to boil water or take any other corrective action.
But, echoing the advice of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the notice said that some people who drink water containing the elements above the MCL over “many years” have an increased risk of getting cancer. Anyone with specific health concerns should see a doctor, the city said.
Officials are working on a plan to add manganese to the affected well in an effort to bring down radium levels to within the official limit of 5 picoCuries per liter, said John Daly, supervisor of the Paulsboro Water Department.
Ragonese of the DEP called the radium results “a very minor technical violation of naturally occurring radium, and not a significant health risk.”
He argued that the EPA’s maximum contaminant limit was based on the projection that one in 10,000 people would have an elevated risk of getting cancer after being exposed to radium above the limit over their lifetime, or 70 years.
Asked why the DEP didn’t require the well to be shut down after being informed of the first violation in January, Ragonese said that such action would not have been justified by the marginal nature of the reading. If the samples had shown radium at “300 or 3,000”, the DEP would have required the well to be shutdown immediately, he said.
“It’s not uncommon at all for slight radium spikes,” Ragonese said.
But DRN’s Carluccio insisted that the readings represent a serious violation.
“EPA has published findings that 1 in 10,000 people will get fatal cancer from chronic exposure of over 5 pC per liter of water,” she wrote in an email. “So it is a health risk to exceed the 5 limit and to allow the limit to be exceeded for many months exposed people who drink the water in Paulsboro to an elevated risk of getting fatal cancer.”
Since the violations were allowed to continue for some nine months, “it sounds as if someone was asleep at the wheel, including DEP, who is supposed to stay on top of contamination incidents like these,” Carluccio said.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.