The Clean Energy Future: How We Get There Matters

In the midst of global efforts to clean up and eliminate the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”), Chemours is doubling down on manufacturing these toxic “forever” chemicals. In September 2022, Chemours announced plans to expand its Fayetteville Works plant in Cumberland County, NC. Nearby communities, who are already suffering from the impacts from contamination resulting from this plant, are raising the alarm and questioning the company’s claims that the expansion will bring “no overall” increase in PFAS pollution and is needed to transition into a “clean, sustainable future.”

"Why should people who are struggling in this economy foot the bill for the polluters that bore the entire responsibility? In no way, shape, form, or fashion should hard-working people pay for something we had no fault in causing. If such policies are allowed, then we the people will forever be subject to what the selfish Corporate polluters may bestow upon us."

- Derrick Anderson, Wilmington, NC resident

A section of the Cape Fear River near Raven Rock State Park.

Blipperman via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

A long history of pollution

PFAS are a class of thousands of man made chemicals that are extremely difficult to break down, and have contaminated our air, water, land, food and bodies. PFAS are linked to multiple health risks including, cancer, kidney and liver damage, and immune system disruption.

Fayetteville, N.C. is infamous for the presence  of poisonous, next-generation PFAS–including GenX, Hydro-Eve and Nafion byproducts–in its local environment and drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people who live in and visit the area. The widespread contamination is a result of DuPont and its spinoff company, Chemours, having released PFAS from the Fayetteville Works plant for more than four decades. Unfortunately, these next-generation PFAS are just as persistent and similarly toxic as the chemicals they were meant to replace.

Let’s first put Chemours' promises about pollution control into context. Upon the discovery of widespread PFAS pollution in Fayetteville and the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, it took community organizing, bad press, and North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) revoking the facility’s discharge permit in order to stop continuous manufactured releases of PFAS into the Cape Fear River. It also took a legal consent order to force Chemours to address private well contamination in the surrounding region. Even with the consent order, the pollution continues, and Chemours has received multiple violations from NCDEQ. Further, the true scope of groundwater contamination is still being revealed five years after this contamination crisis was made public. 

While there have been significant reductions in PFAS levels in the Cape Fear River, the history and long-lasting impact of contamination in these communities remains unaddressed. PFAS lingers in the water, environment, and bodies of North Carolinians. The community’s levels of exposure are far beyond the national average and any further PFAS exposure would not be considered safe, especially in light of the new health advisory for GenX at 10 parts per trillion (ppt) and the interim advisories for PFOA and PFOS at 0.004 and 0.02 ppt.

“We did not consent to the poisoning of our bodies, air, soil, water, and food supply. We believe Chemours and DuPont knowingly did this for nearly forty years. At a minimum, we deserve no exposures from that Fayetteville Works facility for the next forty years,”

Emily Donovan, co-founder of the grassroots community group Clean Cape Fear in NC

We need a clean AND healthy energy future

Chemours is also justifying its expansion at the Fayetteville Works plant by making claims that its chemistries are critical for transitioning into the “clean, sustainable future” needed to address climate change. However, these claims are difficult to evaluate due to a general lack of transparency on where and how PFAS are used in consumer and industrial products.

This “critical chemistries” narrative has already been called into question in other sectors that rely on PFAS. For example, PFAS were seen to be critical ingredients in aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) for firefighting. Time and again, people were told that PFAS in AFFF were safe and that fire fighting foams could not be made without PFAS. Yet, when pushed, industry was able to deliver better alternatives. There are now many PFAS-free foams available and in use, including some that are GreenScreen certified. The threat PFAS poses to public health and the environment warrants a similar challenge to the “critical chemistries” narrative being used for technologies involved in moving us towards a clean energy future.

A clean and sustainable energy future is critical for addressing climate change, but how we get there matters. We should not be polluting people and places in the name of addressing climate change. We need, and are capable of, developing innovative solutions that will help us reach climate goals without poisoning communities, including a clean energy future that doesn’t depend on toxic forever chemicals.

About the Authors

Katie Pelch

Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Anna Reade

Senior Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.