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How a settlement with chemical companies could help southeast Ohio fight ‘forever chemicals'

The Washington Works plant sits in Parkersburg, WV in 2014.
The Washington Works plant sits in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 2014. The plant was the center of a lawsuit alleging the company knowingly contaminated the Ohio River with forever chemicals.

Dupont Chemicals, and two other chemical companies, reached a settlement with the state of Ohio last week. The companies will pay $110 million to repair seven decades of environmental damage from the Teflon plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the other side of the Ohio River.

The lawsuit accused the company of contaminating the river with a so-called ‘forever chemical’, known as PFOA or C8. The chemicals are toxic and don’t break down in the environment. Marietta College’s Director of Environmental Science Eric Fitch said the impact of the production of PFOA at Washington Works plastics factory has been far-reaching.

“[The chemical is] pretty much in every water source in the area, especially all the surface water sources, but even some groundwater,” he said.

Decades of damage

Ohio was the first state to legally challenge Dupont for its use of forever chemicals. But, it’s just one of thousands of lawsuits that have been filed against the manufacturer for its alleged contamination.

PFOAS can cause a host of health concerns. The chemicals are linked to increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol. In 2017, Dupont and Chemours, a Dupont spin-off, agreed to pay $670 million to individuals suing over water contamination, including some residents of southeast Ohio.

“Some of those people have won their cases against the companies,” he said. “We know that it has affected individuals, we know that it is something that we desperately want to limit the exposure from.”

The settlement

The pending settlement will create an environmental restoration fund. About 80% of the funds will go toward addressing pollution from the Washington Works plant. Fitch predicts that could look like removing the PFOA from sediments adjacent to the factory along the Ohio River.

“Sediments are good targets of opportunity because they're stabilized … and you're able to get to them in a fairly concentrated form, and pull them out before they can be distributed through water and air further into the environment,” Fitch said.

Another 16% will go toward damage from firefighting foam, containing forever chemicals, that was used for decades at Ohio air bases. The final 4% will go toward mitigating damages to natural resources.

Environmental remediation

Remediation of forever chemicals is expensive and challenging. Federal governmental agencies are still doing research on the impact of PFOA and other forever chemicals – how they spread through the environment and what regulations are necessary. Fitch said much is still unknown about the technology needed to clean-up these chemicals.

“A lot of these chemicals are biologically active down to the levels of ‘parts per million’,” Fitch said. “If you're looking at pulling out a part per million in volume of air, or water, that's difficult to do.”

Plus, funding for this technology can be hard to come by. Many Ohio public water systems are struggling to get rid of the chemicals. While $100 million will help southeast Ohio to remove some of the toxic pollutants, Fitch said the issue is far from solved.

“When you release a chemical to the environment, there are many times there's simply no way of getting it back,” he said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.