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As big businesses pay billions for PFAS contamination, startups empower a pollution-free future

a river winds through grass, trees, and hills
Image Credit: Kadir Celep // Unsplash

Just two months ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever nationwide limits on how much toxic PFAS, aka forever chemicals, industries could discharge. As the EPA continues to take steps to make this proposal concrete, public water systems are taking matters into their own hands.

Last Friday, the nation’s top chemical firms settled with these systems, which serve the majority of the U.S. population, to pay $1.19 billion in liability claims days before they were set to go on trial in South Carolina for PFAS contamination.

These firms are Dupont and two of its spin-offs Chemours and Corteva. These companies are all a branch of DuPontd e Nemours, Inc, a multinational chemical company that has been the source of pollution for decades, as well as the defendant and multiple court cases concerning PFAS contamination, especially in the Southeast United States.

Some notable cases include multiple lawsuits over illnesses in the ‘80s, and when it was sued in 2005 for dumping millions of chemicals into the air and Ohio River, despite knowing since 1961 that PFAS, the toxic byproduct of its chemical manufacturing, could cause liver damage.

Now, not only are they settling personal injury claims but the contamination of natural resources.

On top of that, another multinational conglomerate, 3M has also made recent headlines for PFAS contamination and is in the middle of a landmark trial that could set a precedent for who is on the hook for PFAS in American drinking water and who will pay to get rid of it.

While most recently the judge has delayed the trial, brought on by the Florida city of Stuart, Bloomberg reported on Friday that 3M struck a tentative deal to pay U.S. cities and towns $10 billion to resolve its water pollution lawsuits. However, this is a small piece of the $143 billion hit the company could take for cleanup alone, according to estimates by financial research firm CreditSights.

The 3M headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota // Creative Commons image

These chemical companies are seeing a string of bad luck. Just last week, days before the U.S. cases, 3M, DuPont, and other companies agreed to pay more than $100 million to settle a PFAS suit by the city of Rome, Georgia. Still, this was only a third of what the city demanded pollution that the EPA says can cause developmental delays in children and increase cancer risks.

According to the authorities in Georgia, like the Dupont cases, 3M and other PFAS-polluting manufacturers knew for decades the compounding environmental and health damages their contamination could cause, but continued to rake in billions of dollars despite poisoning the cities their plants exist in and not informing the residents.

Now, tech can help expedite the cleanups and ultimately render forever chemicals a remnant of the past.

New solutions for PFAS destruction are on the horizon. Previously, they have been destroyed via incineration but the Defense Department halted the practice last year over concerns of how much the burning actually kills. Thus the technological race to create a solution could become the next multibillion-dollar industry in the climate fight.

It would be a multibillion-dollar industry becomes PFAS are in a litany of products from firefighting foams, medical devices, and electronics, to dental floss, clothes, and cosmetics. It’s even the thing that makes nonstick cookware nonstick.

The chemical bond of PFAS is hard to break, but some companies just might’ve cracked the code.

In North Carolina, where Dupont was previously sued, the state is deploying incentives to get PFAS out of its water and is awarding some $1.6 million to the Australian company EPOC Enviro to do just that. The firm says it will create over 200 average-paying $64,000 jobs in the region and invest $4 million in the facility. The initiative also brings community college training on top of the PFAS cleanup. The company stands to reap tax incentives benefits if the job and environmental targets are hit.

The North Carolina project, which launched in April, is the company's first move to the U.S.

With the new EPA guidelines, and their system recognized as a proven, practical solution, EPOC Enviro President, Pete Murphy said, "There has never been a better ‘right time right place’ moment to expand our manufacturing into the USA."

Image Credit: EPOC Enviro

EPOC, which stands for Emerging Pollutants of Concern, is part of a group of three other companies — Heritage-Crystal Clean, Revive Environmental, and Allonnia — who formed the group with the genius name 4never, to deploy what representatives call the first full-scale and closed-loop PFAS destruction solution in the U.S.

Led by Illinois-based Heritage-Crystal Clean, 4never combines the technologies of all four companies to help landfill operators and manufacturers improve their sustainability footprint by removing and destroying PFAS, using Allonia’s aptly named PFAS Annihilator before they even have the chance to enter local municipal wastewater treatment systems. Last month they began plans to bring their first facility to West Michigan.

Another state taking PFAS destruction into its own hands is Minnesota which is partnering with an engineering firm to investigate ways to destroy ‘forever chemicals.’ The state is already using a machine that sucks PFAS out of contaminated groundwater by repeatedly stirring the groundwater into a foam, where the chemicals tend to gather.

But the cost of this tech is high, so they are not only partnering with the firm AECOM to investigate new technological methods through a $500,000 pilot study launched in February, but the state is rife with innovation.

Minneapolis-based Claros Technologies is commercializing tech invented at the University of Minnesota. Its solution is to work with a variety of presently available methods, to find the most effective and cost-effective way to destroy PFAS in a particular site, which works in tandem with its Elemental Destruction technology that breaks down PFAS with a zap of UV light and other chemical additives. Together, the startup says the strategy allows for the safe reuse of wastewater.

“Each process has its own limitation,” John Brockgreitens, Director of Research and Development at Claros Technologies, said in a recent interview. “There are 12,000 different kinds of PFAS and no great silver bullet.”

And while the solution begins with cleaning up PFAS and getting it out of drinking water, it doesn’t end there. 3M itself announced in December that it would stop producing PFAS in its portfolio products by 2025, as legal and regulatory measures rise. Beyond treating waste and contamination, getting the things we need without PFAS is what will ultimately solve the last mile of the issue.

“Direct discharge is a big issue, but PFAS is used in food packaging, cookware, clothing, and many other items so when you throw those items away in a landfill, you get an emission. These chemicals are very persistent,” Brockgreitens said, “you can get PFAS contamination coming out of municipal water or sewage from people washing non-stick pans in the sink or clothes in a washing machine.”

Still, with its technology, Claros hopes to be one player in a water reuse circular economy where this is no longer an issue.


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