EPA targets plastics company in PFAS probe

By E.A. Crunden, Ariel Wittenberg | 01/05/2023 01:34 PM EST

Illustration with plastic bottles and PFAS chemical compound

Claudine Hellmuth/POLITICO (illustration); National Academies Press (chemical compounds); Fertnig/iStock (pesticide bottles); Freepik (green bottle)

EPA and environmental groups are targeting a company for allegedly releasing “forever chemicals” into tens of millions of plastic containers that later contaminated pesticides, which the agency said poses “unreasonable” risks to workers and the environment.

At the center of both an EPA complaint and an environmental group lawsuit is Inhance Technologies, an obscure Houston-based company whose facilities across multiple states blast plastic packaging from other manufacturers with fluorine gas in an effort to make those products more durable and resilient. But the company has a long history of environmental and labor complaints, according to an E&E News review of documents obtained via public records requests.

Now, Inhance is under fire for its links to contamination of PFAS, a class of chemicals tied to serious health impacts. Last month, a pair of advocacy groups sued Inhance while EPA similarly filed a complaint against the company for violating the Toxic Substances Control Act. Both legal actions followed testing conducted two years ago that found PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in pesticide products stored in plastic containers that had been treated by Inhance.

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Though EPA and the environmental groups are both targeting Inhance, advocates with the Center for Environmental Health and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility say they have been deeply frustrated by the slow pace of government action against the company. They remain concerned about EPA’s approach, even as the Biden administration has said tackling PFAS pollution is a top priority. The groups hope the simultaneous legal actions will ensure the federal government holds Inhance accountable for the contamination it has allegedly caused.

“I’m not convinced that EPA is going to correctly handle this,” said Kyla Bennett, who directs science policy for PEER. “To be honest, I don’t think they would have done anything before we said something.”

EPA spokesperson Melissa Sullivan said via email that the agency “does not comment on ongoing enforcement matters.”

In a statement, Inhance Technologies said the company “believes we have been, and continue to be, in full compliance with all relevant regulations and regulatory guidance and are operating safely, responsibly and lawfully.”

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, EPA’s complaint alleges that Inhance’s practices “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to the health of individuals exposed to its products, the employees and workers involved in the manufacturing process at Inhance, and the environment.” Further, EPA asserts that Inhance “has and continues” to violate the TSCA.

Moreover, EPA alleges that Inhance has consistently engaged in “significant new uses” of chemicals, flouting legal obligations to disclose those actions to regulators. Closing loopholes in significant new use rules has been a priority of the Biden administration, which has said it plans to virtually shut off such approvals for PFAS after senior officials were accused of tampering with the rule during the Trump administration (Greenwire, July 7, 2022).

But EPA’s legal filing against Inhance is somewhat opaque, with plentiful redactions to protect “confidential business information.” It does not disclose the name of the chemicals at issue but says that “scientific studies have linked exposure to [redacted] with a range of adverse health impacts on humans and animals and harm to the environment.”

That information with critical public health implications would be redacted in the name of protecting a polluting company is a red flag for PEER and CEH, which noted that EPA’s legal action came only after the groups gave notice that they intended to sue as well.

‘They are making a lot of PFAS compounds’

The lawsuit from PEER and CEH, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, zeroes in on allegations that Inhance has generated PFAS during its fluorination process.

Those allegations first came to light in December 2020, when testing by PEER showed PFAS were leaching into a widely used pesticide, Anvil 10+10, which is used for mosquito control. Along with other compounds, those findings revealed the presence of PFOA, which has been linked to cancer and multiple other health problems including weakened immune systems. That compound is already being targeted under Superfund law, with EPA similarly planning drinking water regulations due to alarm over its health implications (Greenwire, Aug. 26, 2022).

Massachusetts regulators later confirmed those results (Greenwire, March 5, 2021). And further tests by both EPA and independent researchers at the University of Notre Dame have shown PFOA and a number of other PFAS in containers fluorinated by Inhance.

Neither EPA nor the advocacy groups allege in their lawsuits that Inhance Technologies is purposely adding PFAS to packaging it fluorinates. Rather, they say, PFAS are created as a byproduct of the fluorination process.

Fluorination facilities are home to large reactors that are loaded with plastic containers before being pumped with elemental fluorine at elevated temperatures. A chemist who once worked for Inhance Technologies and requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about the company’s practices told E&E News that the process is intended to replace hydrogen atoms on the plastic with fluorine atoms in order to create an impermeable barrier.

But, the source said, while the reactors are meant to be vacuum-sealed to prevent oxygen and moisture from entering the chamber during the fluorination process, it is nearly impossible to do. When oxygen or moisture are present during the treatment, even in miniscule amounts, they become part of the chemical reactions taking place and lead to the formation of PFAS, including PFOA.

“Oxygen is a key ingredient to form PFAS, but there is absolutely no way they can get the oxygen out,” the chemist said. “I’m personally concerned about it because I’m sure they are making a lot of PFAS compounds. I am also concerned about these substances polluting the fluorination workplace and being discharged into the atmosphere.”

PEER and CEH said they decided to sue Inhance in order to hold EPA accountable, arguing that the agency has moved too slowly against the company and noting that regulators held “nearly two years of discussions” before taking legal action.

Indeed, internal EPA communications obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act show that regulators had been in touch with Inhance over PFAS concerns since the summer of 2021. That August, Inhance gave a presentation to EPA claiming that its fluorination actually “prevents environmental pollution” and “safeguards human health” because it blocks chemicals from escaping their packaging. The company further noted that “no PFAS is used” during fluorination.

Earlier that winter, EPA also sounded the alarmto state regulators that packaging fluorinated by Inhance Technologies could be linked to PFAS contamination.

“Because multiple products might be using fluorinated containers, including not just for pesticides, the chances are high that there are other products in fluorinated HDPE containers that might contain PFAS chemicals,” Ed Messina of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs wrote to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in February, 2021.

In a statement, Inhance said it has been cooperating with EPA’s investigation into PFAS coming off its fluorinated containers. The company stated it has contracted with “outside laboratories” to find the source of the PFAS and that “the results suggested that the potential for certain PFAS to be unintentionally produced — or impurities — that may remain with the HDPE containers.”

The company continued: “In response, Inhance Technologies developed and readily adopted process enhancements in order to reduce PFAS species down to non detectable levels.”

Inhance has, the company said, contracted with additional “independent third-party experts” to conduct “a series of exhaustive risk assessments, confirming the safety of our fluorination process for both people and the environment.”

‘Dishonest, but very smooth about it’

EPA’s current enforcement action is not the first time Inhance has run afoul of health and safety rules. A decade ago, the company was cited for violating a number of state and federal environmental and safety laws — including for operating two Texas facilities without any Clean Air Act permits, public records obtained by E&E News show.

In that case, which was settled in 2015, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the company should have sought a permit to release hydrogen fluoride into the air from a facility located in close proximity to a nursing home and elementary school.

Inhance has faced other health and safety allegations at the same Houston plant. In 2015, the company was sued by its own former director of health safety and environment, Frederick Nicholas, who claimed he was wrongfully terminated from the company for reporting violations to state regulators.

In his suit, Nicholas described emissions at the Houston plant as so uncontrolled that fluorinated plastic pellets were discharged onto the building’s roof. After reporting the issue to his superiors at the company, Nicholas alleged, he was forbidden from participating in any more permitting reviews for the company’s existing facilities. He also alleged that Inhance updated another plant in Troy, Ala., without first seeking appropriate Clean Air Act permits.

Asked about Nicholas’ claims, Inhance spokesperson Patricia van Ee noted that his lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice by a Texas court, a decision that was later upheld on appeal.

But Nicholas’ attorney at the time, Jacqueline Armstrong, told E&E News that the dismissal was based on a legal technicality in state law governing wrongful termination lawsuits — not on the merits of whether Nicholas’ safety allegations were true. She called the violations Nicholas witnessed at the company “fairly outrageous.”

“My instincts are to sink my teeth into the bad guys who are really doing harm, getting reckless and careless,” said Armstrong, who formerly worked at the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “That was my sense of these guys: They were dishonest, but very smooth about it.”

Inhance has also racked up notices of violations in other states, including for failing to submit compliance certifications and emissions inventories for a Yuma, Ariz., plant over multiple years.

In 2015, Inhance also settled a federal case with EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violating rules on using and storing anhydrous hydrogen fluoride, which is potentially toxic, at a facility in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Other facilities in Iowa and Missouri also failed to follow proper risk management protocols for storing such chemicals.

Inhance never admitted wrongdoing in that case but agreed to spend at least $180,000 on new systems at facilities in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, and an additional $59,000 civil penalty.

That case also identified worker safety violations at two facilities. Federal records of that case are unavailable under FOIA due to incomplete OSHA archives, but internal Inhance communications released as part of the Nicholas lawsuit show Nicholas informing other company officials of “OSHA complaints at 10 of 14 facilities.”

Some of those complaints included allegations that employees were entering hydrogen fluoride reaction chambers “without proper protective equipment.”

Van Ee, at Inhance, wrote in an email that the company “takes environmental safety and health regulations governing our 12 facilities in the U.S. seriously.” She called the violations found by E&E News “isolated instances” that “were not emissions related” and resolved years ago “to the satisfaction of the agencies involved.”

“All facilities owned by Inhance Technologies are and have been compliant with all emissions requirements,” she said.

A sea of redactions

Though EPA is now taking action against Inhance over PFAS contamination, advocates are not appeased.

On Thursday, PEER and CEH sent a letter to the agency, asking regulators to “give the highest priority to full public disclosure of the serious health risks of PFAS-contaminated fluorinated containers” and to make as much information about the issue available as possible.

PEER’s Bennett said the organizations were extremely concerned by how much public health information EPA redacted from its legal filings against Inhance and that the agency incorrectly labeled such details “confidential business information.”

The groups are filing a FOIA request seeking a range of documents, including “all information relating to the formation of PFAS during the fluorination of plastic containers by Inhance and exposure to PFAS during the distribution and end-use of these containers.” Among the documents they are seeking is the March 2022 notice of violation that EPA issued to Inhance.

“EPA has failed to prevent Inhance from hiding its unsafe and unlawful production of PFAS based on excessive trade secret claims,” CEH Director of Petrochemicals, Plastics & Climate Sarah Packer said. “Millions of people are unknowingly being exposed to PFAS as a result of EPA’s failure to inform the public of what it knows. The public has the right to know about these toxic hazards, and EPA has an obligation to make this information available.”

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