The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it has taken its first-ever Clean Water Act enforcement action against water pollution by so-called “forever chemicals” from a West Virginia chemical plant. EPA is ordering Chemours Co., owner of Washington Works near Parkersburg, to take action aimed at reducing the levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances the facility discharges into the Ohio River.

The substances, known as PFAS, are synthetic chemicals that take a long time to break down, according to EPA. Studies have linked exposure to some PFAS to harmful health effects.

“The Parkersburg community has a long history with this facility and the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution," Adam Ortiz, EPA’s Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said in a statement. “This order demonstrates that EPA will take action to safeguard public health and the environment from these dangerous contaminants.” 

The order requires Chemours to implement a sampling plan to better understand the presence of PFAS in stormwater and waste discharged from Washington Works. Then, the company must submit and implement a plan to treat or minimize PFAS discharges in compliance with permitted limits.

“We worked with EPA to agree to a consent decree and will continue to take action to address the legacy deposition that have contributed to many of the exceedances,” Thom Sueta, a spokesperson for Chemours, said in a statement.

Chemours has a permit from the West Virginia Dept. of Environmental Protection to discharge industrial process water and stormwater into the Ohio River and its tributaries. However, EPA says the levels of some PFAS in those discharges exceed allowable amounts on various dates between September 2018 and March 2023. 

Washington Works produces chemicals Chemours says are used in the manufacturing of items including semiconductors and lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, as well as in hydrogen production. The company “is committed to manufacturing its products responsibly,” Sueta said. 

EPA has been ramping up its efforts to address PFAS pollution. Last month, the agency proposed a rule to create a national drinking water standard for six PFAS including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and HFPO Dimer Acid (known as GenX)—both found at Washington Works. EPA also issued an advanced rulemaking notice this month for a proposal to expand the number of PFAS eligible for cleanup under the Superfund law.

Contamination from the Washington Works site has been an ongoing issue for environmental regulators. EPA issued a corrective action for releases of hazardous material to Chemours’ corporate predecessor, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, in 1989, and the company completed construction of an engineered cap system in 2012.

In 2018, Ohio officials filed a lawsuit against DuPont and Chemours over PFOA released into the Ohio River. That case is still ongoing. Kentucky, which also sits downstream on the Ohio River from Washington Works, filed its own suit against the companies over PFOAs last month. DuPont and its spinoff companies, including Chemours, set up a $4-billion escrow account in 2021 to cover PFAS-related liabilities.