Research & Innovation

PFAS Summit at Stevens Takes on 'Forever Chemicals'

Community leaders, researchers, agencies come together to discuss an emerging serious environmental threat and potential next steps

Environmental leaders, scientists and community leaders convened on campus June 14 to discuss the pervasive threat of PFAS “forever chemicals” in an event hosted by the Stevens Center for Sustainability (SCS) and co-chaired by SCS Director Dibs Sarkar.

Longtime Stevens corporate partner Hugo Neu sponsored the day-long forum, which spanned the gamut from science to policy to community action.

Keynote talk describes horrifying discoveries

Stevens Center for Sustainability Director Dibs Sarkar and Vice Provost for Research and Innovation Ed Synakowski kicked off the day with introductory remarks.

Synakowski applauded Stevens’ new sustainability center, created with the support of the PSEG Foundation, and its associated environmental justice scholarships and programs. He lauded the breadth of attendees at the summit.

“It really is our social responsibility to learn how to work together in a set of conditions such as the PFAS challenge presents us,” Synakowski said. “This sort of gathering is essential.”

Hugo Neu EVP for Corporate Affairs Dominique Lueckenhoff, long a partner with Stevens, then introduced keynote speaker Robert Bilott: a noted attorney who has secured major legal victories against chemical companies for known and potential damages caused by manufactured and disposed PFAS chemicals.

“How did we get here?” he asked of the growing PFAS crisis, before recounting the story of how he fell into a career as an environmental lawyer in Cincinnati and, later, a formidable foe of chemical manufacturers.

three attendees at 2024 Stevens PFAS SummitStevens Center for Sustainability Director Dibs Sarkar, Hugo Neu EVP Dominique Lueckenhoff and attorney Robert BilottPFAS first came to his attention, Bilott explained, when a West Virginia farmer noticed his cows sickened after drinking from water adjacent to a landfill — a landfill owned by DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical concerns. The culprits, scientists would eventually discover, were complex and persistent “forever chemicals” that were widely used to make products like Scotchgard, Teflon and firefighting foams — but weren’t yet being regulated.

DuPont knew the chemicals had already seeped into public water supplies, and that it posed a threat to human and environmental health. However, the company decided to conceal the information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for years. Bilott eventually reached an undisclosed settlement with DuPont for the farmer’s claim, but he didn’t stop there.

“We ended up filing a class-action lawsuit,“ he said, “and I funneled as much of this information as I could to the EPA.”

Bilott later secured a number of legal victories and comprehensive settlements to compensate victims and test water supplies, and a 2016 New York Times Magazine article reporting his work and the potential nationwide threat sparked wider interest.

The EPA, he continued, then swiftly followed with stronger regulation; the Department of Defense responded by establishing comprehensive water-sampling programs; and filmmakers began to pursue and tell the story. Bilott closed by urging continued vigilance and funding resources to test for, and clean up, PFAS chemicals.

The science of cleanup; regulation, funding needed

The next panel explored the science of these uniquely difficult-to-break-down chemicals, and their threat to human and environmental health, before a lunch break — during which New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette outlined his agency’s role in attacking the challenge in a state where PFAS levels are highest in the nation.

NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection commissioner speaks at a Stevens PFAS event in 2024New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette“We're maybe further down the path in some way than other states in the country in no small part thanks to the great work of our Department of Environmental Protection and Community Advocates all around our state,” LaTourette said, while cautioning that this occurred mainly because the state’s PFAS chemical levels were much higher than those in many other states due to the state’s long legacy of industrial and chemical manufacturing and disposal.

“The job I was hired to do in the first place as then-chief counsel of the DEP was to hold those who created this mess and left us to clean it up for them responsible,” he emphasized.

That process began in 2019 with state directives — but there is more to be done, he said.

“There are many, many who would stand in the way of that progress. Don't let that happen as you convene beyond this setting. Take what you learn here. Expect more of your leaders. Expect them to carry this torch…. Work in our Legislature. Convince them to keep doing the right thing. Stand up before your local governments and ask them what their water utilities and their landfill operators are doing about this issue.”

LaTourette remained to chair a panel on government responses to the threat.

"This is surely a multidisciplinary problem, but more informally and more directly, this is an all-hands-on-deck problem that requires a kind of working together that often strains the boundaries of what any one of these particular institutions is about and what they're charged to do," said Bradley Campbell, a former EPA Regional Administrator, NJDEP Commissioner and member of the White House Council for Environmental Quality.

"But it really is our social responsibility to learn how to work together across these boundaries and become nimble and able to react to the present circumstances"​​

Next came a multi-institutional panel of scientific researchers chaired by Sarkar investigating technical solutions toward remediation.

Zhiming Zhang of Rowan University explained the various strategies available for remediating PFAS, including activated carbon-based filtering techniques, photocatalytic degradation methods with light, and the use of water-treatment residuals — a promising effort headed by Sarkar and himself.

In the same panel Rupali Datta of Michigan Tech added that plant-based solutions such as the use of endophytic bacteria to break down PFAS offer another exciting possibility for further research.

“The optimist is here,” continued Paul Hatzinger of the environmental solutions firm APTIM, who explained the various challenges of deploying promising laboratory technologies to treat or eliminate PFAS in soil and water in the field. He singled out colloidal carbon injection as one exciting technology that “will buy you time — now you have a barrier for PFAS,” he explained. “This is a ready-today technology.”

Hatzinger also described foam fractionation, another treatment method, as useful because PFAS-rich foam can be effectively skimmed off the surface of treated media.

Co-chair Lueckenhoff concluded the fascinating science panel with a brief discussion of the promise of biochars (partly combusted biological materials) to treat PFAS chemicals — plus a shoutout to Stevens graduate-student teams who are collaborating with her on new research.

“Pretty soon we’re going to know exactly what to do, and how to make it work,” she enthused.

Working toward environmental justice, community action

Next, a passionate session on environmental justice featured first-person testimonials and calls for action from Pennsylvania Reverend Horace Strand and Michele Roberts, the National Co-Coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, who described “sacrifice zones” in communities of color and economically challenged neighborhoods where toxic chemicals are frequently manufactured, emitted, landfilled or dumped.

Two panelists at a 2024 Stevens PFAS eventEnvironmental Justice Health Alliance National Co-Coordinator Michele Roberts and Conservation Law Foundation President Bradley CampbellMarc Yaggi, CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance, spoke in a final session on community engagement how, even in the nation’s surface waters, “contamination is widespread around the country.” His group found that fully 83% of U.S. surface waters tested in three dozen states to be PFAS-contaminated, sometimes with up to several hundred thousand times the EPA’s recommended limits.

That’s important, Yaggi added, because “65% of Americans get their water from surface waters.” He stressed the need for added funding to provide cleanup of known PFAS sites.

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director for Clean Water Action, closed by encouraging attendees to “turn off the tap” on the incorporation of PFAS in current and future consumer products — noting firefighting foams were recently successfully banned, and other products that leach the chemicals into the environment should also be targeted.

“We don’t want them creating new chemicals, and we want them to stop making these chemicals,” she stressed.

A reception followed.

Stevens Research in: Energy & Sustainability