3M plant in Illinois becomes nation’s largest source of ‘immortal’ climate-killing chemical in 2021

CORDOVA, Illinois. Here at 3M’s sprawling chemical manufacturing facility, where the company makes adhesive for Post-it stickers, golf clubs and LCD displays, several hundred pounds of the potent climate killer are released into the atmosphere each day.

The 566-acre facility on the east side of the Mississippi River, which also produces resins and fluorine chemicals, released 73 tons of perfluoromethane (CF4) into the air in 2021, more than any other facility in the country, according to the company. to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead emitter

Unlike some PFAS, CF4 is considered non-toxic. But when it comes to climate warming, CF4 is 7,380 times more potent than carbon dioxide, on a pound-for-pound basis over a 100-year period. The fluorocarbon emissions from the plant in 2021 are equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of 116,000 vehicles. However, unlike car exhaust carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for about 300–1000 years, CF4 persists, warming the planet, for 50,000 years.

The site’s CF4 emissions and their contribution to climate change may be a compromise the company has made to reduce emissions of other, more harmful chemicals.

The EPA’s Center for Environmental Measurement and Modeling considers CF4 a per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS, a term more commonly associated with non-stick chemical coatings on pots and pans that have been linked to cancer. However, the EPA’s Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances Administration uses a more restrictive definition for PFAS that is limited to substances most likely to pose an immediate health hazard and does not include CF4.

Growth in CF4 emissions

3M declined to provide anyone for an interview or tour of the facility, and declined to answer questions about the source of the plant’s CF4 emissions.

“As a company, 3M is committed to innovation to decarbonize the industry, accelerate climate decision making and reduce our environmental impact,” 3M spokesman Grant Thompson said in a written statement. “We continue to implement the best available technologies to manage our environmental impact at the site, including our thermal oxidizer, which went into operation in 2003.”

Two years before 3M began using a thermal oxidizer or incinerator at its Córdoba facility, the company commissioned a study to see if incineration would be an effective way to destroy PFOS, a cancer-linked PFAS. A study published in 2003 and recently reviewed by Inside Climate News found that incineration would destroy PFOS but would also likely release CF4 or other greenhouse gases that are even more efficient than CF4 as a by-product.

“Perhaps they were trading one problem for another,” said David Quirtney, director of the Center for the Study of the Health Effects of Environmental Pollution at the University of Iowa at the incinerator. “These PFAS chemicals are difficult to get rid of, and it is possible that some of the control processes that are used to destroy waste may release other harmful chemicals such as CF4.”

“CF4 is generally known to be a potential by-product of processes that degrade other fluorinated compounds (i.e., CF4 is known to be a product of incomplete combustion),” an EPA spokesman said in a written statement.

3M’s Thompson said the goal of the company’s 2001 study was “to simulate a full-scale hazardous waste incinerator in a laboratory environment, not to determine whether incineration would be an effective way to destroy PFOS.” Thompson added that “the 3M data does not indicate the presence of CHF3 or C2F6” – greenhouse gases that are more climate damaging than CF4 – in their thermal oxidizer emissions.

Thompson said that “The thermal oxidizer’s greenhouse gas removal efficiency is 99.95%.” However, when asked if 99.95% kill is related to CF4, Thompson did not answer the question, saying only, “At this point, I have nothing more to share with you on this topic.”

A 2019 EPA white paper on PFAS notes that “the most difficult fluorinated organic compound to degrade is CF4, requiring temperatures above 1400°C.”

3M is not required to destroy CF4, and its air permit at the Cordova facility only requires its thermal oxidizer to operate at a “minimum” temperature of 1900 degrees Fahrenheit or 1038 degrees Celsius.

Thompson did not disclose the operating temperature of the thermal oxidizer. Cwiertny said high-temperature incinerators are expensive to build and operate, and added that he doesn’t know if 3M’s thermal oxidizer can operate at over 1,400 degrees Celsius.

Other potential sources of CF4 at the plant could include leaks from storage tanks if the gas is used as a chemical feedstock, or direct release to the atmosphere if CF4 is an undesirable by-product of chemical production, said Denise Trabbick-Poynter, a former environmental protection manager. with DuPont and a volunteer at the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, adding that she didn’t know enough about 3M’s processes to determine the exact source.

An EPA spokesman said: “CF4 is known to form as a by-product in the manufacture of some fluorinated compounds.”

Whatever the exact source of the emissions, the plant’s release of such a potent greenhouse gas further casts doubt on the need to produce such chemicals, said Sonia Lunder, Sierra Club Senior Toxic Policy Adviser.

“I don’t think anyone can produce PFAS without by-products that threaten the climate, threaten local supplies of drinking water and [threaten] people, near or far,” Lunder said. “There has been a dramatic rethinking of whether this family of chemicals is necessary because it cannot be produced safely.”

Lunder added that many uses of chemicals made at 3M’s Cordova plant, such as those used for Post-it notes and stain-free carpet coatings, are unnecessary and can be replaced with alternatives that do not harm human health or climate.

CF4 is one of several synthetic fluorine-containing chemicals known to be “immortal” because of how long they stay in the atmosphere. Once the gases are released, they become “essentially a permanent addition to the atmosphere,” notes the EPA.

Why are they called

According to the EPA, the pollutant threatens “the public health and well-being of present and future generations.” however, the agency does not regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“We must do everything we can to prevent CF4 emissions,” said Donald Wubbles, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois Urbana and a former White House climate science adviser during the Obama administration. “Any CF4 emissions will contribute to further climate change and lead to things that will affect our planet for many, many thousands of years.”

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment on why it does not regulate CF4 emissions from chemical plants or whether they have any plans to do so.

“We will continue to track CF4 emissions through the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program,” a spokesman for the agency said.

Post-it stickers made by 3M are listed for sale at a major retail store on January 28, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.  Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Post-it stickers made by 3M are listed for sale at a major retail store on January 28, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

On March 16, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raul filed a lawsuit against 3M for dumping PFAS waste at a chemical plant in Cordova that polluted nearby groundwater as well as the Mississippi River.

On November 3, the EPA issued a consent agreement with 3M requiring the company to “provide cleanup for per- and polyfluoroacid (PFAS) contamination found in drinking water in the vicinity of 3M’s Cordova, Illinois facility.”

Neither the state attorney general’s lawsuit nor the EPA consent agreement mentions CF4. Drew Hill, a spokesman for the Illinois Attorney General’s office, said he could not comment on the upcoming lawsuit.

In a written statement to Inside Climate News, 3M’s Thompson said the emissions data his company reports annually to the Environmental Protection Agency “reflect that the Córdoba facility continues its downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from the plant did drop significantly from 2013 to 2016, but have not changed since then. At the same time, CF4 emissions have continued to rise, with the highest annual emissions recorded in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.

On December 20, 3M announced that it will stop manufacturing PFAS and will work to phase out the use of PFAS in its products by the end of 2025. According to 3M, the company earns $1.3 billion annually from net sales of manufactured PFAS. However, long-term legal obligations from PFAS could cost the company $30 billion, according to Bloomberg Intelligence estimates; The company’s CEO told Bloomberg that the decision was influenced by regulatory trends and “consumer concerns” about PFAS.

Sierra Club’s Lunder was cautiously optimistic about the news.

“We want you to welcome this PFAS phase-out and want others to follow suit,” she said. But “there are some questions about how 3M defines PFAS and concerns that they will continue to produce harmful fluorinated chemicals that they define as non-PFAS.”

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