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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Recent testing shows Brunswick County water contains PFAS not monitored by EPA

Brunswick County's Northwest Water Treatment Plant could soon have a $100 million low-pressure reverse osmosis system built to treat water. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Samples from Brunswick County’s Northwest Water Treatment Plant showed high levels of PFAS that are not currently monitored or tested for by the EPA. (Port City Daily/file)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The federal government is planning to test for 29 PFAS in drinking water nationwide but an environmental protection nonprofit did its own studies that checks for more. 

The results: Many PFAS went undetected in public water, based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards and locals are advocating that more needs to be done.

READ MORE: Lawsuit: Judge favors EPA over organizations seeking studies on 54 PFAS effects

A nationwide drinking water test, conducted by an international nonprofit, covered 16 states and 44 samples. It showed North Carolina faced the highest levels of newer PFAS, many of which are not reported in EPA’s testing methods, namely from Brunswick County. 

The EPA is required to test drinking water of all public water systems around the country every five years under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The purpose is to uncover any new unregulated contaminants.

For the upcoming round of testing — to be done between 2023 and 2025 — EPA selected 29 PFAS, a small fraction of the 14,000 in existence, to learn how widespread their contamination is.

Concerned about the limited selection, the Natural Resources Defense Council, focused on environmental protection, decided to perform its own testing on 70 PFAS. Results showed significant PFAS levels not being covered by the federal monitoring methods.

NRDC funded the study — though will not provide for how much — and partnered with impacted communities in Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Carolina, and Texas. 

Sixteen of the samples chosen by NRDC had levels of PFAS below the EPA’s required reporting limits, meaning the presence of the chemicals would go unknown to the public. According to NRDC’s analysis, the EPA’s “minimum reporting limits may result in communities exposed to low, health-relevant levels of PFAS being overlooked.” The data shows gaps not addressed by the federal government and the need to expand its testing.

The study released this week predicts the ongoing national monitoring programs will significantly “under-report the presence of the toxic chemicals in drinking water.”

“Twenty-six unique PFAS were detected across the samples, including 12 not covered by current EPA testing methods (PFPrA, R-PSDA, PFMOAA, PFPrS, PFO2HxA, R-EVE, PMPA, Hydrolyzed PSDA, FOSA, MTP, PFECHS, PFO3OA),” NRDC senior scientist Dr. Anna Reade told PCD. “Because these 12 PFAS are not covered by EPA’s current testing methods, they would not be included in any monitoring performed by or reported to the EPA.”

In North Carolina, samples were taken from Ocean Isle and Oak Island, provided by Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan, as well as from Pittsboro. Both samples taken from Brunswick County are sourced from Brunswick County’s Northwest Treatment Plant, with water coming in from the Cape Fear River. Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility is about 70 miles upstream.

In Ocean Isle’s water, 10 additional PFAS were detected aside from the 29 EPA chose to monitor; in Oak Island, 11 more were detected.

The Tar Heel state is not alone in uncovering underreported contaminants. Nearly half of all PFAS present in the 44 nationwide drinking water samples are not monitored by the EPA. Also, all samples had at least one PFAS that would not even be captured by the national monitoring program.

PFPrA, an ultrashort chain and version of PFOA, was the most commonly found chemical and often reported with the highest concentration. However, it’s also one not monitored by the EPA and little is known about its health impacts.

Though the health effects of PFAS in general are still being studied. Considered forever chemicals for their inability to break down in the environment, research has indicated exposure, even at extremely low doses, can lead to cancer, liver disease, decreased fertility, and effects on the immune system.

The sum of PFAS concentrations in all the samples ranged from 2.3 parts per trillion to as high as 7,135 ppt. The EPA’s current health advisory sets safe levels at below 10 ppt.

The first federal regulation of six PFAS in drinking water has been proposed by the EPA. Up to 94 million people are served by drinking water systems that would be impacted by the new regulations. 

Fifteen of the NRDC samples would exceed those limits.

Once in effect nearly four years down the road, legacy chemicals PFOA and PFOS — two types of PFAS — will not be allowed to exceed 4 ppt in drinking water. 

Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan has been advocating for stricter PFAS regulations and holding Chemours accountable through her nonprofit for years. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Cape Fear nonprofit advocates for further testing

Clean Cape Fear’s Donovan instigated the nationwide study to incorporate more PFAS by reaching out to NDRC.

“We know down here so much underreporting is happening, the contamination crisis is massive,” she said Thursday. “The sheer volume and amount of different PFAS out there, it just doesn’t add up.”

Clean Cape Fear wanted “validation” on what the Cape Fear region is experiencing, with legacy pollution from Chemours in Fayetteville streaming through the Cape Fear River for decades. The water is then treated and sent out for public consumption to more than 350,000 customers through Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County Utilities.

“The idea behind this study is we need to keep reminding the EPA this process is riddled with loopholes and there’s no fail safe,” Donovan said, “which is frustrating.”

She also wanted to bring awareness to other communities who might be facing similar situations.

“We have this notorious source polluter, and they make chemicals and ship them to other locations,” she said. “It’s reasonable to assume those customers are also emitting and polluting.”

Sampling was conducted in three rounds between June 2021 and April 2022.

NCDR hired Eurofins Environment Testing to test the samples of 70 PFAS in its commercial laboratory. This included 41 PFAS not currently covered in the EPA’s testing. 

Donovan said since Eurofins detected levels lower than reporting limits required by the EPA, it shows “inadequacies and lack of the regulatory process” from the federal agency.

“The tiny steps EPA has taken in the last couple decades is really missing the scope of contamination for many communities,” she said.

The EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) — the fifth version of its five-year testing plan — was released in December 2021. UCMR5 is intended to test water to provide new data on PFAS for future regulations. 

In the EPA’s next round of testing, 10,311 systems were identified to pull samples from and testing will occur at 60 EPA-approved labs.

The EPA identifies contaminants to be included in its five-year testing for multiple reasons. It specifically identifies chemicals that were not monitored in prior cycles, but that may have national significance, such as PFAS. 

Another set of criteria narrows down the selection to include those of “high public concern” or having “critical health endpoints.” 

Testing is also based on the availability of commercial standards across the country. This spurred groups like Clean Cape Fear to advocate for improving lab standards for consistency.

“It’s the chicken and egg in my mind,” Donovan said. “The EPA said it needs to wait for the market to catch up but it’s the kind of thing, let’s not wait. This is public health; we’re talking about some pretty dangerous chemicals.”

Donovan said when the draft UCMR5 was released, organizations and National PFAS Contamination Coalition advocated for including the entire class of PFAS to be tested.

The advocates are calling on the government to do more. They want to see federal legislation passed to prevent, monitor, track and address PFAS contamination as a whole class.

NRDC is also urging for the ban of all nonessential uses of PFAS — asking industries to stop producing the chemicals — and holding polluters accountable for covering millions of dollars utilities have spent to treat contaminated drinking water.

Locally, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County have been trying to do just that. Both entities sued Chemours in 2017 in an attempt to make the company pay for the cost endured to install extensive filtering systems for their customers. CFPUA estimates it has spent $64 million protecting customers from PFAS, including $43 million to install granular activated carbon filters. 

Brunswick County doled out $170 million on a low-pressure reverse osmosis system at its treatment system.

CFPUA’s system came online in October, while Brunswick’s is still under construction with a goal to be completed by early 2024.

Consumers are paying the expenses with rate increases on their monthly bills.

“Let us be a cautionary tale,” Donovan said. “You’re not capturing everything if you’re not looking for more.”

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