Sunday, July 21, 2024

PFAS bills filed: $93M in comprehensive studies, $20M to address firefighting safety

Rep. Deb Butler speaks in opposition to Chemours’ proposed expansion during an open house in Leland in September. Butler is one of the main sponsors on a bill that would ban the manufacturing and distribution of PFAS in North Carolina. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Cape Fear legislators have introduced two bills this month to further tackle PFAS contamination in southeastern North Carolina. 

Legislation has been introduced in the North Carolina House of Representatives to ban the manufacturing of PFAS and the Senate has drafted a bill that would increase funding for PFAS research.

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

Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover), along with Reps. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), Mary Belk (D-Mecklenburg) and Tim Longest (D-Wake), submitted House Bill 660 in mid-April. Along with prohibiting the production of PFAS, the bill would also implement policies to address contamination, and fund studies related to public health.

“This bill is exhaustive in its approach,” Butler told Port City Daily on a call Tuesday. “This is a battle that’s going to have to be fought if we want to be successful on all fronts.”

Appropriating in total more than $93 million, the bill calls for North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, along with NCDEQ, to develop a program to study the estimated human exposure to PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin.

Also known as PFAS Free NC, the legislation would allocate agencies one-time funds to perform testing and studies on the impact of PFAS. The bill rolls in recurring funds to extend state monitoring activities to identify emerging pollutants.

If signed into law, it would be illegal to manufacture, use or distribute PFAS in the state. Violations come with a $5,000 civil fine, which jumps to $25,000 if it involves hazardous waste.

Repeat actions or failure to pay a penalty incurs another $10,000 per occurrence, with a maximum charge of $200,000 per month.

According to an article in Environmental Science and Technology, the U.S. fluoropolymer industry contributes $2 billion annually to the economy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned the manufacturing of certain long-chain PFAS, which impacted products such as ski wax, carpet, furniture, electronics, and household appliances. Also, 21 states have passed legislation that bans the sale of products, from firefighting foam to children’s products and food packaging, containing added PFAS. 

“I’m unaware of any cost estimates to date on the prohibition of PFAS, but the bill directs the [NC] Collaboratory to study that issue,” Butler said. “But in my mind, the cast is somewhat irrelevant when we consider the risk to human health.”

The North Carolina Collaboratory, based at UNC Chapel Hill, was established by the General Assembly in 2016 to research environmental impacts to guide policy making.

Butler has been at the forefront of advocating for public health in relation to PFAS and vocally opposed Chemours’ upcoming expansion of its Fayetteville Works facility at an open house in September.

The chemical manufacturing company announced last fall it would increase the production of a monomer building block for PFA to meet the demand of the domestic semiconductor supply chain. 

Local Cape Fear River Watch launched a petition against the growth, which currently has 1,054 signatures. It will be sent to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, the entity that must approve an updated discharge permit for the expansion plans.

House Bill 660 would require anyone applying for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to disclose any pollutant above practical quantitation limit — the lowest level that can be measured by a lab. Butler said that element of the bill is a “key component” to addressing pollution by forcing companies to disclose all potential chemicals.

During Chemours’ open house about the expansion, Butler said she filed “bill after bill” to hold Chemours accountable, but none have stuck.

House Bill 660 specifically calls out the Cape Fear River basin, most affected by the downstream contaminants in the water from Chemours. The company has been polluting the Cape Fear River for decades.

“Unfortunately, the more we know and understand, it’s not just our region, but of course we’re ground zero,” Butler said.

The multi-millions it puts toward funding would outline epidemiological studies of the population drinking from the Cape Fear River, to identify any disparities with long-term exposure to PFAS.

NCDEQ would be required to study the presence of the chemicals in biosolids, leachate and landfills, as well as how likely PFAS are to migrate from origin sites and accumulate in soil and water downstream.

A multitude of agencies would receive one-time funds of $100,000, including Wildlife Resources Commission, NCDHHS, Office of State Budget and Management and NC Policy Collaboratory. 

The Wildlife Resources Commission would be obligated to study the ecological exposure and impacts the contamination has had in the Cape Fear River basin. The Office of State Budget and Management and the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory will estimate costs incurred from PFAS contamination and anticipate future money needed for sampling, testing and cleanup.

In total, NCDEQ would receive a one-time allotment of $200,000 for studies, $5 million to fund drinking water treatment systems with covered wells and $1 million to create a PFAS Chemical Action Plan. Should it pass, the goal is to develop a model by January 2025 that identifies ways to reduce or eliminate detectable PFAS.

NCDEQ would also receive a recurring allotment of $4 million to expand its water-quality monitoring activities and study emerging contaminants in drinking water.

The State Water Infrastructure Authority would appropriate $80 million in fiscal year 2023-2024 to issue matching grants to water systems to build or improve drinking water treatment systems reducing exposure of PFAS.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County have recently invested multi-millions of dollars that have driven up customers’ bills in order to reduce PFAS.

CFPUA installed a $43-million granular activated carbon filter system to target PFAS treatment. The system came online in October and reported zero detectable levels of PFAS.

One month later, CFPUA released its latest testing, which indicated one of 70 PFAS was found in the treated water. The sum of all PFAS in treated water has steadily increased since, with 24 parts per trillion reported in March.

By comparison, in July 2022, prior to the eight GAC filters being installed, there was a total of 126 ppt reported following its twice monthly testing.

“Our monitoring shows the filters are removing PFOA and PFOS to non-detectable levels based on currently available technology,” CFPUA spokesperson Cammie Bellamy said.

Legacy PFAS chemicals PFOA and PFOS are banned from manufacturing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in March it plans to push through new regulations on the two chemicals that would limit concentrations to 4 parts per trillion in drinking water. The EPA’s current health advisory sets safe levels at below 10 ppt.

However, the majority of the 70 PFAS CFPUA monitors are not regulated or under any EPA guidance, therefore “there is not a total ppt for all compounds combined” CFPUA aims to achieve.

Instead, it bases its overall treatment goal using one chemical, PFMOAA, considered one of the most difficult to reduce, according to Bellamy. The utility authority strives to keep it below 10 ppt.

“Treating to that level should ensure a very high level of PFAS removal overall, and we will continuously monitor our PFAS sampling results to evaluate the goal’s efficacy,” Bellamy said.

When the eight filters went live in fall 2022, CFPUA announced zero PFAS.

“When the GAC in the filters is fresh, like it was in October, you will see the highest level of PFAS removal,” Bellamy said.

She explained the system efficiency declines the longer filters are in use. When it became operational, one filter was set to operate at maximum capacity, which is why it’s already been swapped out. Typically, Bellamy said filters should last up to 300 days. 

“Granular activated carbon removes PFAS through a process called ‘adsorption,’ where PFAS clings to the surface area of the GAC particles,” Bellamy wrote to Port City Daily in an email. “Over time, as more and more PFAS is captured, there is less available surface area to capture contaminants.”

Filters are rotated out, one at a time, through an exchange program, as needed. Once the filter is removed, a vendor takes out the GAC and transports it offsite for regeneration. There, the GAC is exposed to extreme heat to destroy the captured PFAS before being returned to CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant.

“CFPUA is closely tracking our PFAS removal results in this first year of operating the new filters so that we can adjust our GAC replacement schedule, as necessary, to keep achieving a high level of PFAS removal,” Bellamy said.

It costs CFPUA $5 million annually to operate the GAC system, which includes the exchange process.

Butler said the SWIA would develop the rules and protocols for the grant process, should the legislation become law, and all statewide water systems would be eligible to apply.

She fears it will not get the traction or support it deserves considering the configuration of the current General Assembly, which now has a supermajority. 

“Sometimes we put forward these bills, recognizing if we do the work and put a comprehensive bill together, even if we don’t get the credit for it, some of it may work its way into practice,” Butler said. “It’s important the public understands legislators here believe this is an investment that’s urgent.”

Senate Bill 658

Another Cape Fear legislator has introduced a bill addressing PFAS in the 2023 session. 

Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) passed the first PFAS legislation in 2018, a year after it was discovered PFAS were being dumped in the Cape Fear River by Chemours.

According to Lee’s legislative assistant, it has been called the “gold standard” by scientists around the country. The 2018 bill provided $5 million in academic research to study health effects of the chemicals and address contamination.

In 2021, another Water Safety Act passed to provide $14 million more to academic PFAS experts in the state.

Lee has followed up with a third this year, also sponsored by Sens. Mary Wills Bode (D-Granville, Wake) and Benton Sawrey (R-Johnston). Senate Bill 658 allocates $20 million in fiscal year 2023-2024 to the North Carolina Collaboratory for programs related to aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF), used to fight fires. Local fire departments have been using the foam, which contains PFAS, since the 1960s. In 2008, the New York State Department of Public Health reported first responders have twice as much PFAS in their blood as the general population.

In 2019, Congress ordered the Department of Defense to phase out the use of foam with PFAS by 2024.

The bill would introduce a buyback program to trade in PFAS-containing firefighting foams for PFAS-free alternatives. It would also create a training site to guide firefighters on how to use PFAS-containing AFFF while minimizing the impact to the environment.

With a focus on health impacts, SB 658 will provide research grants to assess long-term health risk to firefighters and fund studies on cognitive risk from levels of fluoride in public water supplies. 

The bill allots another $4 million would be available in recurring funds to be used for other PFAS research projects, with a focus on a multiyear human exposure study in counties with higher-than-average PFAS exposure.

The Collaboratory would receive $2 million for water-related research for emerging compounds.

Since 2018, the North Carolina Collaboratory has invested $21.6 million to academic research and state partnerships to study PFAS and established the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network to test for current levels of contaminants in drinking water and air samples throughout the state.

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