Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Area leaders, officials, business owners urge for EMC action to regulate PFAS  

At an NRDC conference, Cape Fear community members voiced their concerns and shared personal experiences, urging the EMC to implement regulations on PFAS emissions. (Port City Daily/ Shea Carver)

[Update: EMC voted Wednesday to defer the process on proposed DEQ’s surface water quality rules to September.]

WILMINGTON — Elected officials, local business owners and directors of environmental nonprofits and organizations convened in a Tuesday meeting with a common goal: advocating for more PFAS regulation in the Cape Fear. 

READ MORE: Environmental Management Commission stalls PFAS standards, members own stock in companies lobbying against regulation 

On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit focused on environmental conservation and confronting pollution, held a virtual press conference with Cape Fear community members to discuss PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” that have been contaminating the Cape Fear River for four decades from Chemours, a DuPont subsidiary located upstream in Fayetteville. 

During the conference, speakers urged the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt data and recommendations provided by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and enforce regulations to compel companies to limit PFAS discharges. The commission, an appointed body charged with reviewing and enacting DEQ’s proposed rules, delayed DEQ’s request to adopt PFAS water standards in May.

DEQ’s proposed rules include limits for PFAS in surface water, requirements for companies to install technology to reduce emissions, cleaning up existing contamination and more — separate from EPA’s regulations put forth this year. Commissioners cited the need for more time to understand the financial implications of DEQ’s proposal, such as requiring companies to install filtration technology.

At Tuesday’s conference, the group expressed concerns ahead of a two-day EMC meeting where PFAS surface water quality rules are on the agenda

“The EMC is responsible for the protection, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s water resources,” Cori Bell, senior attorney for environmental health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “It’s time for the commission to remember that and to do its job.”

During the discussion, speakers highlighted the health and economic impacts of the pollutants, citing firsthand accounts of illnesses like cancer, floundering businesses, and rising water bills, all attributed to the contamination. 

They also expressed frustration with the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which has resisted proposed regulations on companies.

“If they all claim to be pro-business organizations, then why are they not representing the interest of my business?” Steven Schnitzler, CEO of Port City Java Coffee Shop franchise asked. “What constitutes the factors that go into either taking a neutral stand, or not taking a stand, or actively supporting companies that intentionally seek to dump toxins in our source of drinking water.” 

Schnitzler noted he is a member of the chamber, but does not support its positions on PFAS, as he states it hurts his business. 

In April, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce requested that DEQ postpone its proposed PFAS surface and groundwater standards submitted to the EMC. State chamber president Gary Salamido made the request in a letter addressed to DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, arguing that further research is necessary to understand the economic impacts of PFAS regulations.

“It is important that we do not hastily pass regulations without fully accounting for both the positive benefits and potential negative impacts proposed rules would have on the state and its business community,” as noted in the letter.

Port City Daily also asked the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce if it agrees with the actions and views of the NC Chamber of Commerce. Mara McJilton, spokesperson for WCC, said the group had no comment on the topic. 

“This is not a partisan or a pro- or anti-business stand; this is a stand for the water that we all rely on,” Schnitzler said. 

Schnitzler detailed how company owned Port City Java locations in New Hanover County have seen their water rates rise by over 57% since 2021.

Since 2021, Cape Fear Public Utility has seen three water rate increases. Water rates, determined by meter size, increased by 5% in 2022 for the average meter. In 2023, it rose by 4.6%, and the 2024 budget includes another 4.6% increase.

“All of us are paying more for these services, as are the residential customers. And is because of no fault of their own, and honestly, no fault of CFPUA’s,” Schnitzler said. 

The 2022 increase is ascribed to upgrades made at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, which supplies water to 80% of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority customers. CFPUA spent $43 million to install new granular activated carbon filters specifically designed to target PFAS contaminants. 

“The financial cost of polluting should be the burden of the profiting polluter, not the citizens or other businesses,” Karen Mosteller, a Southport Board of Alderman, added during the conference. She also clarified that while she is a member of Southport’s Board of Alderman, she was only speaking as a concerned citizen.

As previously reported by Port City Daily, Biser stated that CFPUAhas spent $46 million and Brunswick County has spent over $100 million to tackle PFAS contamination linked to Chemours in their water systems.

Ty Jacobus, a local farmer and owner of Honeybird Organic Farms, also reported financial losses due to PFAS. He and his wife, who started their farm in 2012 and moved to Castle Hayne in 2019, initially believed their water was safe because nearby wells had tested negative for PFAS. However, tests on their own wells revealed 50 to 60 parts per trillion of the toxin. Subsequent testing of their eggs showed contamination, with one egg containing a staggering 980 parts per trillion, causing the couple to cease all production and sales in 

“We’ve lost a crop, we’ve lost market presence, we’ve lost our revenue. And in addition to, you know, damage to our reputation, and, quite honestly, our morale as well.” 

Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, and five others from the seven panelists on the call, shared health issues they or their families have experienced. They believe it’s linked to PFAS exposure. Speakers’ health related experiences with PFAS were not disclosed to each other before the conference. 

“So just think about that and what it would look like to get our entire community on a call,” Sargent said. “That’s thousands of people in this region who are sick and dying due to PFAS contamination.” 

Wilmington City Council member Salette Andrews noted pollution is a personal topic, being that she is a thyroid cancer survivor and also lost her 22-year-old son to cancer. 

Sargent mentioned her brother, who was a firefighter and former U.S. Marine, faced high exposure to PFAS toxins and died of brain cancer at age 47. 

Emily Donovan of Clean Cape Fear has seen four deaths in the past two years, three cancer-related. 

According to an infographic posted by the EPA, PFAS can cause harmful cancer, weight, developmental, reproductive effects. The federal agency took first steps to regulate six PFAS this year:

  • PFOA: 4.0 parts per trillion (ppt)
  • PFOS: 4.0ppt
  • GenX (a group of related fluorochemicals ): 10 ppt
  • PFNA: 10 ppt
  • PFHxS: 10 ppt
  • Mixtures of GenX, PFNA, PFHxS, and PFBS meeting a hazard index standard of 1

“We need the Environmental Management Commission to do their part and draw a line in the sand without clean water,” Mosteller said. “There is no future that includes a healthy environment or healthy citizens.”

Most speakers expressed skepticism the EMC will act in the best interest of Cape Fear residents or small businesses. When asked by an audience member about their expectations for the EMC’s meetings on July 10 and 11, most speakers indicated they anticipated no change, given the current inaction.

“We have heard from so many people in this region, who have told them it is time, there is no reason for them to drag their feet. They need to do the right thing. … I would be pleasantly surprised tomorrow if they allowed the DEQ to do its job and push forward these standards,” Donovan said. 

Sargent added that the surface water standards have mostly been presented to the EMC as informational, rather than actionable: 

“I am not confident that anything positive will come out of these meetings.” 

The EMC’s Water Allocation Committee, Air Quality Committee, Steering Committee, Water Quality Committee, and Groundwater and Waste Management Committee will meet on July 10 and last until 5 p.m. in Raleigh; it can be livestreamed here.  
On July 11, the full EMC and the Civil Penalty Remission Group II Committee will meet starting at 9:00 a.m. in Raleigh, also livestreamed here.

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