SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The scientist behind the general assembly’s attempts to deal with GenX and other polyfluorinated chemicals has called the legislation “visionary” and a model for future studies, but he also says it’s not what scientists or legislatures initially intended.
Duke University Professor Lee Ferguson is an analytic chemist who, along with a consortium of other researchers, helped build the science behind the “Safe Water Act.”
Senate Bill 724, sponsored by local state senators Michael Lee and Bill Rabon, would create a state-wide monitoring system.
In a recent editorial, published by the Wilmington Star-News, Ferguson praised legislator, writing that “it will serve as a model for how states (and nations) should respond to potential chemical hazards in drinking-water sources.”
In an interview, Ferguson said he felt the program outlined in the bill was “a good, and pretty progressive plan for monitoring emerging contaminants in the water — there’s really nothing else like it in the country.”
But Ferguson also acknowledged that the program is not perfect, and it’s not what scientists — or legislators — initially wanted.
The Rhine River model
Ferguson’s initial plan called for what’s called non-targeted analysis, which is essentially an open-ended approach to water testing; instead of looking for specific substances, the test produces a broad inventory of what’s in the water.
One of the exemplars of this approach is a project in the Rhine River Valley – a complicated scenario where water from watersheds in numerous different nations drain into the same waterway, where the Swiss have set up a real-time monitoring system.
“Those are very close colleagues of mine who do the Rhine River water monitoring, and interestingly enough that is the model I was presenting to the legislature as the ideal way to do this kind of water protection system,” Ferguson said.
The white paper produced by Ferguson, along with others – including engineer Detlef Knappe at NC State, and toxicologist Jamie DeWitt at East Carolina University – was “completely based on the non-targeted approach,” according to Ferguson.
That white paper became the original bill, supported by Lee and State Representative Ted Davis, which called for non-targeted analysis.
“I learned way more about politics than I ever wanted to know.”
But the final plan which emerged from the Senate called for a “targeted analysis,” which looks specifically for certain kinds of substances. The bill’s final version called for testing, but only for polyfluorinated chemicals (PFASs).
The change from a broad non-targeted to a targeted approach dramatically reduced the scope of what the water testing would find. According to a feature piece from Duke University about Ferguson’s work, the study would ignore about 80,000 organic chemicals used industrially in the United States to focus on the several thousand polyfluorinated chemicals in the same family as GenX.
Ferguson called this changed the “central issue” of the project.
So how did the bill get changed? Lobbyists.
“My understanding is that there was quite a bit of pushback from industry lobbyists from this,” Ferguson said. “Actually I was quite surprised to find a quote from the North Carolina Manufacturing Alliance, just outright saying they were afraid of opening Pandora’s box.”
The quote comes from A. Preston Howard, president of the North Carolina Manufacturing Alliance (NCMA). Howard has served as NCMA president for nearly 20 years, but before that, he spent 25 years at North Carolina’s Division of Water Quality, serving as director from 1992 to 1999.
Howard wrote the assembly over the summer, claiming open-ended non-targeted analysis would dissuade new business from moving to the state. WRAL reported the story in late May.
Ferguson said that it was his impression that, over the course of the summer, there was a “very real chance that the bill would fall apart,” and that nothing would come of the efforts – so the language was changed.
As Ferguson put it in the Duke University article, “I learned way more about politics than I ever wanted to know.”
As an outsider to the legislative process, Ferguson said he was unaware from whom, specifically, political pressure to give in to lobbyists demands came from. Senator Lee and Ferguson both declined to comment on the record about the reaction to the changes.
Ferguson did say “this was not was originally intended by the sponsors of the original bill… and there was some discontent that this had to be changed to focus on PFAS.”
Ferguson pointed out that having a state-wide testing program for PFAS is neither a bad nor a minor thing.
First, Ferguson said, the “initial screen” for PFAS there are over 4,000 chemicals in that family, meaning the study is not by any means small.
Ferguson said that one benefit of the relatively limited scale of the testing – again, pointing out that there are “over 4,000 chemicals” being examined – was the ability to focus on a more manageable set of data. It also helped manage the financial burden of testing a dozen watersheds – a project that would be an order of magnitude larger than the Rhine River monitoring project.
Second, Ferguson said, the scientific community behind the white project is looking at the testing as a “good start” — more pilot program and permanent solution.
“Perfect is the enemy of good,” Ferguson said, quoting the sentiment often attributed to either Voltaire or Confucius.
“It’s hard to say that the program as implemented was a bad idea in its own right. I think that it’s not perfect. But I think that it actually makes a very, very good start. The way we look at this is, it’s a start. It’s a way to start assessing emerging contaminants in water,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson added, “It’s my hope that we can expand it to be a full non-targeted analysis in the future.”
The gold standard?
In Ferguson’s editorial, he wrote that the monitoring system created by Lee’s bill “will serve as a model for how states (and nations) should respond to potential chemical hazards in drinking-water sources.”
But should a research study that has been significantly limited by lobbyists be the model for the rest of the world?
“That’s a fair question,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said that the idea, more than the specifics of the final bill, was what he was talking about by calling the program “visionary” and a universal model.
“I think it’s a fair question to ask whether monitoring programs that focus on specific chemical classes should be put up as the gold standard. I think what I’m intending to mean there is that statewide emerging contaminant monitoring programs, and large-scale – large temporal and spatial scale – emerging contaminant monitoring programs should be the gold standard,” Ferguson said.
“From a scientific standpoint, doing full non-targeted analysis would clearly be the preference,” Ferguson said, again indicating his preference for the Rhine River model.
Lastly, Ferguson addressed criticism that the bill didn’t assign the monitoring process to DEQ instead of a “consortium of academic researchers?”
Ferguson offered a two-fold answer.
First, he said that the DEQ lacked the specific research expertise and equipment to pursue some of the necessary studies of PFAS.
“These are research-level endeavors, it’s pretty hard to just put money out there and hope that the technologies will just magically become available,” Ferguson said.
But Ferguson said he ultimately hopes the state’s environmental and health safety agencies will be the beneficiaries of academic research.
“What I’m hoping, and what I hope happens, is that we can develop these techniques and deploy them — and then transfer those technologies to people like DEQ and DHHS, so that they’ll have those capabilities going forward. So that’s what I was hoping would happen,” Ferguson said.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.