BRUNSWICK COUNTY — A host of environmental groups are raising concerns about Brunswick County’s draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that would allow the release of reverse osmosis discharge containing an unknown makeup of emerging contaminants in the Cape Fear River.
In a letter to regulators, the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of eight environmental advocacy groups both compliments and criticizes Brunswick County and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The groups say both the county and regulators can and should do more to ensure the discharge is safe and limits the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The letter claims both the county and DEQ have violated the Clean Water Act in the permitting process; the county violated the act by not disclosing PFAS concentrations in its permit application; the DEQ violated it by failing to ensure toxic substance standards required of Class C waters are met, according to the letter.
Brunswick County’s $90 million low-pressure reverse osmosis (RO) treatment solution to the emerging contaminants identified in the Cape Fear River involves enhancements to its conventional treatment system at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant.
This solution is a “necessary response” to system failures, the letter states. These failures include the private sector’s failure to control discharge of emerging contaminants into the Cape Fear River and the DEQ’s failure in the permitting process to identify and control PFAS discharges, the environmental groups conclude.
Brunswick County would be required to sample 28 PFAS on a semiannual basis, according to the draft permit. This monitoring requirement, among others, are “simply inadequate,” the letter states. PFAS are known to vary wildly in sampling data, so a monthly monitoring requirement would more accurately characterize PFAS concentrations, the groups say.
“If Brunswick were to discharge undisclosed PFAS, it would violate the Clean Water Act. Moreover, because of this omission, DEQ does not have the information it needs to make a fully informed decision to issue the permit and the public does not have adequate information to meaningfully comment on it,” the letter states.
By allowing Brunswick County to release PFAS — without explicitly listing concentrations on the discharge permit — the DEQ is repeating the same mistakes that contributed to the region’s water crisis, according to SELC attorney Geoffrey Gisler. Gisler, who co-wrote the letter to regulators, said the Clean Water Act clearly empowers the DEQ to require permitted dischargers to disclose what they’re discharging.
The burden of responsibility to study the PFAS makeup in the discharge falls on the county, Gisler said. Once the concentrations are known, the onus is on the state, according to Gisler, to evaluation and require pollution-control measures to limit PFAS discharges. “That analysis needs to be done and made public,” Gisler said.
Research shows the RO treatment process can remove nearly all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from raw water, however, the technology inevitably includes discharging approximately one-fifth of the amount of water processed as concentrate.
The release of the discharge concentrate solution into public surface waters must be permitted.
In a draft NPDES permit issued Oct. 31, DEQ would allow Brunswick County to release up to 5 million gallons a day (mgd) of RO concentrate from a new discharge pipeline into the Cape Fear River.
This discharge would serve as point source pollution, Gisler said. “Point source is anything that collects water pollution and dumps it into a river,” he said. “This is certainly a point source that is polluting.”
The SELC points to Cape Fear Public Utilities’ (CFPUA) decision to install Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) at its water treatment facility, the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. Like RO, GAC can remove nearly all PFAS from raw water. Unlike RO, GAC captures contaminants in filters that can be burned and recycled or disposed of in a landfill.
Before opting to move ahead with RO in May 2018, Brunswick County’s consultant studied GAC as a treatment solution but in its final recommendation, concluded RO was the best fit.
Asked if SELC was proposing that Brunswick County install a GAC filter to reduce contaminant concentration in its RO concentrate, Gisler said stakeholders should go where the research leads.
“We don’t know where the analysis ends up,” Gisler said. “What we’re saying is we know these technologies are out there.”
Permit pending, project delayed
In a statement, Brunswick County maintains it has been transparent with regulators throughout the permitting process regarding PFAS. The county’s proposed RO discharge will not add any additional PFAS into the Cape Fear River, the county affirms.
“Throughout the many meetings and telephone conversations regarding the project’s NPDES permit, DEQ staff have been made fully aware that the key water quality goal of this project is to remove PFAS contaminants from the County’s drinking water that cannot be removed through conventional treatment methods,” Brunswick County’s spokesperson provided in a statement (read the full statement at the bottom of this article).
Raw water treated at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant is sourced from Kings Bluff in Riegelwood, 13 miles upstream. Brunswick County’s RO plans include constructing a new 4-mile concentrate discharge pipeline that would cross under Mt. Misery Road and release the concentrate into the Cape Fear River.
Sarah Young, a DEQ spokesperson, could not immediately provide a response to SELC’s conclusions. Young confirmed Brunswick County’s draft NPDES permit is still pending with a decision due in early March 2020. DEQ staff are reviewing all comments received, Young said, which could inform changes to the permit prior to its possible issuance.
Meanwhile, the project itself is behind schedule. In a notice to prospective bidders in late November, the county delayed its bid due dates by three months. Bids for both the concentrate pipeline project and plant treatment enhancements are due in March 2020.
This delay was caused by DEQ’s adjusted permit review process, the county said in a statement, and feedback from contractors who raised concerns about the tight project timeline.
Pre-bidding documents revealed the county was still considering a no-RO upgrade solution as one of 10 alternatives being bid; while the county has consistently stated it is committed to an RO solution, this alternative is still on the table given three uncertainties shared with inquiring contractors: bid price, project budget, and status of the NPDES permit.
Read Brunswick County’s full response below:
“Brunswick County reaffirms that providing clean, reliable and affordable drinking water to our residents and customers is of paramount importance to our county leadership and the Public Utilities team. Brunswick County is planning to install one of the most effective, proven technologies for the removal of both regulated and unregulated contaminants that is protective of human health and resilient to contaminant spikes in the Cape Fear River source water.
Brunswick County has been transparent with DEQ and the public regarding the advanced low-pressure reverse osmosis system NPDES permit, the contents of the discharge, and the fact that the process will remove almost all PFAS from customer’s drinking water; the County has also been transparent to DEQ that no additional PFAS will be added to the discharge through the treatment process before being returned to the original water source from which it was taken.
Throughout the many meetings and telephone conversations regarding the project’s NPDES permit, DEQ staff have been made fully aware that the key water quality goal of this project is to remove PFAS contaminants from the County’s drinking water that cannot be removed through conventional treatment methods.
We appreciate DEQ’s consideration in issuing an NPDES permit for the proposed advanced low-pressure reverse osmosis system and will continue to work with the department and other interested parties throughout the process. The conditions of the permit will require the County to continue monitoring for PFAS and other contaminants, and it includes a means to implement discharge limits in the future if necessary.”
Read SELC’s full comments on the NPDES permit below:
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