Sunday, August 14, 2022

Brunswick County Schools walks back decision after PFAS report, won’t indefinitely supply bottled water

Brunswick County Schools will only offer bottled water on a one-time basis, after sharing an open option to provide bottled water that did not specify a time period following a concerning national water quality study. (Port City Daily/File)
Brunswick County Schools will only offer bottled water on a one-time basis, after sharing an open option to provide bottled water that did not specify a time period following a concerning national water quality study. (Port City Daily/File)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Despite a seemingly open offer last week, Brunswick County Schools will not provide bottled water to students indefinitely. A delivery of bottled water, enough to last each classroom one-to-two days, will only be made on a one-time basis to schools that request it.

Wednesday, the school district announced it would supply bottled water to schools that requested it to “ease minds” in the wake of a study released earlier the same day. The district didn’t specify how long it intended to keep the offer open but also did not indicate it was a ‘one-time’ deal. While many in the region understood the offer to be indefinite, apparently, after making the offer the district had to reconsider the time frame — and the potential cost.

Related: Brunswick Schools offering bottled water in response to study showing highest PFAS levels nationwide

Water sampled at Belville Elementary School, collected by a parent who co-founded the grassroots activist group Clean Cape Fear, ranked first out of 44 metropolitan areas studied for having the highest concentration of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the Environmental Working Group study.

Brunswick County’s Oct. 22, 2019 sample contained a total of 185 parts per trillion (ppt) out of the PFAS tested. An accredited independent laboratory tested for 30 PFAS in the study. More than 4,700 PFAS compounds are known to exist; accredited testing methodology has not yet caught up with the wave of chemical byproducts that persist in the environment, many of which are still unknown.

A sample collected on May 29, 2019, tested by the North Carolina Per and Polyfuoroalkyl Substances Testing (PFAST) Network quantified a PFAS concentration more than twice as high as EWG’s recent report. After testing for 47 PFAS compounds, the state-contracted study showed the county’s public drinking water contained a total of 395 ppt.

EWG’s study does not necessarily contain new information as it relates to Brunswick County’s public drinking water. It does, however, put the county’s water in a national context, revealing how it ranks among the 31 states tested in the non-profit’s sampling efforts.

As the study continues to make national headlines, Brunswick County Schools has walked back the offer it made Wednesday.

BCS’ decision

After issuing the initial 1:14 p.m. press release, Brunsick County Schools (BCS) realized it would need to curtail its initial offering during a 2 p.m. conference call with Brunswick County officials Wednesday.

BCS’ press release did not specify a time frame in its announcement to provide bottled water. It didn’t say the bottled water deliveries would be on a one-time basis or if they would be supplied until Brunswick County’s planned reverse osmosis technology is installed at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant in November 2022-May 2023.

“Until Brunswick County Government officials tell us the water is not safe to consume, BCS will operate as normal. However, we are providing the option of bottled water for students/staff on-site to help ease minds regarding the recent report from EWG,” the press release stated.

Responding to a follow-up request that day, BCS confirmed bottled water would be supplied to Belville Elementary School and all who request it.

Related: National study ranks Brunswick County’s total PFAS highest out of 44 areas sampled [Free read]

BCS spokesperson Daniel Seamans and Superintendant Dr. Jerry Oates made the decision announce the offer to provide bottled water to schools that requested it, according to Seamans. The school system was operating in “uncertainty mode” as calls from concerned parents rolled in and was looking to directly acknowledge the report’s findings, Seamans said.

“All of a sudden, boom. Belville [Elementary School] is named as ground zero – but everyone on the water system gets the exact same water,” Seamans said. The district had to be equilateral in its offer, Seamans said, rather than just focusing on Belville Elementary School because its water was tested in the EWG study.

“It was just being proactive in the uncertainty,” Seamans said of the first release. “We have to act on the side of caution when we don’t know.”

Brunswick County administrative officials, Brunswick Public Utilities leadership, Commissioner Pat Sykes, Brunswick County Schools administrative officials, Brunswick County Schools Operations leadership, and communication officials participated in the conference call, according to Seamans.

The overall consensus, according to Seamans, was that there was no drinking water health advisory in place and an advisory was not underway. “Because there is no health advisory issued, we have to follow the lead of the Brunswick County government as customers,” Seamans said.

Indeed, total PFAS levels tested at Brunswick County’s Northwest Water Treatment Plant have not triggered a health advisory. A nonbinding health advisory would only be issued should combined levels of total PFOS and PFOA exceed 70 ppt. For example, combined PFOA and PFOS tested in two Brunswick County water samples collected Jan. 3 total 9 ppt; combined PFAS of the 27 different compounds tested in those samples is 107 ppt.

“As of right now, with no health advisory issued, it will not be an ongoing supply. And if that changes, another test comes back, then we’ll kick back into go mode,” he said. “But it basically is going to stem from, if there is no health advisory issued, it is normal operations.”

Actual deliveries, potential costs

Since the public offer Wednesday, Seamans confirmed a one-time delivery was provided to Belville Elementary. One-time deliveries are scheduled Monday at Lincoln Elementary and Southport Elementary. West Brunswick High School has requested one, which could likely be delivered later this week.

Each school will receive enough bottled water to supply each classroom with a one-to-two-day supply.

“We’re not going to go back on what we said — what was immediately put out there. Which was all schools have the option to request [bottled water],” Seamans said.

It’s worth noting that, if BCS were to continue delivering bottled water on a regular basis until the county’s planned reverse osmosis water treatment system comes online, costs could be considerable

One pallet of water, containing approximately 60 cases of Great Value Purified Drinking Water (Walmart’s brand), costs $425. Belville Elementary was provided 1.5 pallets to accommodate the school’s 716 students. Should the Department of Environmental Quality grant Brunswick County its discharge permit, it could be as early as November 2022 or as late as May 2023 before reverse osmosis technology is online, depending on which bid alternative is selected.

Roughly estimating, it would cost the district approximately $400,000 to continue this practice until May 2023 at Belville Elementary School alone, if the supply lasts just one day per classroom, and $200,000 if it lasts two days per classroom. Belville Elementary is just one of 19 schools in the district, with one more, Town Creek Middle, set to open in August.

Total costs could end up in the millions.

If a health advisory ever does go into effect, Seamans said BCS would immediately be in touch with all participants in the school system.

“Should there be any change, we would immediately notify all communication outlets,” he said.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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