BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After a national water quality study ranked Belville Elementary School at the top of a national per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination list, alarmed parents and community members have pressured officials to do more to address the issue.
In the wake of the study, Brunswick County Commissioners and Board of Education members are actively discussing the possibility of installing temporary reverse osmosis filling stations in all 19 Brunswick County Schools.
Both Brunswick County Schools (BCS) and Brunswick Public Utilities are looking for quotes to estimate the cost of leasing the reverse osmosis filling station equipment.
Officials are looking at the possibility of installing two reverse osmosis water filling stations per school. This could be in place for up to three years, as the county awaits environmental permitting needed to construct its $90 million reverse osmosis treatment plant upgrades at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant. In 2019, treated water at the plant contained an average of 115 parts per trillion (ppt) of combined PFAS tested. Because the combined amount of the two PFAS with a federal advisory level (PFOA+PFOS) has not exceeded 70 ppt, the test results have not triggered an official drinking water advisory.
Brunswick County Commissioners did not discuss the study or water quality at their Monday meeting. Board of Education members only briefly discussed the study Tuesday, with Chairwoman Ellen Milligan offering a brief but somewhat noncommittal statement: “We will continue to look for resources and ways to make that whole process better for all Brunswick County water recipients.”
At the BCS meeting, several parents arrived to speak on the topic, but because they did not sign up within the required 24-hour window, Milligan did not permit them to speak.
Thursday, BCS’ spokesperson said funding for RO filling stations would theoretically and “initially” come from BCS. According to a release shared Thursday afternoon, all BCS board members “have agreed to pursue the addition of a reverse osmosis water bottle filling station at each school.”
Elected bodies cannot typically direct an official action outside of a publicly-held meeting, in accordance with Open Meetings Law. According to the release, the board has instructed BCS’ superintendant to research the process of installing stations at each school. It is not clear how much each system would cost.
“It took me a week to figure this out and say, ‘Hey wait a minute. This is still probably harmful to children’s health,'” Gerald Benton, BCS school board member said Thursday. Benton said his children do not drink the water at school, instead, they bring bottled water filled from their in-house RO filtration system.
“I acknowledge that this is not a school issue. But on the other hand, the kids are in our care,” he said. “I just feel like I couldn’t live with myself if these kids don’t have clean water.”
Besides trying to get all stakeholders on board, Benton said the hiccup in this effort could be funding. “The money might be the biggest problem,” he said.
RO stations, then and now
According to a study published Wednesday, all under-the-sink reverse osmosis and dual-stage filters tested revealed nearly complete removal of the 16 PFAS compounds tested (more than 4,700 different so-called “forever chemicals” are known to exist but testing methodology has not yet caught up). The North Carolina-based study included a dozen home filtration systems between Brunswick and New Hanover County, with 61 homes tested in central N.C.
It showed all eight of the whole-house activated carbon systems tested had varying levels of PFAS removal — half actually increased PFAS levels in filtered water.
In August 2017, Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO offered to pay to install RO systems in four of the county’s schools, located within H2GO’s service district. H2GO was approached by the advocacy group, Clean Cape Fear, with the idea. It would have cost approximately $200,000 to cover installation and an 18-month lease at all four schools.
Former County Manager Ann Hardy wrote to then-BCS Superintendant Les Tubb in a letter the following month to say the county would not accept H2GO’s offer. “There is currently no indication from the State that this type of water filtration is needed or would be effective in our schools, or in any environment for that matter,” she wrote in the Sept. 2017 letter.
Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, first brought the idea to H2GO three years ago. Following the release of the Environmental Working Group study, in which she collected the Belville Elementary School sample, Donovan has continued to advocate, hoping the renewed political interest will turn into action.
Meanwhile, New Hanover County Schools is actively looking to identify cost estimates for the same filling station solution for its schools served by the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant.
Immediately following the study’s release, BCS announced it would offer bottled water to any school that requested it. After consulting with Brunswick County, BCS pulled back its initial offer, refining it to only equate to one delivery.
Now, Donovan is cautiously optimistic. “It’s the right thing to do,” Donovan said of the filter station plan. “This is something that they absolutely should be doing.”
With up to three years left before RO is installed at Brunswick County’s largest plant, Donovan said an immediate solution is necessary.
“Until our children have access to chemical-free water in their schools, I don’t think any parent is going to be satisfied,” she said.
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