SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — New legislation introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly would put the cost burden of reducing harmful toxins, known as PFAS, on the polluters. House Bill 1095, “PFAS Pollution and Polluter Liability,” would force Chemours, the Fayetteville chemical plant responsible for contaminating the Cape Fear River, to pay installation and operation costs of water treatment technology. It also would tighten penalties on the PFAS polluters.
The North Carolina House Judiciary Committee met Thursday to discuss the proposed bipartisan legislation, sponsored by New Hanover and Brunswick counties representatives Ted Davis, Frank Iler, Charles Miller and Robert Reives (Chatham, Durham counties).
PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — can be found in nonstick cookware, fast-food packaging, personal products, firefighter gear, microwavable popcorn, and dental floss, among other items. It’s also been detected in the Cape Fear River, and the area’s groundwater and air.
“This stuff is everywhere,” Dana Sargent said at Wednesday’s State of the River event.
Sargent is the executive director of the Cape Fear River Watch, which hosted the convention. Expert speakers discussed elements impacting the Cape Fear River, namely PFAS. The panels happened to coincide with this long-awaited legislation entering the state general assembly.
Impact to downstream communities
Residents living in New Hanover and Brunswick counties are some of the most impacted by the harmful toxins being released into the waterway, as all the discharge from entry points along the river ultimately wind up in the Lower Cape Fear. Ninety-nine percent of Americans have PFAS in their blood, but Wilmington residents exhibit levels two to three times higher than the national average, according to N.C. State research. PFAS also affect animals and the ecosystem.
The chemical was accidentally discovered in 1938 and introduced by DuPont as Teflon in 1946. In 1980, DuPont began making vinyl ethers at its Fayetteville facility and discharging PFAS byproduct into the Cape Fear River. In 2015, DuPont launched Chemours, now the name of the Fayetteville facility. Two years later, the public in the Cape Fear region found out they had been exposed to toxic chemicals poisoning their drinking water for 40 years.
To date, there are 9,000 known PFAS worldwide.
“They are known as forever chemicals for their resistance to thermal and chemical degradation,” Sargent explained.
The health effects are still being studied but have been linked to developmental effects on fetuses, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, kidney disease, liver damage, testicular cancer and more.
Agencies such as Cape Fear River Watch have expressed the federal Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t done enough to protect residents by regulating PFAS or researching more about long-term side effects. The EPA has only set compliance levels for water advisories.
Cape Fear River Watch sued the EPA in January for refusing to force Chemours to pay for and conduct health and human studies about the effects of PFAS.
Sargent called the country’s regulations a “backward system,” where chemicals have to be proven harmful at a high degree of certainty before the federal government steps in.
“Companies here in the U.S. can make whatever chemicals they want, release them into the environment and into our consumer products and then we — you, the people — have to figure out if these chemicals might be dangerous,” she said. “So how do you know if a chemical might be dangerous? You get sick or you die.”
An analysis of the Cape Fear River in 2020 found 257 “unknown” PFAS, added to the “known” versions to make nearly 300 released from the one facility upstream.
The legislation under discussion this week would grant the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality the authority to set maximum contaminant levels for PFAS compounds, since there are currently no state or federal regulations. The standard would be 10 parts per trillion for any one PFAS compound or 70 parts per trillion in total for multiple PFAS.
According to the latest water quality report from CFPUA, 76.94 parts per trillion of varying PFAS compounds were located in drinking water processed through the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. The report states this is within EPA compliance limits.
Seventy ppt is the same level proposed in the consent order signed by Chemours and agreed upon by the NCDEQ and Cape Fear River Watch in February 2019 (amended in 2020). The consent order calls for Chemours to permanently reduce emissions by 99% and provide alternative drinking water supplies to affected residents.
The consent order didn’t apply to the downstream residents in the Cape Fear region, though, so the proposed legislation would help by requiring Chemours to fund the technology that would reduce PFAS to a regulated level.
According to NCDEQ, since the 2019 consent order, Chemours has been fined for environmental violations three times, including for exceeding its allowed air emissions limit and failing to meet other conditions.
“In November, DEQ directed Chemours to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the groundwater contamination in communities downstream of their facility,” NCDEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser told a local audience during her March 30 visit to Wilmington.
The assessment of communities include New Hanover, Pender, Columbus and Brunswick counties.
Also during that visit, NCDEQ representatives explained groundwater contamination is the largest contributor of pollution from the Chemours site. The state agency is requiring Chemours to install a 6,000-foot-long barrier wall that will collect and treat up to 2 million gallons of water daily through 69 extraction wells before it’s released into the river.
The Fayetteville plant must complete construction by March 2023.
Reimbursement for water treatment
As a result of the harmful drinking water forced upon residents, New Hanover and Brunswick counties have installed technology to reduce PFAS levels. Both Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County have joined a lawsuit against Chemours seeking compensation for the upgrades to their facilities.
House Bill 1095 would allow NCDEQ to necessitate Chemours to pay for drinking water treatment infrastructure already planned for and installed over the past five years.
Brunswick County commissioners voted to install reverse osmosis treatment technology at the tune of $129 million. The project was contracted in May 2020 and should wrap by 2024. Partial completion, however, should be done by next summer.
In Wilmington, CFPUA spent $43 million on granular activated carbon filters to capture PFAS compounds and remove them from local drinking water. It will also spend up to $5 million annually operating the eight filters once online later this summer. As a result, CFPUA raised rates 8%, or roughly $5 extra per month per customer, for the first time in four years, with another 8% increase planned in 2024.
CFPUA executive director Kenneth Waldrop testified at the N.C. House Judiciary Committee Thursday in favor of House Bill 1095 to advocate for established safer drinking levels. Waldroup told the committee this would be the first time the state would be instituting limits, which hasn’t happened from the EPA.
“It’s simply not on their radar,” he said in a press release. “They have legacy issues to deal with. You will give your DEQ and, just as importantly, the resources to the North Carolina Collaboratory for all their fantastic academic resources, the opportunity to establish what is safe.”
The N.C. Collaboratory is a coalition of UNC researchers and scientists who fund and facilitate studies related to environmental and economic components as it relates to natural resources and public health concerns. According to the group, it’s designed to inform the policy-making process with relevant data.
Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Jean Zhuang, who also spoke Wednesday at the State of the River, said the tainting of the river happened silently because laws, such as the Clean Water Act — intended to protect the waters — aren’t being followed.
“As depressing as working on some of these issues is, I do find hope,” she added. “We know a lot more about the water than we used to. It’s kind of like going to the doctor and getting test results that you don’t like; even though maybe you didn’t want to hear those results, you can at least do something about it moving forward.”
Zhuang told the audience NCDEQ has the tools to require industries, such as Chemours, to implement existing technology that basically eliminates PFAS. Zhuang told the audience NCDEQ has the tools to require industries, such as Chemours, to implement existing technology that basically eliminates PFAS. The source of pollution can be stopped by enforcing permit limits and compelling companies to install certain measures, such as destructive technology (still being researched for large-scale industries) rather than filters.
Even if it is eliminated from the source, NC State University Dr. Detlef Knappe said the legacy pollution embedded in the soil and groundwater will likely continue to contaminate the Cape Fear River for decades.
Sargent encouraged attendees to contact their legislators in support of House Bill 1095.
“And while you’re on the phone with them, tell them they need to do a heck of a lot more,” she said. “They haven’t done anything, in many, many years.”
The House Judiciary Committee could vote on House Bill 1095 as soon as next week and it would then go to the House Rules committee before it reaches the Senate and, ultimately, Gov. Roy Cooper for a final signature.
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