NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New legislation introduced on the federal level Wednesday would help cover the costs of keeping water clean for households.
Cape Fear representative Rep. David Rouzer (NC-07), along with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-01), reintroduced the Healthy Drinking Water Affordability Act for the second time since 2022.
Once introduced, it did not receive a vote to proceed after being referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Also known as the Healthy H2O Act, the legislation would provide financial assistance to families and small businesses, mostly in rural communities, to test their drinking water. It would cover the cost of installing and maintaining water filtration systems to protect households from harmful contaminants, such as PFAS, lead and nitrates.
If enacted into law, the federal grants would come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It would offer funds to rural homeowners, renters, business owners, licensed childcare facilities, and nonprofits to help coordinate and facilitate water testing. Eligible recipients must have the presence of at least one health contaminant to qualify and household income below 150% of the median income within the state they reside.
A 2022 report published by the Environmental Integrity Project, in honor of the Clean Water Act turning 50, noted roughly half of the water in the U.S. is polluted or classified as “impaired.” This includes streams, lakes and rivers affecting recreational swimming, aquatic life, fish consumption, and drinking water.
“Investments in projects to improve and support drinking water infrastructure are critically important to addressing water quality in the United States, but because those projects can typically take many years to complete, the current, and in some cases the ongoing, needs of communities impacted with immediate drinking water quality challenges cannot be or are not addressed in a timely manner,” the bill states.
Therefore, the bill recommends the interim solution of point-of-entry water treatment to protect rural residents from contamination.
“This is the start of heading in a good direction,” Clean Cape Fear founder Emily Donovan said. Donovan is one of many nonprofit leaders advocating for improved drinking water protections and holding companies like Chemours accountable.
“Let’s not leave behind rural communities and private well owners living with a contamination crisis they did not create,” she added. “We know deeply and intimately how that feels.”
Donovan is referring to the Cape Fear region, currently impacted by PFAS contamination from Chemours. The toxic chemicals were dumped into the Cape Fear River for four decades, impacting water utility companies’ main source of drinking water. Chemours Fayetteville Works, a DuPont subsidiary, has its manufacturing plant located on the Cape Fear River, 70 miles upstream from Wilmington.
The contaminants didn’t become public knowledge until 2017 after an N.C. State study was revealed and reported on by StarNews.
The Healthy H20 Act would allocate $10 million annually over the course of fiscal years 2024 to 2028 to be dispersed across the states. There is no indication yet of how much each state would receive.
According to Consumer Reports, the cost of household water treatment systems can range from $100 to upward of $2,000 depending on the model and whether it’s under-sink filtration or whole-house reverse osmosis system.
“I think it’s a good bill,” Donovon said. “But it needs an education component about the right filter for the contamination.”
For example, reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon filters have been proven most effective for PFAS in the Cape Fear region, but that might not apply countrywide.
She also noted, the way the bill is written calls for following “manufacturer’s instructions,” yet locally she found residents have to change their filters more frequently than the company’s recommendations.
NC State University’s Dr. Detlef Knappe did an in-house filtration system study and learned Cape Fear residents have to change filters more often to avoid any PFAS break through.
“A lot still needs to be addressed, if this is approved,” Donovan said, suggesting more stringent measures to hold the companies making the chemicals accountable.
“Why don’t we implement a use tax?” she asked. “Everybody who’s making the chemicals, using them in their supply chain, pays into a fund that goes to residents to protect them. … Pay your fair share and stop investing in technology and chemistry that doesn’t have a safe disposal level for people to consume even at such small doses.”
Currently, Chemours is under a consent order with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which requires the company to provide clean drinking water or filtration solutions for residents whose private wells test for PFAS exposure at 10 parts per trillion or more.
Recent sampling by Cape Fear River Watch reports detected levels of GenX between 10 and 139 ppt in 2,566 private wells within New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, Columbus, Cumberland, Bladen and Robeson counties. The Environmental Protection Agency released a health advisory of 10 ppt for GenX, a form of PFAS produced by Chemours.
On March 14, the EPA announced plans to push through additional regulations on PFAS levels in drinking water. The move would limit allowable amounts even further to 4 ppt.
The consent order also prevents contamination from entering the Cape Fear River from Chemours by requiring the company to build a treatment system addressing pollution at the source.
It doesn’t fund utilities companies’ efforts to prevent contaminants in drinking water before being dispersed to residents. CFPUA invested $43 million to install granular activated carbon filters at its Sweeney Water Treatment Plant; Brunswick County spent nearly $137 million for its reverse osmosis project. While Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County have sued Chemours to have them fund their respective multi-million solutions, the taxpayers are still footing the bill.
Regardless of Rouzer’s bill, Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent told Port City Daily she didn’t see Chemours’ requirement to uphold the consent order changing.
“The order is a legal judgment, so unless it gets somehow changed in the courts, it remains as is,” she said.
Already measures have been put in place to provide funds to private wells affected by pollution. The EPA announced in February it was appropriating $61.7 million from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to tackle PFAS contamination in North Carolina.
Rouzer did not respond to PCD’s request for comment by press, but in a release this week announcing the bill, he stated: “I will continue working to help bring forward solutions to ensure access to safe drinking water.”
“I am grateful to Rep. Rouzer for making attempts to elevate the PFAS conversation,” Donovan said. ‘We always want our legislators to champion and be leading the conversation.”
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