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Monday, May 27, 2024

EPA announces new PFAS standards for water utilities, but fails to address NC chemical industry

The Environmental Protection Agency announced maximum contaminant levels for six types of PFAS compounds Wednesday. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NORTH CAROLINA — The Environmental Protection Agency has announced historic new PFAS regulations, but North Carolina environmentalist groups are concerned the rules will fail to stop chemical discharges at the source.

READ MORE: Amid ongoing lawsuit, NC groups dismayed by EPA’s private chemical industry workshop on PFAS testing

ALSO: Appeals Court casts doubt on district judge’s dismissal of local groups’ PFAS testing petition

On Wednesday, the EPA announced first-time legally enforceable maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for six types of PFAS. They include:

  • PFOA 4.0 parts per trillion (ppt) 
  • PFOS 4.0ppt 
  • GenX chemicals 10ppt 
  • PFNA 10ppt 
  • PFHxS 10ppt  
  • Mixtures of GenX, PFNA, PFHxS, and PFBS meeting a hazard index standard of 1.

“This is a very important first step, a huge move for the EPA to protect communities in our country,” Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Jean Zhuang told Port City Daily.

Public water utilities will be required to complete initial monitoring of the compounds by 2027 and must implement solutions to reduce chemicals exceeding the MCL by 2029.

After 2029, utilities with PFAS exceeding MCLs will be required to give public notice of the violation and take action to reduce them in drinking water.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is seeking federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to assist water utilities in funding expensive filtration technology. CFPUA installed its granular-activated carbon system in 2022, which cost $43 million. It raised its rates 8% in 2022 to help cover the costs.

CFPUA spokesperson Cammie Bellamy said the utility is in compliance with the EPA’s new rules and provides updated testing results on its website. She said the site will soon include comparisons with new PFAS maximum contaminant levels.

Pender County spokesperson Brandi Cobb said Pender is also in compliance with the new standards and has been filtering PFAS compounds through its GAC system

“We appreciate having a specific regulation, as it offers clarity and guidelines on the essential measures to mitigate toxic chemicals in the water,” Pender County Utilities executive director Anthony Colon told PCD. “Nonetheless, it is concerning that the EPA places more responsibility on utility companies and their customers than on the companies responsible for introducing these chemicals into the water in the first place.”

While the MCL standards place requirements on public water utilities, it remains unclear if the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality will implement the rules for companies that require pollution discharge elimination system permits. 

In a public comment to the EPA, CFPUA executive director Kenneth Waldroup said PFAS manufacturers should be the foremost focus of expensive regulation, not utilities.

According to DEQ Deputy Communications Director Josh Kastrinsky, the agency is proposing to include the EPA’s PFAS standards in the state’s surface and groundwater standards to the Environmental Management Commission, the appointed body oversees and creates rules for DEQ. 

North Carolina currently does not have surface or groundwater water standards for PFAS; new standards would include PFAS in discharge permits. 

It’s unclear if the EPA’s new rules will affect a recent permit submitted by automotive manufacturer Lear Corporation, for instance, which included no PFAS limitations in its February draft NPDES permit for its Kenansville facility. DEQ extended the public comment period for the draft permit after a Cape Fear River Watch petition protesting the omission gained thousands of signatures. It is currently under EPA review. 

Kastrinksy told Port City Daily the agency is currently reviewing public comments for Lear’s draft permit and a final announcement will be made soon. 

“We do want to emphasize that EPA and our states need to take the next step and ensure that utilities can meet these standards — and not be too burdened — that they should begin using existing legal tools under the Clean Water Act to stop PFAS pollution at the source,” Zhuang said.

Beyond Lear, she noted other known and suspected North Carolina dischargers do not have PFAS limitations in their NPDES permits, including DAK Americas’ emissions in the Cape Fear River and Colonial Pipeline, which releases in the Yadkin River watershed.

“Dischargers should be tasked with implementing best available control technologies (BACT) in all cases for cleaning our waters and air,” UNCW geographer Roger Shew told PCD. “This should not be a discussion item. If the technology is available then it should be put in place —  that is and should be EPA’s responsibility.”

Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent said she views the announcement as positive, but argued the EPA’s first-time PFAS regulations should have been established decades earlier.

“Thousands of people have become sick or died from PFAS exposures while the chemical manufacturers who knew of the dangers 60 years ago, cozied up to the EPA, and federal and state officials, who — instead of doing their jobs to protect human health and the environment — helped make these corporations trillions of dollars, completely unregulated, for decades,” Sargent said.

On March 19, Cape Fear River Watch and other local nonprofits sent a letter to EPA expressing alarm about the agency’s private, invite-only workshop on the national PFAS testing strategy with chemical industry representatives. 

The groups are currently suing the EPA to require comprehensive PFAS testing in North Carolina, to include 54 Chemours-specific compounds.

Zhuang pressed the fact that Wednesday’s announcement only applies to a few PFAS compounds; different agencies estimate a range from 6,000 to more than 12,000 variants. She hopes for more comprehensive regulation in the future. 

Sargent similarly called for more expansive action:

“It’s time the USA adopts the precautionary principle followed by other developed countries, which requires companies prove their products are safe before they enter the environment, rather than waiting for people to get sick and die, before beginning a decades-long process to regulate them.”

She added the agency has not sought public input for its PFAS testing strategy, which Sargent believes is excessively influenced by the chemical industry.

“Even now, they refuse to regulate the corporations directly by requiring them to stop the pollution at the source, but instead put the burden on utilities to either filter this dangerous filth, or do the government’s job to pressure companies to stop discharging it,” she said.

Powerful business groups in the state such as the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, and the American Chemistry Council have pushed against stronger PFAS regulations

Legislators introduced a House Bill 600 provision last year to limit DEQ from imposing limits on PFAS, but withdrew it after public backlash. Industry groups also fought against Rep. Ted Davis Jr’s bill to require Chemours to pay for the public utilities’ PFAS filtration systems in New Hanover and Brunswick counties in 2022. 

Shew said DEQ should work with PFAS discharging companies to meet the new standards:. “And if they don’t, they should be held fiscally accountable. There should be incentive penalties to ensure they adhere to the new rules.”


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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