WILMINGTON — Local Democrats joined riverside at Dram Tree Park Monday and, under the rumblings of trucks crossing Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, celebrated historic investments in purifying the nation’s contaminated drinking sources, including the one right behind them.
Signed into law by President Joe Biden Nov. 15, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal will send money cross-country to fix disintegrating roads, modernize ports and airports, expand internet access, and — in an issue hitting close to home — get pollutants out of Americans’ water.
Specifically, $5 billion in the form of grants will be dispersed; $4 billion is included for the state revolving clean drinking water fund; and $1 billion is allocated to help utilities address contaminants in wastewater discharges.
“Billions. With a B,” state Rep. Deb Butler stressed. “Billions of dollars coming to remove the toxic forever chemicals that have rained down upon us for over 40 years.” Butler called PFAS “possibly our most pressing local issue.”
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo took to the riverside podium, accessorized with a sign for Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, to make known that the city would be fighting for its share of the money to take care of the issues at home.
The city is interested in obtaining a chunk of the funding for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s $40-plus million installation of new carbon filters at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. CFPUA is suing Chemours in an attempt to force them to pay for the upgrades. As it awaits a settlement, though, the federal aid could offset the expenses. The lawsuit is in federal court and will likely take years, possibly a decade, to resolve, Saffo estimated.
“If we could get all of that money sooner rather than later, that would be one way that we could help immediately, putting this money to work, to protect our citizens,” Saffo said.
Construction on the filtering system began in 2019 and is expected to be complete by June 2022.
Butler indicated the Cape Fear region is in a good position to secure funding, considering the current Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, helmed the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality when PFAS was first discovered in the water system. In October, Regan traveled to N.C. State University to unveil the agency’s new PFAS Roadmap, a strategy for the next three years to research, restrict and remediate the chemicals.
“He is keenly aware of this issue, and I am confident that that is why it has risen to such national importance,” Butler said. “And so I am sure that North Carolina and the treatment of this issue is going to get its fair do because he is in charge of championing it.”
Though it’s not yet clear how much money could flow into Wilmington, Mayor Saffo called the infrastructure bill “a big deal” for the area. He said CFPUA’s improvements are necessary given the circumstances but costly, and there’s still more that needs to be done outside of the public utility system.
Over the past four decades, approximately 300,000 residents of Cape Fear communities have been exposed to drinking water contaminated by PFAS, which the DuPont spin-off Chemours had dumped into the Cape Fear River since at least the ‘80s.
Per a consent order, negotiated by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch with the NCDEQ, Chemours must spend hundreds of millions cleaning up its contamination at the source. In the end, it is required to have halted at least 99% of PFAS from escaping the Fayetteville site, according to Kemp Burdette, riverkeeper of Cape Fear River Watch.
However, Chemours is not the only source to blame for PFAS contamination, and the situation is not unique to Wilmington.
“There’s other reasons why we have PFAS in our drinking water,” Burdette said. “Coming from upstream sources, coming from air pollution, coming from sediment, coming from products that are used to fight fires upstream, and so you kind of need this type of approach –– this kind of all-hands-on-deck approach –– to treat what is really an incredibly serious environmental issue.”
The riverkeeper added that PFAS are not only in water. The substances are in firefighting gear, clothes, food, personal care products and the air.
“It turns out that the more you look, the more PFAS you find,” Burdette said.
Dubbed “forever chemicals,” because natural processes cannot break them down, it was first revealed that PFAS were floating in the region’s water source in 2017. Wastewater treatment plants, in their current states, weren’t capable of removing the chemicals from the water, and utilities have since pursued upgrades, such as reverse osmosis systems.
“These are chemicals that are unable to be broken down by traditional water treatment even though we had some of the best water treatment in the country here,” Burdette said. “It was unable to touch it because you really have to go after PFAS chemicals with a very specific treatment process.”
PFAS are linked to adverse health impacts, from cancer to reproductive and immune system problems. In the U.S. at least 97% of humans have PFAS flowing through their bloodstreams, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another estimate is as high as 99%.
“I believe that PFAS pollution is the environmental issue of our time,” Burdette said. “And I want to be clear, when polluters willingly pollute our environment for profit, they should be held accountable. But an issue this big and this urgent requires historic action. Historic action requires historic funding.”
Nationwide, members of the Democratic party are touting the infrastructure deal ahead of the 2022 election, during which each party will fight for power within Congress. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Charlotte last week to promote the bill and the almost $9 billion it is sending to the Tar Heel state.
The plan received support from 13 House Republicans, none of which were North Carolina’s representatives. In the Senate, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis were two of 19 Republicans who favored the bill, which Mayor Bill Saffo applauded during his speech.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Bobbie Richardson criticized the Republicans who didn’t support the bill. She accused Congressman Ted Budd, former Governor Pat McCrory and former Congressman Mark Walker, all of whom were against the bill, of opposing “investments in North Carolina and Wilmington clean drinking water.”
“If they had their way, North Carolina would not see one dime of this money,” she said.
Butler said she has attempted to put forth legislation repeatedly to assist in the PFAS crisis, but the Republican leadership would consistently deny her a hearing. She said her House Bill 444, a “polluter pay bill,” would have forced Chemours to compensate CFPUA for its updated system.
“Sadly, in today’s political climate in Raleigh –– that is about as toxic as GenX –– Republicans believe that truly good legislation is only good if a Republican puts it forward,” Butler said.
A Republican National Committee spokeswoman wrote to Port City Daily, “Rather than trying to score political points on a PR tour, the Democrats should work on solving the multiple crises facing our country. Instead, the Biden administration is trying to ram through Build Back Broke legislation that will worsen inflation, raise taxes and add hundreds of billions to our national debt.”
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