NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday new health advisories for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS. The “forever chemicals” — a nickname PFAS earned for being near indestructible — have threatened the wellness of Cape Fear residents for decades unknowingly, until recent years.
A lifetime health advisory level of 10 parts per trillion was set for GenX, Chemours’ toxic trademark chemical, specific to the region. The new level will override North Carolina’s provisional drinking water health goal of 140 parts per trillion.
The EPA also released interim health advisories of 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. Both are types of PFAS seen nationally. The new level also replaces the previous federal levels considered safe and the state’s temporary advisory, which were at 70 ppt.
The advisories are not enforceable but do come with scientific documents that detail the potential health consequences of a lifetime of exposure to the chemicals. (The EPA does plan to finalize legally-enforceable standards for PFOA and PFOS by 2023.) The records also inform local water systems of possible treatment solutions, such as Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Granular Activated Carbon filter facility.
Construction of the long-awaited facility is just months away from completion and will almost instantaneously deliver water to Wilmington customers that is near free of PFAS. Pilot tests show the system should slash GenX to undetectable levels, or close to it.
“It’s been a long journey, going from 2017-18 pilot testing, the design, the construction,” Carel Vandermeyden said. “I think we accomplished a lot in three, four years.”
The executive director of treatment and engineering was speaking to a room of officials, including EPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox. The group was on site to tour the under-construction Sweeney Water Treatment Plant and the incoming carbon filter facility, following Fox’s keynote address at the third National PFAS Meeting held in Wilmington Wednesday.
CFPUA’s process starts 26 miles upstream on the Cape Fear River, where it collects and pumps water to the treatment center. Already, the system uses ozonation, chlorination, biological filters and UV to treat water.
“But none of that worked for PFAS,” Vandermeyden said.
Since 2018, it has incorporated carbon filters as an interim measure, replaced about every six months, to reduce PFAS by roughly 40% — not nearly on the same scale the larger expansion will supply.
The carbon filter facility, specifically engineered to withdraw PFAS, was “essentially bolted” onto the rear of the plant, Vandermeyden explained. Pre-treated water will fill the new contactors to remove the “forever chemicals.”
At the core of the process are eight, 26-foot-deep-beds. Each costs close to $700,000 and in all have the capacity to hold three million pounds of carbon.
CFPUA will fill the beds with about 20 feet of the loose, crumbly, black material. It’s comparable in appearance and texture to charcoal. The water will flow in from the side of the beds, trickle through the carbon and release at the bottom. The utility provider is expecting a delivery of 64 tractor trailer loads of carbon next month and will replace the carbon every 270 days.
After it seeps out of the bed, the water flows through another pipe with lights for “one final zap” of UV treatment, then sits in a well for around 24 hours before it’s ready to go.
Leading the way
Following the new advisories, concerning levels of compounds may raise alarm bells for local water systems, which could provoke them to pursue similar solutions to the ones CFPUA has deployed. By necessity, CFPUA and Brunswick County are at the frontline of the issue, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser noted during the tour.
“More communities throughout the state, as a result of EPA’s interim health advisories and health advisories today, are gonna be asking questions,” Biser said. “A lot of folks will be looking to these two organizations for guidance and what the next steps they may take will be.”
After PFAS were revealed in Wilmington’s drinking water in 2017, CFPUA conducted an extensive pilot study to identify carbon technology as the best fit for the Sweeney Plant. It started construction in November 2019 and expects to finish by late August or early September.
But it comes at a cost — and not to the polluters. CFPUA’s project is wrapping within budget at $43 million, including $36 million in construction costs. The estimated annual operating costs are $3 to $5 million. Vandermeyden said, luckily, it was bid out and under construction before the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the construction industry.
Still, CFPUA increased the average customer’s monthly bill by about $5.39 to pay for PFAS protections. Another 8% rate hike is planned for next year.
“It may not sound a lot, but it’s a significant increase,” Vandermeyden said.
More than 70% of the increase in the budget is related to expenses attributable to Chemours, the company that for decades has discharged its chemicals into the river from its Fayetteville base. CFPUA filed a federal lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont, in which its customers would benefit from any reward. A bill in the House would also empower the state Department of Environmental Quality to force Chemours to pay for costs associated with PFAS pollution, such as water treatment upgrades.
“We didn’t have the luxury just to sit back and wait and let that process take its course first,” Vandermeyden said. “We felt from a public health perspective, it was important that we fund and construct these facilities and get them to operate and remove the PFAs, and then in a parallel path, go through the legal process to ultimately hold the polluters accountable.”