Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Before you go …
Thanks for reading. If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
Elevated levels of industrial pollutants in North Carolina rivers are almost certainly not limited to areas near Wilmington and Fayetteville, where GenX contamination has raised concerns in recent years, according to environmental scientists.
They point to evidence from initial findings in other communities as they prepare a statewide testing plan.
For the first few months, the GenX story was a local story, centered on the discovery of an unregulated contaminant in the Wilmington-area water supply that treatment systems were unable to filter out.
As researchers and policymakers took a deeper look at the causes of pollutants and what it would take to get ahead of similar incidents of contamination, there was a growing realization that what happened in Wilmington was not an isolated case.
As testing for new types of pollutants in public drinking water begins throughout the state, variations of that story are poised to be repeated in more places. There’s little doubt among researchers, regulators, and state and local officials that as we learn more about what’s in our waters, a growing number of communities will be confronted with difficult choices and heightened public concern.
Last year, in the wake of ongoing revelations about the extent of GenX contamination of the Cape Fear River, legislators approved an initial $5 million to set up a statewide network of public and private university researchers to test water sources used for drinking water for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, substances, a universe of compounds used in industrial applications, many of which pose serious health risks.
Preparing to test for pollutants
The testing network, known as PFAST, starts initial testing in the Piedmont this spring and eventually spreads statewide, taking multiple samples at 191 public drinking water intakes and 149 municipal drinking water systems using groundwater.
The PFAST program, organized and funded through the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill, is made up of researchers from six UNC system universities along with Duke University and Wake Forest University. The team includes Detlef Knappe, an N.C. State University environmental engineering professor and a lead author of the studies that detailed the presence of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water and pinpointed the source some 70 miles upriver at the Chemours plant near Fayetteville.
In a recent interview, Knappe said it’s very likely more communities will be faced with unwelcome results and forced to deal with them.
“The PFAS problem is much more widespread than just the attention that’s been given to the Chemours situation,” he said.
He cautioned that unlike what happened with GenX, as results come in, the compounds, their sources and the solutions are likely to not be so easily defined.
Within weeks of the GenX revelations, state regulators with the Department of Environmental Quality moved to shut off the discharge of the compound as well as address air emissions and stormwater and groundwater contamination at the plant.
The state recently further tightened its requirements on the company. This week all parties signed off on a new consent order that requires 20 years of further monitoring and mitigation.
Knappe said the decision in the GenX case to quickly eliminate PFAS discharges was the right response, but being able to pinpoint a single source of pollutants quickly and shut it down is likely to be much more an exception than a rule.
“There is widespread occurrence of PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin,” he said. “Some of those sources are known, some of those are not known, and I think that requires a lot of attention.”
Haw pollution findings
Rather than what happened in Wilmington, a more typical scenario is what’s playing out in the town of Pittsboro, where hundreds of potential upstream sources exist for elevated levels of PFAS, the solvent 1,4-Dioxane and excessive bromide, all of which Knappe’s team discovered at the town’s water treatment plant on the Haw River in sampling in 2014 and 2015.
Knappe has been working with town officials to find filtration methods to reduce the levels. Compared to what happened over GenX in Wilmington and Fayetteville, the outcry has been muted, and the outcome remains uncertain.
“I think it’s been frustrating, honestly, for the utility folks or elected officials that care about this that progress has been extremely slow or perhaps there’s no progress at all,” he said.
Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton agreed that it’s been frustrating, given how quickly state and local officials moved over GenX. One of the problems, she said, is that there’s no straightforward solution.
“I think the problem in the Haw that’s been different from the GenX story is that there is not one place that it’s coming from,” she said.
“There’s not one permit, not one discharge they can target like GenX.”
It’s a far more complicated problem with many more players, she said, not just one “bad guy” the state can shut down. But with so many hot spots for PFAS and other contaminants already identified, DEQ has an obligation to investigate.
“This has kind of been a back-burner issue for them for a while,” Sutton said. “But I think as more data is released and more attention gets drawn to this, they’re going to be under a lot of scrutiny for not addressing it sooner.”
DEQ’s assistant secretary, Sheila Holman, who has led the department’s response to GenX and other emerging contaminants, said the state is actively testing in the Haw River as well as conducting testing and a review of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits throughout the Cape Fear River Basin, which includes the Haw and Deep rivers.
The monitoring, she said, should give the department a clearer picture of what’s going into the river. After that, DEQ would begin to trace the sources and look at what kind of controls could be put in place to deal with any pollutants.
“Each case will likely be a little different,” she said, but the process will be the same.
“It does get to getting good data and then following the science to see who is responsible for it and then also what are the types of control technologies that can reduce a given compound.”
Holman agreed that dealing with GenX contamination may have been easier to sort out than the presence in the Haw of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, which likely has multiple industrial sources and could be entering the river through residential sources as well.
The department plans to also look at land application of biosolids, which Knappe’s research said are likely sources of high PFAS levels in Alamance County and Orange County near the Cane Creek Reservoir.
“We have to be looking at those upstream sources and what may be contributing to the amount of PFAS in the river,” she said.
The broader strategy, Holman said, is to use the wastewater permitting process for “ratcheting down what can go into the river upstream.”
She said the development of a way to regulate pollutants that are compounds without any federal standards has not been easy and has to be done on a case-by-case basis.
Going forward, DEQ is trying to develop permit levels for a number of unregulated compounds, including 1,4-Dioxane, a solvent that can cause liver damage and is listed as a likely carcinogen.
For now, whether the data comes in from the DEQ’s sampling or the new research network, DEQ will have to look at each situation individually.
“It’s a lot to do, and we just have to take it one situation at a time,” Holman said.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she’s concerned that with a legal resolution in the Chemours case and levels of GenX in Wilmington greatly reduced, lawmakers will forget about the broader issue of unregulated contaminants.
She said there is still not enough in DEQ’s budget to stay up on the science and act quickly when it’s needed. It’s important to remember that the Environmental Protection Agency has sidestepped PFAS requirements, she said, leaving the state to go it alone.
“I feel like what the state is doing now is inadequate because I don’t think the sense of urgency is there,” Harrison said.
“I feel like water contamination in our rivers with these emerging compounds is a real issue and the one thing that scares me the most is that we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Harrison, who has raised concerns about compounds in Greensboro’s water system, plans to introduce two bills aimed at bolstering efforts to monitor and reduce PFAS contamination.
“I feel like there’s more that we should be doing,” she said.
Knappe said the challenge for DEQ and policymakers will be to use the growing amount of information gathered by the PFAST network.
“There is clearly a role that DEQ needs to play,” he said.
“I understand that it’s complicated because these compounds are unregulated, but GenX is also unregulated, so it seems to me that something can be done if the political will is there.”
Impatience growing in Chatham
The Haw River winds from just north of Kernersville up into Rockingham County and south of Reidsville before arcing down through Guilford, Alamance and Chatham counties, where it flows into Jordan Lake.
South of the lake’s spillway near Moncure, it combines with the Deep River to form the Cape Fear River near a spot along the Lee-Chatham county line dubbed by local legend as Mermaid Point.
Sutton, the Haw riverkeeper, said the water quality problems with the river start far upstream near Reidsville and are added to as it moves through longtime industrial zones in Guilford and Alamance counties.
She said sampling above and below water treatment plants upstream show that PFAS and other compounds are entering the Haw through municipal treatment plants like those in Burlington and Graham, which have more than 50 industrial customers.
Those customers usually have pretreatment agreements that filter out heavy metals, nitrogen and phosphorus, she said, but none of them have an effect on PFAS and many of the other emerging compounds.
Compounding the water quality problem is the Haw’s hydrology itself. During dry spells, the river flow dwindles, and the percentage of effluent from the wastewater treatment plants upstream shoots up.
Knappe said on average about 15 percent of the river is made up of the flow from water treatment plants, but during dry periods that can reach beyond 50 percent.
At times, as much as 80 percent of the Haw River has been made up of treatment plant effluent, Sutton said. Some treatment plant operators upstream are willing to listen, but without further regulation, she doubts there’ll be any movement.
“They see it as a problem and they’re concerned,” she said. “But they don’t see it that they are doing anything wrong, because they are doing what they’re required to be doing.”
Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry said fixing the problem will be costly if the town has to do it on its own.
Right now, the town board is trying to decide the best way forward and waiting on estimates from its consultants on upgrades to filtration treatment systems. The focus is on removing 1,4-Dioxane.
Perry said reverse osmosis, one of the costliest options, is the surest way to remove it and would be effective with PFAS compounds as well.
She said in the three years since Knappe told town officials about the studies, movement toward any solution to the pollutants has been painfully slow.
In the beginning, Perry said, there was some hope that the towns upstream would be receptive to Pittsboro’s concerns about pollutants.
“At first, we thought it could be sort of a kumbaya thing, that we could just go upstream and talk to folks and have some result,” she said in an interview with Carolina Public Press. “That’s ended up not being the case, quite frankly. The fact is that everybody’s got their industrial base that they’re very interested in protecting.”
Greensboro has at least been willing to come to the table, she said, but others are less receptive. While she’s trying to raise the profile of the issue, Perry said she doesn’t want to panic residents about the issues with pollutants.
“We’re trying not to panic anybody but we’re also really devoted to getting something equitable here,” Perry said. “Because it’s certainly not equitable that upstream municipalities are assuming we can absorb the expense.”
You can strengthen independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina
Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative and public interest reporting for all North Carolinians.
Unlike many others, we aren’t owned by umbrella organizations or corporations. And we haven’t put up a paywall — we believe that fact-based, context-rich watchdog journalism is a vital public service. But we need your help. Carolina Public Press’ in-depth, investigative and public interest journalism takes a lot of money, persistence and hard work to produce. We are here because we believe in and are dedicated to the future of North Carolina.
So, if you value independent, in-depth and investigative reporting in the public interest for North Carolina, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. It only takes a minute and makes a huge difference. Thank you!