Haw River near Pittsboro has issue with chemicals.
The Haw River crosses over a spillway near Pittsboro in Chatham County. Initial findings indicate high levels of industrial pollutants in the river here. Photo courtesy of the Town of Pittsboro

by Greg Barnes, North Carolina Health News

A water sample taken in September from the Sanford sewage treatment plant that discharges into Deep River uncovered “staggering” concentrations of forever chemicals, newly released documents from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality reveal.

The sample contained perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — or PFOS — measuring 1,000 parts per trillion. That is more than 14 times greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.

The data coming out of Sanford is just one example of the high levels of potentially carcinogenic chemicals that a new monitoring program has detected in rivers and streams throughout the Cape Fear River basin, from Reidsville to Wilmington.

From July to September, the DEQ required 25 utilities in the basin to test for 19 or more different types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, at their wastewater treatment plants. The DEQ made the data public in mid-January.

The highest level of total PFAS detected was in Sanford, which recorded a concentration of 4,026 parts per trillion in September. Burlington saw the next highest spike — nearly 2,296 parts per trillion in August.

Of the 25 utilities, 19 recorded total PFAS levels above 100 parts per trillion at different periods in the reporting cycle. (No data was provided for one of the 25 utilities, Columbus County.)

National PFAS study

To put the DEQ data into perspective, the Washington D.C. based Environmental Working Group recently tested tap water at 44 locations in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Data from that testing, which was released last week, found measurable levels of PFAS at all but one site.

The highest level detected in the national study was 186 parts per trillion at an elementary school in Brunswick County, at the North Carolina coast. Brunswick County pulls its drinking water from the Cape Fear River.

David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, reviewed the DEQ’s data and called the numbers “absolutely incredibly high.” Only one other site in the organization’s national study measured PFAS above 100 parts per trillion in drinking water.

The highest level detected in the national study was 186 parts per trillion at an elementary school in Brunswick County, at the North Carolina coast. Brunswick County pulls its drinking water from the Cape Fear River.

David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, reviewed the DEQ’s data and called the numbers “absolutely incredibly high.” Only one other site in the organization’s national study measured PFAS above 100 parts per trillion in drinking water.

Officials with the DEQ and Scott Siletzky, Sanford’s water reclamation administrator, said they do not know where the contamination came from. The DEQ’s monitoring  program aims to find out which industries may be responsible.

In Fayetteville, about 45 miles downstream of Sanford, the level of PFOS in drinking water remained below the EPA’s health advisory during the monitoring period, but total PFAS spiked to as much at 244 parts per trillion.

Mick Noland, chief operations officer for the Fayetteville Public Works Commission’s  Water Resources Division, could not say whether the spike of PFAS in Sanford may have caused the high levels in Fayetteville. River flow and other factors come into play, he said.

Like most water treatment plants, Fayetteville lacks specialized filtration equipment to screen all PFAS from its drinking water. The levels have since retreated to 83 parts per trillion in January.

Farther downstream in Wilmington, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported no spikes in the level of PFOS entering its water treatment plant during the monitoring period. Levels of total PFAS remained consistently high — between 169 and 271 parts per trillion — throughout the monitoring period at one sewage treatment plant.

Health effects of PFAS

Fayetteville is upstream of the Chemours chemical plant, where the release of PFAS for decades continues to foul the drinking water downstream for New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. Although the DEQ stopped Chemours from discharging PFAS into the Cape Fear River, it still seeps into the river through contaminated sediment and groundwater around the plant.

According to the EPA, a person who drinks a level of 70 parts per trillion of PFOA or PFOS over a lifetime  — or a combination of them both — stands an increased risk of adverse health effects, including testicular and kidney cancer, developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy, low birth weight, liver and thyroid disease, antibody production, high cholesterol, and ulcerative colitis.

But there is mounting evidence that suggests PFAS are a health risk at much lower levels. While North Carolina continues to follow the EPA health advisory, other states have or are considering lowering theirs, some to less than 15 parts per trillion.

consent order entered in February among the DEQ, Chemours and the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch speaks to the growing concern of PFAS contamination on human health.  The order requires Chemours to provide filtration systems to people living around the plant whose private well water tests above 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS or 70 parts per trillion for a combination of them.

The Environmental Working Group has proposed an even stricter standard for PFAS at 1 part per trillion. Its proposal is based on a recent Harvard study that reached the same conclusion.

The DEQ began its monitoring program at the 25 municipal wastewater treatment plants as a way to better understand and begin to address PFAS and another, perhaps more carcinogenic chemical called 1,4 dioxane, which has also been found in high concentrations in the river basin.

The plan is to identify the amount of the chemicals flowing into the sewer treatment plants and then determine which industries are responsible for putting them there.  A second phase has begun that asks industrial dischargers to monitor for releases of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane. Letters detailing the monitoring requirements went out to at least 19 industries, which had until Jan. 31 to complete the monitoring.

Andrews, the Environmental Working Group’s senior scientist, applauded the DEQ’s monitoring program.

“This is absolutely the right track of figuring out where this contamination is coming from and trying to make it stop,” he said.

North Carolina, along with Michigan and New Jersey, are leading the country in that regard, Andrews said. He noted that Michigan and New Jersey have filed lawsuits against polluting industries.

Cape Fear Basin. Map by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

Monitoring program showing results

Because PFAS are unregulated, North Carolina currently has little control over industries that are fouling its waterways. But the state can go after cities that violate terms of their pretreatment pollution permits.

The state has already taken enforcement actions against Greensboro and Reidsville. The DEQ cited those cities for violating their pollution permits by failing to timely notify the state and downstream water utilities about large releases of 1,4 dioxane that were discovered through the monitoring process.

The DEQ said the citations were issued because the chemical showed up downstream in the town of Pittsboro’s drinking water.

But no enforcement action has been taken against Sanford, even though the DEQ acknowledges that the 1,100 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS detected at its sewer plant could have flowed downstream and caused the levels in Sanford’s drinking water to exceed the EPA’s health advisory.

Siletzky, who oversees the sewer plant, admitted that he did not notify downstream utilities, saying he “wouldn’t know how to do it.”

Siletzky said the PFOS contamination appears to be coming from firefighting foam,  which has been used largely by the military and civilian firefighters for training purposes. It has been found in groundwater at high levels at military bases across the country.

Industries voluntarily began phasing out the manufacture of PFOS and PFOA in 2006. Although its manufacture is limited in the United States today, it is still being imported.

Sanford has voluntarily agreed to undergo at least another six months of monthly monitoring and evaluation of the potential sources of PFAS,  and specifically PFOS, in its wastewater stream, Young, the DEQ spokeswoman, said in her email.

“More data is necessary to determine why that single sample result was significantly higher than the previous months which is why additional sampling has been initiated,” Young wrote.

No action against Burlington

The DEQ has not taken action against Burlington, where monitoring data show the sum of PFOA and PFOS spiked to 121 parts per trillion in August. The DEQ said dilution kept the levels found at the East Burlington sewer plant from exceeding the EPA health advisory. It did not comment on total PFAS being found at nearly 2,296 parts per trillion at the plant, presumably because that combination of chemicals does not have a health advisory.

Burlington is feeling the heat from elsewhere, though.

On Nov. 7, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue Burlington over PFAS contamination on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, an environmental advocacy group. The notice accuses the city of violating the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

“Burlington’s wastewater treatment plants are illegally releasing toxic chemicals from their wastewater and their sludge into the Haw River and its tributaries,” the SELC writes in its notice. “They will continue to do so unless the waste that they are receiving from industrial facilities no longer contains these chemicals or adequate pollution control technology is installed at the treatment plants.”

The SELC intends to file suit against Burlington unless the city can demonstrate that appropriate steps are being taken to stop the pollution.

Kelly Moser, a senior attorney for the SELC, called the level of PFAS and other contaminants contained in the DEQ’s new data “staggering.”

“The burden should not be on downstream users and the people drinking the water,” Moser said. “DEQ has to get ahead of it and start making headway to solve this problem.”

In its public release of the new data, the DEQ highlighted the positive. It acknowledged the high levels of PFOS contamination found in Sanford but said test results for the other 24 wastewater treatment plants showed concentrations of PFOA and PFOS that would not exceed the EPA health advisories. The DEQ made no mention of the high concentration of the other types of PFAS found.

The DEQ also confirmed that industrial discharges of 1,4 dioxane flowing into the wastewater treatment plants serving Greensboro, Reidsville and Asheboro are a primary concern. That fact was established four years ago when the DEQ prepared a study on the chemical in the basin.

In its release, the DEQ noted that test results for the other 22 sewer plants in the monitoring program were not anticipated to cause levels of 1,4 dioxane to exceed the EPA’s health advisory of 35 parts per billion in drinking water.

But there is no mention of the cumulative effects of PFAS on the environment or on human health.

Moser, the SELC attorney, said PFAS are additive, meaning they don’t break down easily and accumulate in the environment and in the human body. That’s why they are called “forever chemicals.” Almost everyone in the United States has some level of PFAS in their bloodstream.

At the East Burlington plant, the level of total PFAS measured 1,991 parts per trillion in July and 2,296 in August. By September, the level had fallen to just 18 parts per trillion, according to the DEQ data.

In Sanford, the total PFAS levels went from 258 parts per trillion in July to 283 parts per trillion in August to 4,026 in September.

It is not clear why the levels of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane fluctuate so much. One reason, researchers believe, is streamflow. The lower the flow, the more likely it becomes that contaminants will be detected at high levels.

Another reason appears to be industrial discharges. The DEQ has required Greensboro, Reidsville and Asheboro to monitor for 1,4 dioxane at their wastewater treatment plants since December 2017.

From then through mid-October of 2019, monthly testing found the levels of 1,4 dioxane exceeded the EPA’s health advisory for drinking water 21 of 23 times at the Asheboro sewer plant, 20 of 27 times at the Reidsville plant, and eight of 27 times at the Greensboro plant.

The DEQ didn’t penalize any city for violating their wastewater pretreatment permits until November of last year when Greensboro and Reidsville received notices of violations.

It was disclosed a month earlier that a Greensboro company, Shamrock Environmental Corp., was responsible for a large discharge of 1,4 dioxane in August. In Reidsville, officials provided the names of two companies, Unifi Inc., and DyStar, that may have been responsible for a large release of 1,4 dioxane in June.

Young said in her email that the monitoring program is the initial stage of a management strategy to determine which sewer plants are receiving PFAS compounds.

“So the primary goal is to identify the need for reduction measures and implement those,” Young wrote. “The violations in Greensboro and Reidsville were based on a much longer timeline of monitoring data and reduction efforts.”

Industries starting to respond

The DEQ says industries are getting the message, and levels of contamination are decreasing.

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin said the discharge levels of 1,4 dioxane in Reidsville “are consistently dropping… though the city has not provided an explanation on why.”

Martin said that Greensboro’s results have remained below the EPA’s health advisory for 1,4 dioxane and that the city “has indicated Shamrock is expected to install treatment in the next few months.”

Young, the other DEQ spokeswoman, said the StarPet company in Asheboro expects to complete installation of treatment technology early this year to reduce 1,4 dioxane discharges.

StarPet has been saying that at least since June 2018, when company spokesman Jason Greenwood told a reporter that getting the discharges of 1,4 dioxane to acceptable levels “is of the highest priority.”

Greenwood said then that the company was working on new technology to solve the problem.

Andrews, the Environmental Working Group scientist, and Moser, the SELC attorney, said the burden should be on industries to stop polluting and start paying for the cleanup of PFAS contamination, not the utilities or state taxpayers.

“The wastewater facilities are not the enemies in this case,” Andrews said. “They are the ones that are trying to deal with an upstream problem.”

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