When it comes to PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – which have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they aren’t easily broken down, news and worry aren’t in short supply.
Documentation showing the presence in many parts of North Carolina of some of the roughly 5,000 compounds that fall under the PFAS category has expanded rapidly with an increase in testing and research, including new studies that are due to be released this summer.
Even as communities along the coast and lower Cape Fear River continue developing their response, central North Carolina communities upstream on the Haw and Deep rivers are seeing heightened concerns from more recent testing.
For policymakers and advocates of finding a way to regulate PFAS and its cousins, “forever chemicals” seems to also apply to how long it will be before state and federal governments take meaningful action toward regulating their use and preventing them from flowing into the groundwater, lakes and rivers where communities and individuals draw their drinking water.
Political paralysis after GenX
For the past two years, the N.C. General Assembly has all but shut out attempts to put further controls on PFAS, despite public outcry, lawsuits and enforcement actions, most notably against Chemours, the company identified as the source of GenX, the best-known PFAS compound.
Researchers discovered GenX flowing down the Cape Fear River in high concentrations from the company’s Fayetteville-area manufacturing facility.
Last year, legislative leaders rebuffed efforts to regulate and ultimately reduce firefighting foam, which includes a class of related compounds used as flame retardants. But the only legislative proposal to pass was a provision creating a statewide inventory of its use.
Before that, there was some movement toward change. It followed a study published in 2016 showing high amounts of GenX in the lower Cape Fear River and the inability of water filtration systems to remove it. Subsequent news reports alarmed residents in the Wilmington area and ultimately drove government reaction. Even with public outcry, change did not come quickly.
Levels of the compound eventually dropped in the river after the state Department of Environmental Quality revoked Chemours’ discharge permit in 2017 and filed suit against the company, forcing it to agree to stop discharging GenX into the river. That didn’t stop the presence of GenX and other PFAS compounds from showing up, however, and testing still shows levels occasionally spiking.
Upstream, testing in Cumberland and Bladen counties also showed high levels in private wells, lakes and ponds, including some upstream from the plant.
That led to concerns about air dispersal of GenX or a precursor compound that turned into GenX when it came into contact with water.
As a result, DEQ added a further requirement that Chemours install a thermal oxidizer, which breaks down hazardous chemicals at high heat, to remove PFAS from emissions at the Chemours facility.
A final consent order between the company and the state, including $13 million in fines and costs, is still in the public comment phase. DEQ recently extended the comment period to allow for more input through April 6 and plans to hold an information session on the consent order at 6 p.m. Thursday at Hope Mills Middle School in Cumberland County.
SELC notice of intent to sue the city of Burlington
Upgrading water treatment for chemicals
In response to the discoveries, coastal Brunswick and New Hanover counties, which draw the bulk of their water from the Cape Fear River, are moving ahead with high-cost upgrades to their water treatment facilities in part to assure water customers that what they’re drinking is safe, but also as an acknowledgment that the likely presence of PFAS in river sediment and other potential sources such as groundwater and seeps around the manufacturing facility requires additional, permanent measures.
Last month, school systems in both counties announced plans to install reverse osmosis water filtration dispensers in each school as a stopgap measure until the counties’ new water filtration systems are completed.
Additional filters at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s main treatment plant are expected to take about three years to install. Construction of a new Brunswick County water plant is expected to be completed in 2022.
Legislative response has taken time as well.
In 2017, House and Senate leaders set up select committees on river quality to review the science and history of the contamination and develop potential responses.
In the legislative session that followed in 2018, House and Senate negotiators agreed to a set of provisions that included additional assistance for local water systems as well as requirements that Chemours provide an alternative drinking water source for residents whose wells were contaminated.
But at the same time, with key legislators insisting that PFAS contamination was primarily a local or at the most a regional issue confined to the Lower Cape Fear River watershed, lawmakers dialed back requests for a broader response, including calls for additional resources for testing and enforcement requested by DEQ.
The legislation that passed also put limits on DEQ’s testing capabilities, even going so far as to specify the type of equipment it could use, a provision that was later found to have been inserted at the request of industry lobbyists. Instead of funding the full DEQ request for additional testing resources, the legislature appropriated roughly $5 million to set up a testing and research consortium of public and private university researchers.
In 2018, those researchers, working together as the PFAS Testing Network, developed an ambitious plan to test water around the intakes of all 191 of the state’s public water systems as well as 149 municipal drinking water systems using groundwater.
Now, with legislators planning to return for what promises to be a brief election year session, it’s unclear what, if any, action is contemplated.
Contaminant chemicals above the lower Cape Fear
Meanwhile, as the science proceeds, the extent of North Carolina’s PFAS contamination is coming into sharper focus as data continues to show contamination that extends far beyond the original 100-mile stretch of river between Fayetteville and Wilmington.
In addition to the university-led research, DEQ has also required testing. Last year, it mandated sampling for 25 of the wastewater treatment facilities in the upper Cape Fear region and recently released data showing high levels in the Deep River downstream from Sanford.
At a press conference at Duke University in early February, some of the PFAS Testing Network’s researchers discussed findings from the initial round of sampling, which focused on identifying 48 PFAS compounds in 405 water sources.
Those tests confirmed that, in addition to the lower Cape Fear River, the upper parts of the watershed, including the Deep, Rocky and Haw rivers also showed high levels of PFAS compounds, particularly the town of Pittsboro, which operates a treatment plant using water drawn a few miles upstream from where the Haw River flows into the Jordan Lake reservoir, the water supply for more than 230,000 residents in and around the fast-growing Wake County communities of Cary, Apex and Morrisville, as well parts of Chatham County and Research Triangle Park.
Contamination of the Haw River with both PFAS compounds and 1,4 dioxane, an industrial solvent and a byproduct of several manufacturing processes, was identified in 2013 and 2014 in the same research that spurred the GenX revelations. Unlike GenX, which was tied to a specific manufacturing facility, the source of the compounds found in the Haw has yet to be identified, but the new round of testing is beginning to zero in on potential sources.
Heather Stapleton, a Duke University professor of environmental ethics and sustainable environmental management who is part of a team that’s focused on the effectiveness of home water filters in removing PFAS, said she was surprised when in the fall of 2018 she tested her own water and found PFAS levels at 70 parts per trillion, or ppt.
Both state and federal regulators have yet to set a health advisory level for total PFAS, although several other states and the Environmental Protection Agency have set guidelines for individual PFAS compounds. Massachusetts recently set a health guideline for combined PFAS at 70 ppt.
Stapleton, who lives in Cary, which draws raw water from a Jordan Lake intake near the U.S. 64 bridge in Chatham County, said the test brought home concerns about the local water supply.
“This raised two questions in my mind,” she told reporters in February, “where was it coming from and how well did the water filter in my home effectively remove these compounds?”
She and other network researchers tested water from the tap and water after home filtration from customers of water systems run by Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Cary and Apex and Pittsboro.
Focus on chemicals in Pittsboro water
All showed some levels of PFAS, but by far the highest levels were found in Pittsboro. Tests of wells from the areas, Stapleton said, showed levels close to zero, further increasing the likelihood that the river was the source.
Samples from Pittsboro also identified seasonal variations in the levels with about a twentyfold increase in levels from June to September.
“The highest concentration we measured in Pittsboro was over the summer at 760 ppt,” she said. “This increased our interest in understanding what was going on in Pittsboro.”
The researchers began sampling at 13 sites along the Haw River from Burlington to Jordan Lake and began comparing levels to try and identify potential upstream sources. They took samples upstream and downstream of the East Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant, where wastewater from several of the town’s industrial customers is treated.
“We observed statistically higher levels downstream compared to upstream,” she said, the seasonal variation was there, too. “In summer, it’s about five to 10 times higher 100 yards downstream relative to upstream, which suggests to us that a major input is through that wastewater treatment plant and also suggests that there are likely industrial users discharging PFAS and PFAS precursors into those streams that are entering the wastewater treatment plant.”
Most wastewater treatment plants, including Burlington’s, aren’t equipped to filter out PFAS, she said.
“Our data suggests that that’s a primary source of PFAS to Pittsboro. It is likely not the only source — there are other sources — but that does seem to be one of the major sources. It cannot be explained by rainfall and evaporation, we are quite sure of that.”
The next step, similar to what happened in Wilmington, was to look at what was happening to the people who drank the water. Researchers took blood samples from about 50 Pittsboro-area residents as well as testing their water and home filtration systems.
An analysis of those results, taken in May 2019, should be available this summer.
Stapleton said testing of Jordan Lake continues, but what is being found in Pittsboro appears to match what’s being found in the lake, although at much lower levels because of the volume of water in the lake.
“They are there,” she said. “The pattern of PFAS looks identical to what we’re seeing in the Haw River.”
Legal action on chemicals in the wings
While research continues, a potential lawsuit against Burlington is brewing.
Last November, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue Burlington over violations of the federal Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, a clean water advocacy group based in Bynum, not far from the Pittsboro water plant.
The notice states that the city is discharging PFAS and 1,4 dioxane, which is classified by the EPA as a likely carcinogen, into the Haw River and its tributaries in violation of its federal wastewater discharge permits.
The notice also states that PFAS in sludge from the plant, which is sprayed on fields in Orange County, has contaminated both the Cane Creek Reservoir, the county’s largest water supply, and Cane Creek, which flows into the Haw River just downstream from Saxapahaw.
Kelly Moser, lead attorney in the case, said negotiations with Burlington officials are ongoing but as yet have not resulted in a plan to stop the flow of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane into the Haw River at the source.
Under pretreatment permits with its industrial users, Moser says the city can and should require that discharges be halted.
If no source or solution is found, she said, SELC remains ready to file a lawsuit against the city to force it to stop discharges of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane, which are not listed in any of its discharge permits or industrial pretreatment agreements.
SELC’s notice includes numerous details from testing, including the discovery of 14 different PFAS compounds in water drawn from a drinking fountain at the Chatham County Public Library.
Samples from the drinking fountain taken over July and August of last year range from 157 ppt to 489 ppt in total PFAS concentrations, according to the notice.
“At a high level, we’re encouraged that Burlington is going to its industrial sources and looking to control PFAS contamination at the source,” Moser said in an email Friday. “All wastewater treatment plants in North Carolina that have PFAS in their wastewater must do the same. We’ll be closely monitoring Burlington’s analysis.”
In a Feb. 24 email to Carolina Public Press, Morgan Lasater, Burlington’s community engagement manager, said the city is continuing to work with its industrial customers to try and identify sources of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane.
“The city of Burlington is an environmentally conscious community, and city staff is committed to protecting the environment on a daily basis,” Lasater wrote.
“Our door is always open to community partners like the Haw River Assembly. The city is working with its 13 permitted industrial users to determine if they discharge high levels of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane into our wastewater treatment system. Testing has not identified any significant sources of these chemicals.
“Even at low levels, we are working with a few industries to identify the sources of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane in their operations. Those industries are looking at ways to capture discharge before it enters the wastewater system or at alternative production methods that do not contain PFAS or 1,4 dioxane.
“In addition to testing industries, the city has begun sampling influent at ‘upstream’ sites prior to entering Burlington’s East Plant. We are waiting on these results.”
Lasater also said that tests on biosolids have not found significant levels of PFAS and that field application has not been done recently in Orange County.
“Tests on the city’s biosolids indicate that they are not a significant source of PFAS,” Lasater said.
“They have not been tested for 1,4 dioxane. The city adheres to all buffer regulations when applying biosolids. There are four permitted sites in Orange County, but the city has not applied at any of those locations in 2019 or 2020. That length of time without application is not uncommon for our biosolids program.”
Moser noted that Burlington has land application sites in Orange, Alamance, Caswell and Chatham counties. Its testing of biosolids, she said, has not been adequate.
“We remain concerned about Burlington’s sludge given that we know that in two watersheds where their sludge is the only source of PFAS (Cane Creek Reservoir and the Haw’s Cane Creek West tributary), there is contamination,” Moser said.
“Ultimately, controlling PFAS at the source is the best way to prevent sludge from being contaminated.”
Impact of chemicals still unknown
Researchers are still trying to determine health impacts of the so-called “forever chemicals” along with how prevalent they are in the waters of North Carolina.
Last month, a state science advisory panel considered new rules that would set a drinking water standard for combined PFAS at 70 ppt. If adopted, the proposal would go through the state’s rule-making process, which can take years to complete and if challenged would be subject to review by the General Assembly.
The EPA is also considering the development of PFAS standards and last month updated its PFAS action plan, saying it would step up enforcement, research and potential regulation of some compounds. At the same time, there is concern that agency action may ultimately weaken the ability of states to regulate emerging contaminants. Congressional action to require standards for PFAS is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate
Lee Ferguson, an environmental analytical chemist with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering whose lab is managing the analysis of the water samples, said North Carolina and other states are working to catch up with the rapid adoption of new compounds by industry.
In light of that, Ferguson said he’s troubled by efforts to roll back some of the protections at the federal level.
“Because compounds like PFAS or 1,4 dioxane have been poorly monitored and poorly understood over time, now we’re only starting to become aware of elevated levels in certain areas and the sources and potential effects,” he said last month.
“I think we’re going in the wrong direction if we’re rolling back Clean Water Act protections, where really what we should be doing is trying to accelerate protections on unregulated contaminants.”
He said that a recent nationwide study by the Environmental Working Group that ranked Brunswick County and the Wilmington area first and fifth respectively in the amount of PFAS in the public water supply likely understated the extent of contamination there.
“Our results from the PFAS network sampling in the lower Cape Fear as well as the Haw River sampling showed PFAS levels that were between two and 4 1/2 times higher than the highest concentration measured in drinking water by the Environmental Working Group, highlighting the importance of measuring these compounds in the waters of North Carolina,” he said.
The problem also goes far beyond “forever chemicals,” he said. His lab uses the type of high-resolution mass spectrometer the legislature denied DEQ for its research.
With it, he’s able to run an untargeted analysis of water samples and unlock far more of what’s in the water.
“We are constantly amazed by the number and diversity of chemical compounds we observe in areas like the Cape Fear and the Haw River over and above the compounds such as PFAS,” he said.
“We’re finding compounds that are color additives, vulcanization accelerants, pesticides, agrochemicals — up to 3,000 to 5,000 individual organic compounds discernible in the water sources of North Carolina, especially the surface waters. So, rollback of protections to decrease attention on some of these emerging contaminants is really a major risk for public health.”
Detlef Knappe, the N.C. State University scientist who was a lead researcher for the 2015 study that uncovered GenX in the Cape Fear River and the inability of conventional water treatment plants to filter it out, said there is a major risk in failing to act on the findings or, even worse, to try to hide them.
He said it’s far better for a public utility to disclose what researchers find early on than for it to come out and give the public the impression that officials are hiding something.
“The public will appreciate if things are disclosed, and it always amazes me people still have a hard time of that,” he said. “There’s this natural tendency that we want to say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s all OK,’ when really what we should be saying is ‘We’re finding something here and let’s think about what to do.’”
A proponent of the precautionary principle under which new compounds can’t be discharged until they are proven not to be harmful to public health, Knappe noted that there are significant gaps in monitoring and regulation.
Even when a likely human carcinogen like 1,4 dioxane was found in public water supplies, action did not come quickly.
“There’s been some decreases observed of 1,4 dioxane across the watershed, so I think we are on the right track, but it’s been a very slow process and only very recently,” he said.
It is often up to the public, he said, to press the case.
“I think hanging our hat on regulations is overly optimistic. In the end, the public is pretty smart. We see that with all these emerging and unregulated contaminants.
“Actions are actually being taken because the public is concerned. So, maybe we’ll develop a viewpoint where we don’t regulate one compound at a time and think more broadly about it.”
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