By Greg Barnes
Although many are destined to die, the large number of environmental bills pending in the North Carolina General Assembly stand testament to the severity of water contamination in this state and legislators feeling the urgency to do something about it.
At least six bills address potentially cancer-causing per- and polyfluorinated substances — or PFAS — which are ubiquitous in the water many of us drink.
In addition, Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget calls for $6.3 million and 37 new workers to study and fight the PFAS problems.
That money would be on top of the more than $5 million the legislature approved last year to create, staff and fund the PFAS Testing Network through the N.C. Policy Collaboratory. The network, comprised largely of university researchers, is now testing public water systems for PFAS across the state.
A water sample taken last summer from the Haw River at Bynum illustrates the seriousness of the PFAS contamination. Bynum is about five miles upstream of Pittsboro, the only municipality to draw its drinking water directly from the Haw.
The combined levels of seven different PFAS found in the Bynum sample measured 1,076 parts per trillion, believed to be the highest concentration recorded in a North Carolina river.
In the Cape Fear River, where the potential carcinogen GenX was discovered in 2015, researchers have found 57 additional PFAS downstream of the Chemours chemical plant near Fayetteville, according to a report dated April 17 in Science Daily.
Some of those compounds had not been previously identified. According to the report, concentrations of the PFAS were reduced about two-fold during the nine-month study conducted in 2017 and 2018, after the state Department of Environmental Quality ordered Chemours to dispose of its waste off-site rather than continue discharging it into the river.
State Sen. Harper Peterson, a Democrat from New Hanover County, explained the urgency of dealing with PFAS contamination this way:
“At the end of the day, water resources are going to be our lifeblood. If we don’t get a handle on that we are going to be in big trouble.”
Peterson, along with Democratic Sens. Kirk deViere of Cumberland County and Floyd McKissick of Durham County, have filed a bill that would establish a PFAS task force to identify and analyze all PFAS in the Lower Cape Fear River basin, identify the sources of the PFAS, establish maximum health standards for exposure to the contaminants and provide safe drinking water for people facing contamination at high levels.
Senate Bill 518 would also allocate $270 million in state money now held in reserve to provide filtration systems where contamination has occurred and direct the DEQ to recoup the money from responsible parties.
Peterson isn’t optimistic that SB 518 will be approved. It has been sent to the Senate’s Rules and Operations Committee, where the legislation is often sent to die. But he views the bill as a starting point, one in which the legislature will one day soon begin to take greater actions against the water problems in this state.
“PFAS is at the epicenter right now. It’s the poster child. How are we going to address this over the next 10 or 15 years?” Peterson said.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro and a longtime environmental advocate, is among the primary sponsors of another bill (HB 568) that would increase the Department of Environmental Quality’s funding, require industries to disclose in their permits the pollutants they discharge and suspend the permits of those industries that discharge unauthorized and undisclosed pollutants.
Bill would increase transparency
As it stands now, it is almost impossible to know which industries are responsible for discharging PFAS. Industries typically discharge their wastes into municipal sewer treatment systems, which are, for the most part, incapable of screening PFAS before the treated water is released back into rivers and streams.
Greensboro announced recently that it is spending $31 million on a filtration system that can capture PFAS before it gets into the city’s drinking water. Water utilities in New Hanover and Brunswick counties are also spending millions on filtration systems.
Emily Sutton, riverkeeper for the Haw River, said Harrison’s bill would go a long way toward knowing which companies are dumping PFAS into the Haw and other rivers of the state.
140 parts per trillion = North Carolina DHHS health guideline for GenX in drinking water.
70 parts per trillion = US EPA’s health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, or a combination of the two in drinking water.
1,076 parts per trillion = combined level of seven different PFAS found in samples from Bynum, on the Haw River near Pittsboro
Only a handful of the estimated 4,700 PFAS known to exist have a North Carolina or EPA health guideline. There are no health goals for the dozens of PFAS that have been found in the state’s surface waters, either individually or in combination.
“By first requiring disclosure, we will get a clearer picture of the sources of PFAS and other unchecked industrial pollutants, and the state can prioritize getting those facilities into compliance when statewide limits are set,” Sutton said.
Lack of health standards
A big part of the problem is that neither the state nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set health standards for individual per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, other than for GenX and what are known as two legacy compounds, PFOA and PFOS. Those compounds were considered the building blocks for hundreds of non-stick products, including Teflon, food packaging, stain-resistant carpets and even dental floss.
The compounds were phased out at the EPA’s request because of their threat to human health and the environment, but they still persist because they don’t break down easily. Almost every American has some level of PFOA or PFOS in their bodies.
In recent years, industries have switched to shorter-chain cousins of the legacy compounds, producing more than 4,700 types of PFAS known to regulators as emerging contaminants. While the EPA has listed PFOA and PFOS as probable carcinogens, little is known about the health effects of the newer PFAS.
In March, a report by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences said research conducted to date reveals possible links between human exposures to PFAS and adverse health outcomes, including potential effects on metabolism, pregnancy, children’s cognition and neurobehavioral development and the immune system. The organization’s National Toxicology Program is now conducting animal testing to further understand the health effects of PFAS.
In a December presentation in Greensboro, the state Department of Health and Human Services listed other potential health effects from PFAS, including thyroid disease, liver damage, increased risk of certain cancers, increased cholesterol levels and decreased vaccination response.
It’s only recently, as technology has improved, that scientists can even detect PFAS at levels in the range of parts per trillion, which, nonetheless, are levels that have been shown to produce adverse health effects.
EPA action plan
In February, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced a nationwide PFAS action plan that will, among many other things, set a maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS. The multi-year plan also proposes to include PFAS in nationwide monitoring as federal regulators strive to understand more about the chemicals and their sources and move forward toward stricter regulations.
Wheeler’s announcement was met with lukewarm support by Cooper, who said the plan “seems to ignore the urgency of the problem.”
In an effort to get around the EPA’s slow approach to PFAS, the bills by Harrison, deViere and Peterson would repeal the so-called Hardison Amendment, which prohibits DEQ from adopting stronger environmental standards than those imposed by the EPA. The amendment was revoked in 1995 but re-enacted in 2011 by a Republican-controlled legislature.
deViere believes it is essential that the Hardison Amendment be abolished so the state can move ahead with setting health standards for additional PFAS.
“By repealing the Hardison Amendment, it allows us to put those standards and regulations in place,” deViere said.
Harrison, like Peterson, doesn’t see much chance of her bill surviving.
Another environmental bill co-sponsored by deViere is also languishing in the Senate’s rules committee. The “Polluter Pays” bill would make industries that cause or contribute to contamination responsible for the costs of cleanup and for providing safe water to the people affected. It would also prohibit electric utilities from passing the cost of coal ash cleanup on to ratepayers.
Harrison and Peterson say their biggest concern is that no one knows what a collective cocktail of PFAS in drinking water may be doing to human health.
“What scares me the most is we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Harrison, a seven-term lawmaker who has introduced similar bills in the past only to watch them die in committee.
Harrison believes her bills won’t gain traction until lawmakers put aside their partisan differences and the issue gains grassroots outcry, as it has in the lower Cape Fear River since the Wilmington Star-News reported in June 2017 that GenX from a Chemours chemical plant upstream had gotten into public drinking water.
The discovery led to a large grassroots campaign and an all-out response by DEQ, resulting in a revised consent order against Chemours that was approved in February. The order fined Chemours $12 million and bans it from discharging pollutants into the river and the air. Chemours has also been compelled to install equipment on its smokestacks that remove more than 99 percent of GenX that might become airborne as a result of incineration.
GenX in the Cape Fear is now well below what the state considers safe, but the substance and a stew of other PFAS remain in the river, soil, groundwater and in private wells.
While the reaction to the Chemours contamination has been swift — both from the DEQ and at the grassroots level — the alarm bells in other areas of the state have been mostly silent.
“The information is out there but maybe it just hasn’t captured the public in the same way as it has with the GenX issue,” said Detlef Knappe, a researcher at N.C. State University who was among the scientists who discovered the chemical in Wilmington’s drinking water.
Researchers have found PFAS in high concentrations all along the Haw River, as well as other potentially harmful chemicals, including bromides and the industrial solvent 1,4 dioxane, a probable carcinogen. High levels of 1,4 dioxane thought to have come from industries around Greensboro, have found their way into drinking water as far away as Fayetteville and, to a lesser extent, Wilmington. Sludge farms and leachate from landfills are also common sources of PFAS contamination.
Greensboro is battling yet another source of PFAS, firefighting foam, which had been used extensively at Piedmont Triad International Airport to train firefighters. Military bases in the state also use the foam for training.
Last summer, the combined levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water measured more than 70 parts per trillion, beyond what the EPA considers safe for a person to drink over a lifetime. Much of the contamination, which has since decreased to levels below the health advisory, is thought to be coming from the airport. The city has responded with a temporary filtration system while it awaits completion of a granular activated carbon system expected to go online in 2022.
Harrison is a primary sponsor of House Bill 560, that would ban the manufacture, sale or use of firefighting foam containing PFAS. In the Senate, deViere is a primary sponsor of a companion bill. According to the bills, less toxic alternatives are being used safely and effectively in other countries. The legislation has bipartisan support and could be approved.
Partly In response to the contamination from firefighting foam, Greensboro continues to monitor its drinking water weekly for 14 types of PFAS. Although the measurements are now considered low, the level of PFOS remains above what New Jersey, Vermont and other states consider safe.
What’s more, the levels tend to rise and fall, depending on a river’s flow. Typically, the levels are higher in the summer when the stream flow is lower and slower, Knappe said.
Problems in Pittsboro
And then there are all of those PFAS and 1,4 dioxane floating in the Haw River, the source of Pittsboro’s drinking water. Knappe and the Haw River Assembly have given presentations about the contamination before the Town Council and a smattering of concerned residents.
The town has employed a powdered activated carbon filter which has been effective at keeping the level of PFAS and PFOA in treated water below the EPA’s health advisory level.
But Pittsboro’s town board has been reluctant to highlight the issue with residents. The levels of the unregulated PFAS and 1,4 dioxane don’t exceed federal health goals, although the state’s health advisory in surface waters used for drinking water is 0.35 parts per billion. At that level, a person who consumes the water over a lifetime would stand a 1 in 1 million chance of getting cancer. The EPA’s health advisory is 35 parts per billion, equivalent to a 1 in 10,000 chance of getting cancer.
Last summer, the highest level of 1,4 dioxane detected in Pittsboro’s drinking water measured 18.53 parts per billion, according to figures provided by Knappe. The level is thought to be the highest in drinking water tested in the state.
Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry, who has been trying to stop the contamination, said town leaders are reluctant to notify residents because no laws are being broken, no chemicals in the drinking water exceed health goals, and the town doesn’t want to create an unwarranted panic.
But Harrison and others believe that too little will be done at the legislative level until public outcry leads to change.
“I feel like as awareness of this issue becomes broader there will be more support,” Harrison said. “We just need more grassroots support. It just doesn’t seem there is the urgency we feel is needed.”
Correction: Because of inaccurate data, this story originally stated that the levels of PFAS in the Haw River was measured at 1,076 parts per million, it should have been 1,076 parts per trillion.