By Greg Barnes
More and more, local governments and North Carolina residents are being forced to spend millions of dollars to protect public health by fixing contamination problems caused by industry.
In the Wilmington area, the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority is spending $46 million to filter GenX and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known collectively as PFAS from its drinking water.
In Pittsboro, the only municipality to draw its drinking water from the Haw River, officials are also considering an expensive filtration system to purify water tainted by industrial discharges.
In a settlement with the state on Dec. 31, Duke Energy agreed to excavate all of its remaining coal ash pits at six sites. As a consequence, ratepayers can expect to pay at least some of the costs, which are estimated at between $5.6 billion and $6.6 billion.
$10.5 million to be spent in Cumberland
And in Cumberland County, the Board of Commissioners on Monday approved taking $10.5 million from reserves to provide public water to an area plagued by groundwater contamination.
Of that amount, $3 million will be used to extend public water lines to the Alderman Road and Gray’s Creek elementary schools. County officials said they hope to have public water to the schools within 18 months.
Drinking fountains at both schools have been turned off since 2017, when a low level of GenX was discovered in the water supply for Gray’s Creek Elementary School. Additional samples taken at that school in October found other PFAS nearing the threshold the state considers safe to drink. Bottled water continues to be used at both schools, though contamination has not been found at the Alderman Road school. The two schools are about a quarter of a mile from each other.
The remaining $7.5 million the commissioners set aside will go toward a second phase to provide public water to potentially hundreds of homes in the Gray’s Creek community, where private wells have been contaminated with GenX and other PFAS. The board does not have an estimate on when that work would be completed.
Cumberland says Chemours should pay
The contamination is the result of PFAS becoming airborne from a nearby chemical plant built by industrial giant DuPont in the early 1970s and operated by spinoff company Chemours since 2015. The chemicals were carried by the wind and fell with the rain, seeping into the groundwater and causing well contamination for at least 1,673 homes. Contaminated wells have now been found as far as nine miles from the Chemours plant in neighboring Bladen County.
The $10.5 million Cumberland County plans to spend is only a fraction of the amount that may be needed to extend public water throughout the entire contamination zone.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Marshall Faircloth said a study done three years ago found that it would cost $20 million just to extend trunk lines to the area on the west side of the Cape Fear River, near Fayetteville and Hope Mills.
Faircloth and commissioners Jimmy Keefe and Larry Lancaster said it’s not fair that the county, at least at this point, is having to foot the entire bill. Ultimately, they said, it’s Chemours’ responsibility to ensure that people in the contamination zone are drinking safe water.
But they said something must be done immediately to protect residents’ health.
GenX is considered a possible carcinogen. Besides cancer, studies on laboratory animals show that GenX and other PFAS can cause liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, low birth weight and reduced vaccine response in offspring. Less is known about the effects in humans.
Chemours under consent order
In February, Chemours entered into a consent order with the state Department of Environmental Quality and the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch. The order requires Chemours to provide filtration systems or public water to homes with contaminated wells, as long as it doesn’t cost more than $75,000 per house. Recent estimates put the cost per house at $92,000 or more.
In a statement provided Monday night, the DEQ said it was reviewing the county’s decision as it relates to the consent order, which requires Chemours to provide public water or whole-house filtration to residents with contaminated wells above the state’s 140 parts per trillion health guideline for GenX.
“The addition of the proposed waterlines announced today will require an update to the study of the feasibility of public water in the area under the terms of the consent agreement,” the DEQ said in the statement. “Feasibility determinations for public water west of the Cape Fear in Cumberland and Bladen counties, based on the number of impacted homes discovered in the well sampling program, are still under review.”
The consent order also required Chemours to install a $100 million thermal oxidizer that is expected to eliminate 99 percent of PFAS leaving the plant’s vent stacks from 2017 levels. The equipment began to operate in late December.
Although Chemours seems to want to act in good faith, Keefe said, it has not agreed to pay the extra cost of providing public water. The Fayetteville Public Works Commission, Cumberland County Schools and the state also haven’t agreed to share in the costs.
“It’s really not a question of fairness. There is a problem that needs to be solved and we need some help,” Faircloth said. “We can’t overlook the priority of children not being able to use their drinking water.”
Still exploring options
Faircloth said county and PWC officials will meet this morning to again discuss funding and options the county could take. Options could include partnering with Bladen or Robeson County to provide water, or for Cumberland County to dig deep wells, construct water towers and add lines.
Faircloth, Lancaster and Keefe said Cumberland County has never wanted to get into the water business and shouldn’t have to.
But at this point, the PWC says it would be economically unfeasible to provide public water to the entire area, partly because there wouldn’t be enough water pressure. Because of low usage, PWC would have to flush the lines many times a year, at a cost of about $500,000 each time, officials have said.
Sizeable housing developments are being constructed in the community, though. Some people who recently bought homes there said they were unaware of the contamination and would not have purchaseinfrasd had they known.
There’s still the hope of a partnership in which the county, the PWC, Chemours and the DEQ all share the costs.
Getting money from the state might prove difficult, however. Last year, the State Water Infrastructure Authority denied the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority a $46.9 million grant that would have paid for its filtration system. The authority has filed a federal lawsuit against Chemours to recoup their costs of the contamination. Cumberland County officials say they are considering similar legal action.
Whatever the future holds, Cumberland County officials say they cannot sit around to find out.
“We are just tired of waiting,” Lancaster said. “Our attitude is, if it’s going to have to get done, we are going to have to do it.”