By Greg Barnes
North Carolina’s attorney general says he has started an investigation into manufacturers that contaminate the state’s waterways with per-or polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”
“North Carolinians expect and deserve clean water to drink,” Attorney General Josh Stein said in a news release on Monday announcing his investigation. “The emergence of forever chemicals like PFAS has led to significant and dangerous pollution – and we must hold those responsible accountable.”
There are an estimated 5,000 different types of PFAS, which are called forever chemicals because they don’t easily break down in the environment. They also build up in blood and organs of people, potentially causing cancer and other human health problems.
The state has known at least since June 2017 that DuPont, and later Chemours, discharged high levels of GenX and other PFAS into the lower Cape Fear River from a plant near Fayetteville.
The state, along with the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch, last year forced Chemours into a consent order that requires the chemical giant to drastically limit its air pollution and to clean up PFAS in the river, soil and sediment. The order assessed Chemours $12 million in civil penalties.
PFAS is a statewide problem
Chemours is far from alone in the production and release of PFAS into North Carolina’s rivers, lakes and streams.
In January, the state Department of Environmental Quality provided figures from a PFAS monitoring program it conducted at 25 municipal wastewater treatment plants in the Cape Fear River basin. Of the 25 plants, total PFAS was detected above 100 parts per trillion at 19 of them.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate PFAS, though it is considering doing so. The only health advisory it sets now is for the two oldest types of PFAS — called PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, either by themselves or in combination.
Although those legacy compounds are being phased out in the United States in exchange for PFAS with shorter carbon chains, they still show up in North Carolina’s waterways, sometimes in alarming concentrations.
During the DEQ’s monitoring program, PFOS was detected at 1,000 parts per trillion at Sanford’s wastewater treatment plant. That level was more than 14 times greater than the EPA’s standard for drinking water.
Since then, the levels of PFOA and PFOS have been far below the EPA standard, but total PFAS levels at the Sanford plant remain troublingly high — as much as 399 parts per trillion in April, according to figures the DEQ provided Tuesday.
PFAS have also shown up in the food chain along the Yadkin-Pee Dee River, a recent study by N.C. State University revealed.
The DEQ says it remains unknown which industries besides Chemours and DuPont are responsible for the manmade contamination.
Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for Stein, said in an email that she cannot talk about specifics of the attorney general’s investigation
“I can tell you that our office is not looking necessarily at any specific company,” Brewer said. “We are looking at PFAS in our drinking water, determining the source, and determining whether to bring actions to hold accountable the companies that are responsible for damages to our natural resources.
“Our office would potentially take action under the AG’s ability to sue for damages to protect natural resources of the state.”
So far, at least, identifying responsible industries has been elusive.
Testing shows PFAS widespread
The NC PFAS Testing Network, a consortium of researchers from seven universities in the state, just made public all of its testing of PFAS at 320 municipal water utilities in North Carolina. Of those, nearly half had levels of PFAS above the reporting detection level.
Drinking water at 11 of the utilities measured more than 100 parts per trillion for total PFAS. In Pittsboro, a level of nearly 845 parts per trillion was recorded, much of it coming from industries upstream along the Haw River or its tributaries.
The network, part of the NC Policy Collaboratory, did not investigate the sources of the contamination.
The highest level of total PFAS recorded in the DEQ’s monitoring program at wastewater treatment plants was 4,026 parts per trillion in Sanford. The second highest was nearly 2,296 parts per trillion in Burlington.
Other cities have also been found to have elevated levels of total PFAS in their drinking water, including Cary, Durham, Chapel Hill and Apex in the Triangle. Many of those cities get their water from Jordan Lake, where researchers have also found elevated levels of the contamination.
PFAS have been in use since the 1940s to make products non-stick, waterproof or stain-resistant. They’re used in rain jackets, carpets, upholstery, cookware, fast-food packaging, dental floss and much more.
A large number of studies suggest that PFAS could cause an increased risk of testicular or kidney cancer, increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women and small decreases in infant birth weights.
In the past few years, state lawmakers led by Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro), Sen. Harper Peterson (D-Wilmington) and Sen. Kirk deViere (D-Fayetteville) have introduced legislation that would curtail the use of PFAS and hold responsible parties accountable.
At least six bills were introduced in 2019 alone, all of which failed to make it out of committee at the state legislature. Peterson expected the bills to die, including those he co-sponsored, but he said they continue to bring the issue of PFAS to the forefront.
Peterson blames a limited state response to the crisis on the Republican-controlled legislature and deep budget cuts to the DEQ, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice over the past decade.
“I compare it to a police force or a fire department,” Peterson said. “How do you do your job if you don’t have the staff and the equipment, and that’s been the case. They’ve done a lot with little.”
Peterson said North Carolina needs to follow the example of other states that have placed tight limits on the release of certain types of PFAS — some as low as 10 parts per trillion for PFOA or PFOS in drinking water.
Peterson also said taxpayers and municipalities should not be forced to pay to clean up the mess left by private industry. He noted that New Hanover County is spending nearly $50 million and Brunswick County about $100 million to filter PFAS out of their drinking water.
“It’s (industries’) responsibility to clean it up,” he said. “We should handle it just like we handled Duke Energy with their coal ash ponds. The bill is on them, not the public.”
In an email, deViere also mentioned the coal ash ponds. The state won a lawsuit last year that forces Duke Energy to spend billions to clean up its remaining ponds by moving them to lined landfills and ensuring that they won’t leak contaminants.
Peterson and deViere, both Democrats, praised Stein for going after the PFAS polluters.
“We have had conversations with Attorney General Stein and presented stakeholder issues directly to him and his staff so I am pleased to see this stance and direction by the NC Department of Justice,” deViere said in an email. “I am hopeful that this action will continue the types of protections and outcomes we have seen for other contaminants like coal ash.”
Stein has detractors
In his news release, Stein said his investigation is about protecting people from PFAS contamination and restoring the state’s natural resources.
“My office will not hesitate to bring legal action against any polluters if that’s what it takes to keep the people of North Carolina safe,” he said.
But not everyone is sold on Stein’s commitment.
Mike Watters, administrator for an advocacy group in Cumberland County, thinks Stein’s actions are purely political.
“In the opinion of many of us this is a political stunt by AG Josh Stein, & Governor Roy Cooper to make the appearance of taking action,” Watters said in an email. “Reality is it is far from looking like they are serious and I really pray that this is wrong.”
Stein and Cooper face Republican opposition in the Nov. 3 general election.
Members of Watters’ Facebook group, Grays Creek Residents united against PFAS in our wells and Rivers, have been fighting to get relief since they discovered that their well water is contaminated with the compounds. Most live next to the Chemours plant near the border of Bladen and Cumberland counties.