By Greg Barnes

Months after DuPont bought the rights to produce Perfluorooctanoic acid (known as PFOA or C8) from Minnesota’s 3M Corp. in 2002, DuPont discovered that the suspected carcinogen used to make Teflon had leaked into the groundwater under the company’s Fayetteville Works plant.

Except for some local newspaper articles and rumblings from environmental groups, the full extent – and the possible consequences – of the contamination flowing into the Cape Fear River was not publicly known until the Wilmington Star News published an exposé in June 2017. 

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By then, the Chemours chemical company had spun off from DuPont and taken over ownership of the plant along the banks of the Cape Fear River in Bladen County.

When the contamination became public, the state Department of Environmental Quality moved swiftly to stop per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (known collectively as PFAS) from getting into the air and into downstream drinking water for New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties.

In February 2019, Chemours entered into a consent order with the DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch that forced Chemours to spend $100 million on a thermal oxidizer that the DEQ says has lived up to its expectations of removing 99.9 percent of airborne PFAS from the plant.

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and an estimated  5,000 types of PFAS, none of which are federally regulated. PFAS have been manufactured and used by industries worldwide since the 1940s, used in everything from Teflon pans to raincoats to dental floss. They are also used in firefighting foams.

The two most extensively produced and studied, PFOA and PFOS, have been phased out in the U.S., but they don’t break down easily and can accumulate in the environment and in the human body. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.

Among many other things, the order has also prohibited Chemours from releasing its processed wastewater into the Cape Fear River, significantly reducing PFAS in the river and in downstream drinking water. Contamination still occurs though, mostly because of seepage from groundwater at the plant.

In August, the DEQ and the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, announced that they planned to further strengthen the order by requiring Chemours to eliminate the groundwater contamination getting into the river.

Three days earlier, state Attorney General Josh Stein announced that he had begun an investigation into industries that pollute the state’s waterways with PFAS.

Researchers and some state lawmakers applaud those actions but say the legislature needs to follow other states and impose enforceable standards on North Carolina’s most troubling PFAS. Currently, the state has an unenforceable health guideline for only one type of PFAS, which goes by the industry name GenX.

GenX toxicity study

Three years and many toxicological studies since PFAS were found flowing freely from Chemours, the chemical company continues to say the contamination detected in private wells surrounding the plant “[does] not pose a risk to human health.”  Nonetheless, the consent order has forced Chemours to provide bottled water or water filtration systems to more than 3,000 homeowners near the plant whose wells contain high levels of GenX or other PFAS.

Numerous studies on laboratory animals, including those conducted by DuPont, show that GenX causes negative effects to the liver and blood, along with disruptions of the immune system and cancer of the liver, pancreas and testicles. Far less is known about the effects of GenX in humans, but the EPA classifies the substance as a “suggestive carcinogen.”

Members of the N.C. Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board discussed one of the most recent GenX toxicology studies at a meeting on Aug. 31. The study, by the National Institute of Environmental Health  Sciences, was published in February in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study found that low doses of GenX caused nearly identical health problems in pregnant laboratory mice — including negative effects of the liver, placenta and mammary glands — as PFOA, an older compound.

DuPont switched from producing PFOA to using GenX around 2009 thinking it was safer, but the NIEHS study and others suggest that is not the case. (Newer PFAS have shorter carbon chains and do appear to leave the body more quickly, however.)

In an August interview with the USA Today Network, Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Chemours should switch from GenX to a safer compound. He did not name the substance.

That interview happened a day before Wheeler appeared in Fayetteville for a roundtable discussion on PFAS with federal, state and local officials. Wheeler talked extensively about his agency’s PFAS Action Plan and how it will one day be used to clean up contamination across the country.

In a news conference after the roundtable, state Rep. John Szoka (R-Fayetteville) said he expects the EPA will finish a more definitive GenX toxicological study by mid-winter. Szoka and U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, who hosted the roundtable, believe the study will go a long way toward protecting public health.

Hudson, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District, said people living around the Chemours plant are scared.

“Their neighbors have cancer,” Hudson said. “They don’t know if it’s caused by GenX. They don’t know if it’s going to impact their children. They don’t know if it’s impacted the air they breathe, the water they drink or the food they eat. People are really worried and until we can get a final toxicity report from the EPA we truly aren’t going to know the extent of this chemical and what it’s going to take to clean it up.”

Water pouring out of a pipe along the Yadkin-Pee Dee River may be a source of PFAS to the river ecosystem. Photo credit: N.C. State University
Municipal and industrial effluents discharged into the Yadkin-Pee Dee River downstream of Rockingham are probable sources of PFAS to the river ecosystem. Credit: N.C State University

It’s not just GenX 

But GenX is far from the only PFAS that has been detected in drinking water downstream of Chemours and in well water surrounding the plant. The DEQ is so concerned about the levels being found in the private wells that it has ordered Chemours to provide bottled water or filtration systems if the concentration of a single PFAS measures above 10 parts per trillion.

During the science advisory board meeting, N.C. State researcher and board member Detlef Knappe said more studies are needed on the health effects of other PFAS that have been found in drinking water downstream of Chemours and in well water surrounding the plant. Knappe said concentrations of one type of PFAS — called PFMOAA — had been detected in Wilmington at concentrations 100 times higher than GenX.

Knappe also mentioned another PFAS, Nafion by-product 2, which has also been detected in high concentrations in drinking water downstream of Chemours and in well water.

“GenX is never the dominant contaminant in well water,” Knappe told the board.

High levels of PFOS in Sanford

Chemours and DuPont are seen as the villains in North Carolina largely because they are thought to be the only manufacturer of PFAS in the state and because they knew about the contamination for decades. The PFAS they released was easily traced back to them.

But many other companies use the chemicals, especially in the Cape Fear River basin, from above Greensboro to the coast.

In July, the NC PFAST Network, a group of researchers from seven universities working through the state-funded NC Policy Collaboratory, released its first full findings of PFAS in raw water samples taken from 320 municipal water treatment plants in the state.

Although the network found no instances in which PFOA, PFOS or GenX exceeded EPA or state health guidelines, it found a troubling number of plants with high levels of total PFAS — the combination of all of the PFAS measured.

The highest level was detected in raw water for Pittsboro at 844.8 parts per trillion. Raw water is water used for drinking before it goes through the treatment process. Most water treatment plants in North Carolina are incapable of filtering out PFAS. It can be done, but it’s expensive.

Levels of total PFAS measuring over 100 parts per trillion were detected at 14 water treatment plants. The network did not try to determine who was responsible for the contamination.

While the network was doing its sampling, the DEQ ordered 25 municipalities to test for PFAS at their sewer plants. Industries discharge PFAS and other waste directly into municipal sewer systems, which are incapable of filtering them out. Typically, the waste enters a major river and flows downstream into drinking water supplies.

DEQ data show that 1,000 parts per trillion of PFOS — and 4,026 parts per trillion of total PFAS — was detected at a Sanford wastewater treatment plant on Sept. 4, 2019.

The data became public on Jan. 16. The same day, NC Health News asked the DEQ if it had identified the source of the contamination in Sanford.

The DEQ responded that it “has initiated additional sampling and source identification measures with the city of Sanford. The city will perform monthly effluent sampling for at least six months and the city has been asked to evaluate the potential source(s) of PFOA and PFOS in their wastewater system.”

A year later, the DEQ has not determined the source of the contamination or tested for PFAS in Sanford’s drinking water. A DEQ spokeswoman said Sanford was expected to test its drinking water in early September.

The DEQ did provide data showing that the levels of PFOA and PFOS measured at the sewer plant did not exceed EPA health guidelines after the high reading for PFOS last September. But the data did show high levels of total PFAS that were measured monthly from January through May. A concentration of 399 parts per trillion of total PFAS was recorded in April.

The PFAST network’s testing of Sanford’s raw drinking water was done a day after the spike was detected at the city’s sewer plant. The city’s water intake is unusual in that it lies downstream of its sewer plant.

Lee Ferguson, a Duke civil engineering professor and co-leader of the network, said in an email in January that it’s “entirely feasible” that the contaminated water had not reached the Sanford water treatment plant when the network conducted its tests. Ferguson said the types of PFAS detected at the sewer plant strongly suggest the contamination came from firefighting foam, which is often used in military and airport training to put out fires.

Multiple PFAS sources

The second-highest concentration of total PFAS detected through the DEQ’s monitoring program measured 2,296 parts per trillion at the East Burlington sewer treatment plant.

So much PFAS contamination has been found in Burlington that the Haw River Assembly has threatened to sue the city if it doesn’t do something to force industries to stop polluting.

Greensboro has also seen high levels of PFAS in its water. A primary source of that contamination is believed to also be from firefighting foam once used for training at Piedmont Triad International Airport. Greensboro planned to spend $31 million on a system to filter out PFAS, but those plans are now on hold as the city awaits regulations from the state and federal governments and for the coronavirus pandemic to ease, according to the Greensboro News & Record.

The PFAS contamination from Brunswick, Greensboro and other cities flows into the Haw River and downstream to Pittsboro, the only city to use the Haw as its drinking water source. Pittsboro is also considering a filtration system.

Birnbaum had been invited to speak to Pittsboro officials about the contamination at a virtual meeting on Aug. 24, but she canceled her presentation after the town spent about three hours addressing other issues before getting to her.

Michigan’s new standards

While North Carolina struggles to keep PFAS out of public drinking water, other states have given up waiting on the EPA to set enforceable standards and have done so themselves.

In Michigan, new maximum contaminant levels for certain types of PFAS will go a long way toward ridding the contaminants from drinking water, said Charlotte Jameson of the Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit coalition of 70 groups that helps drive the state’s environmental policies.

What is a maximum contaminant level and what would setting one mean? 

As per the EPA, a maximum contaminant level for drinking water is “the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed.” They are set as close to pre-existing goals as possible and feasible “using the best available treatment technology and taking cost into consideration.”

When the EPA sets an MCL, it becomes a nationwide standard. But states have also begun setting MCLs to address waterway contamination in the absence of EPA action.

What makes an MCL significant is that it’s an enforceable standard. This means that industries or water utilities surpassing the MCL could be subject to fines and legal action.

Michigan is said to have the most PFAS contamination sites in the country. The contaminants have been found in varying levels at utilities serving about 1.9 million people. North Carolina’s PFAS contamination ranks third nationally.

Under the new MCL standards, Michigan’s water utilities will be required to test for PFAS in their drinking water annually, Jameson said. Those with contamination known to exceed the standards will test quarterly, she said. Utilities where water tests above the new standards will be required to bring the levels into compliance.

The new standards will affect about 2,700 utilities, schools and large businesses that provide water to the public. State regulators say the standards are expected to cost utilities serving more than 25 people a statewide total of about $11 million to install treatment and $6.4 million to test for PFAS during the first year, according to MLive, a Michigan news outlet.

Jameson said industrial sites that exceed the standards will be required to clean them up, but she said the standards will not force industries to curtail PFAS contamination in the state’s waterways.

“That’s kind of a key flaw with a water or drinking water MCL,” Jameson said. “We can’t require polluters within this MCL to stop polluting or to install proven technology. There are other regulatory mechanisms, like discharge permits, and other things like that that can help better target the source of the pollution. But the MCL will never necessarily do that.”

Instead, she said, Michigan will force the public utilities to install PFAS filtration systems if they fail to meet the standards.

Regulating PFAS as a single class

North Carolina Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) has been among the legislature’s most staunch supporters of environmental reform. During her 16 years in the General

Assembly, Harrison has been the primary sponsor of countless environmental bills that have been brushed aside.

“I just don’t know why we can’t get the political will to actually tackle problems because it’s a real public health crisis from my perspective,” Harrison said.

Harrison is a proponent of setting maximum contaminant levels for PFAS in North Carolina, but she sees it only as a good first step.

“Yeah, MCLs are great but you know what the industry is doing is just introducing new chemicals in the same family that wouldn’t be covered by the MCL. So now it’s just sort of whack-a-mole … I am very frustrated by the way legislators handle this.”

Harrison, DeWitt and Birnbaum believe PFAS should be regulated as a single class. So instead of setting an MCL for PFOA or PFOS, the MCL would regulate the entire spectrum of PFAS as a group.

DeWitt and Birnbaum were among the co-authors advocating for the class approach in a research paper published June 30 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

The two researchers also say they want government restrictions that would limit the use of PFAS and other hazardous chemicals to those considered essential until safer alternatives are developed.

Until then, they continue to advocate for the maximum contaminant levels. Even if the standards result in a game of industrial whack-a-mole, they say, they can still be used to protect drinking water.

The question is whether those standards will be set — either at the federal or state level — anytime soon.

“I don’t know why we would expect there to be any faster movement on additional compounds when it’s been two decades,” DeWitt said. “I guess I don’t have great promise that the current environment within the EPA is being particularly proactive or precautionary.”

Harrison doesn’t sound optimistic, either.

“I’m sorry I sound frustrated but this has been one of the biggest frustrations of my 16-year legislative career,” she said. “We have not been able to tackle this issue that is clearly a public health crisis. I just hope that we’re gonna get a crop of legislators that will put a priority on public health and maybe tackle it.”

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Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at