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By Greg Barnes
The public utility for Wilmington and New Hanover County will spend about $46 million to filter out potentially carcinogenic “forever chemicals” from drinking water for an estimated 200,000 people.
In neighboring Brunswick County, bids totaling $137 million have been approved for a similar filtration system to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS to be completed within the next two years.
In Cumberland County, officials have approved spending $10 million to run public water lines to two schools and homes whose wells have been contaminated with the substances, much of which is the result of contamination emanating from the smokestacks at the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant on the border of Bladen County.
And in the small Chatham County town of Pittsboro, officials are eyeing a $42 million filtration system for the removal of PFAS and perhaps an even more troubling chemical, a likely carcinogen known as 1,4 dioxane. The money would also expand the town’s water treatment plant.
If these projects move forward, ratepayers — and not the companies that contaminated the water supplies — will be footing the bills. Brunswick County recently announced in January that it is raising rates to offset filtration costs and expansion of its water treatment plant. Lawsuits have been filed in New Hanover and Brunswick counties in an effort to recoup the money.
Some of the state’s lawmakers want to make the polluters pay.
Ten bills introduced
A bill introduced in the General Assembly by Rep. Deb Butler (D-Wilmington) would put the onus of cleanup on the backs of the industries that caused the contamination in the first place.
House Bill 444 is among 10 that have been filed since March 22 that aim to reduce or eliminate PFAS in North Carolina — and, in the case of Butler’s bill — hold the polluters responsible. One of the bills, introduced by Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro), would go so far as to ban the manufacture, sale and distribution of PFAS in the state.
Most of the bills were filed with overwhelming support from Democrats – but including a handful of Republican co-sponsors – have been introduced in previous legislative sessions, and all of them, Butler and Harrison agree, have zero chance of being approved this time around.
They blame politics.
“Let’s just face it,” Butler said. “DuPont, Chemours and all these other big industrial manufacturers pay a lot of money to politicians … They pay the max to an awful lot of very influential Republicans. And I don’t understand it because, honestly, clean water should not be a partisan issue. It really, really should not. But everything is these days. It is tragic, really.”
Harrison agreed that partisan politics is a big part of the problem, but she said it goes even deeper than that.
“First of all, in terms of doing something more aggressive, I think it’s a couple of things,” Harrison said. “One, it’s probably the problem is so huge and unwieldy that where do we even get started? Isn’t this something that maybe EPA should be tackling, you know, do we actually have the manpower and the wherewithal to manage that in our state? How’s it going to affect commerce? We just don’t have a history of being very aggressive with exposure to toxic chemicals.”
Republican PFAS funding
Butler and Harrison didn’t mention a bill introduced in April by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Wilmington) and other Republicans that would allocate $15 million to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, which is housed at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.
A branch of the collaboratory — the PFAS Testing Network — has been using more than $5 million in state funding to test all of the municipal water systems in North Carolina for PFAS contamination. In July, it released findings showing that nearly half of the public utilities tested had detectable levels of PFAS in their drinking water. Another round of testing continues.
Senate Bill 544 would allow the PFAS Testing Network to expand its analysis and statewide water and air testing of PFAS. It would also provide additional funding for toxicology work in laboratory animals, research on PFAS levels in citizens and their potential health effects, and development of technologies to reduce PFAS exposure.
According to the bill, at least $10 million would be directed to UNC for the development of technologies that use water filtration or other chemical or physical methods to remove or reduce GenX and other PFAS from water supplies. The bill has bipartisan support.
Lee said UNC has developed technology that can filter out up to 100 percent of PFAS from drinking water. He said the researchers are trying to bring the technology to scale.
Conventional filtration systems in water treatment plants and homes now only remove a portion of total PFAS, and the resin that removes the contaminants breaks down over time, according to UNC. University researchers made a resin specifically designed to filter PFAS molecules.
Lee said he has been working “really hard” on getting the bill passed.
“I’m willing to go to the mat as much as I can,” he said.
Butler and Harrison said in later emails that they didn’t mention Lee’s bill because they didn’t know about it. Both said they typically don’t read Senate bills until they make it to the House. Lee said the same about House bills.
Nevertheless, Butler said, she prefers that funding be allocated to the state Department of Environmental Quality, “our watchdog who has been systematically underfunded by this leadership, and the collaboratory.” Harrison called the DEQ “woefully underfunded.”
Big problem, small response
North Carolina is said to have the third-worst PFAS contamination problems of any state in the country. Yet at least nine other states have set maximum contaminant levels for certain types of the more prevalent PFAS in public drinking water. North Carolina has set only a health advisory for one type of PFAS, called GenX.
A bill introduced in the House by state Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (D-Greensboro) would, at a minimum, set maximum contaminant levels for PFAS, 1,4 dioxane and hexavalent chromium, which is associated with coal ash. But again, the bill only has Democratic co-sponsors and without Republican support in a Republican-controlled General Assembly, there is little chance of the bill’s passage.
Clemmons’ proposed legislation, House Bill 521, would have to successfully complete its trip through committees and pass a vote in one of the legislature’s chambers by May 13 or else be dead for the rest of the biennial General Assembly session. The bill, filed April 8, was sent to the House Rules Committee, where it stands little chance of escaping. A companion bill filed March 31 by state Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Apex) was referred to the Senate’s rules committee.
Republicans have another PFAS-related bill that Butler and Harrison agree has a good chance of passing. Lee has introduced Senate Bill 327, which would require mandatory inventory reporting of aqueous firefighting foam and track its use. Ted Davis (R-Wilmington) has filed a companion bill in the House.
The foam, which is used largely for training purposes at airports, fire stations and military bases, contains PFAS that has contaminated drinking water sources. Drinking water for the town of Maysville near the coast is believed to have been contaminated by foam used by firefighters and an alternate water source had to be found. Military bases in the state have also been contaminated with PFAS from the foam, as has an area at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Lee said there are cases in which firefighting foam has and should be used in real emergencies. He wants the state to keep track of where and how much is used.
But environmental advocates argue that there are already substitutes for the foam that work just as well and don’t contain PFAS. In December, Congress agreed to phase out firefighting foams containing PFAS at military installations by 2024.
Little Republican support
Butler said only two Republicans — Frank Iler and Charles Miller, both of Brunswick County, downriver from Chemours — have signed onto any of the PFAS-related bills filed by Democrats. Iler and Miller support Butler’s bill to make polluters pay for cleanup. Both have a vested interest, providing clean drinking water and keeping their constituents happy by avoiding a rate increase on their water bills.
Lee said that he also favors making polluters pay and that a bill he sponsored in 2018 had a provision to do so.
“So I certainly believe that those who pollute should pay for the cleanup,” he said. “What I’m really concerned about is not just that but the amount of PFAS in the environment, generally. It’s ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.”
Democratic lawmakers do have support from the top — Gov. Roy Cooper has pledged $8 million in his proposed budget to help mitigate PFAS and other emerging contaminants.
After spinning off from DuPont in 2015, the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant is now responsible for much of the PFAS contamination in the lower Cape Fear River and in private wells surrounding the Bladen County plant. The plant had been discharging PFAS into the river since the early 1980s. Although Chemours has been prohibited since 2017 from discharging its wastewater, PFAS still show up downstream, mostly in runoff, groundwater seepage and from river sediment.
If signed into law, Harrison’s bill to ban the manufacture, use and distribution of PFAS could place extreme hardship on the Chemours plant, which employs more than 500 workers and contractors. Among the plant’s primary functions is to produce GenX, the PFAS substance used in everything from nonstick pans to wiring and components for computers, automobiles and airplanes.
Lisa Randall, a spokeswoman for Chemours, said the company continually reviews all proposed legislation that would impact its operations and the communities where it operates. Randall said some of the pending PFAS legislation in the General Assembly would have a profound negative effect on North Carolina and the country.
If approved, the bills would deny “North Carolina hospitals access to critical respiratory applications, and prevent our Fayetteville Works employees from supporting the supply chain to produce chlorine bleach, desperately needed during the current pandemic,” Randall wrote in an email to NC Health News.
“North Carolina workers could no longer support the large battery industry, which is the key to growing solar and wind energy, as well as the electric vehicle markets the U.S. is relying on to help fight climate change,” Randall said. “Companies would no longer be able to manufacture or repair anything that involved wiring or computer components. North Carolina’s military bases would risk not being able to receive many replacement parts for their jets, helicopters or vehicles. Data centers in our state may not be able to cool equipment or get replacement parts to maintain those server farms.”
Butler, a primary sponsor of the bill to ban PFAS, said Chemours is missing the point.
“Human health is being negatively affected by these forever chemicals,” she wrote in response to Chemours. “Regardless of the usefulness of some of these applications, it is past time to transition from them by using the categorizations identified by researchers.
“Some PFAS applications are nonessential and should be abandoned immediately. The second category is those products that are substitutable and an aggressive plan for alternatives should be developed. Only those applications that are essential for human health and safety should be available in a limited and heavily regulated manner. It doesn’t matter how useful or profitable a product is if it is a hazard to human health.”
PFAS have been associated with many human diseases. In large enough concentrations, scientists say they may cause cancers of the thyroid, liver, testicles and kidneys. They are believed to suppress the immune system, raise cholesterol levels and cause low birth weight. Recent studies have found that PFAS may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus and less responsive to COVID-19 vaccines.
The EPA now says there are an estimated 9,000 different types of PFAS, more than 600 of which are currently being used. PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the human body and don’t break down in the environment.