By Will Atwater
Emily Donovan has waged war against per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) since 2017 when the chemicals were first revealed to be fouling the waters of the Cape Fear River Basin, which provides drinking water to nearly 1 million North Carolinians.
Donovan and her family are among that number.
Brunswick County is where Donovan lives and serves as the co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, a watchdog organization. The county is located near the mouth of the river system, where the waters meet the sea, it’s also an area that “has some of the highest levels of PFAS in tap water recorded per multiple nationwide tap water studies,” Donavan wrote in an email.
In addition to contaminating the waters of the Cape Fear, PFAS incinerated and sent up smokestacks at the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility have rained down in the vicinity of the Bladen County plant. Spread by the winds, these emissions have fouled wells and small waterways for miles around.
Now in the past month, two possible solutions to this environmental crisis have the potential to provide some relief for the many homeowners who worry about what’s coming out of their taps.
And while introduction of such products could provide some peace of mind for affected water customers, the entry of such market-based solutions to an environmental problem parallels the story of two other examples: bisphenol-A (BPA) plastics and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) initiative, which was established to reduce the carbon footprint in building construction. Those are other instances in which government officials were slow to act, creating an opening for manufacturers and forcing individuals to pay out of pocket for a fix.
New tools in the fight
Cyclopure, a company located in Skokie, Ill., partnered with the Durham-based National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) to develop a PFAS filter designed to work with Brita water pitchers. The company claims the filter will remove 11 of the most common PFAS compounds (PFOA, PFOS, GenX, etc), and will last for approximately three months.
Cartridges, costing $45, filter up to 65 gallons of water and could replace 700 single-use water bottles, according to the company’s website.
Each purchase includes prepaid packaging to return used cartridges to Cyclopure where the PFAS compounds are “desorbed and reduced to salt pellets that can be safely discarded in a landfill,” according to company CEO Frank Cassou.
Detlef Knappe, an N.C. State University professor in the department of civil, construction, and environmental engineering, has more than two decades of water testing experience and has conducted tests on several filters designed to remove PFAS compounds. Knappe has not yet tested the Cyclopure PFAS filter but is in the process of designing a study to do just that.
“We’re probably making it a community engaged project where we’re recruiting somewhere on the order of 10 households,” he said, “most likely down in the Wilmington area, because there’s a larger variety of PFAS in the water.”
For Knappe’s study, each participating household will receive two pitchers – one regular Brita pitcher and one Brita pitcher that has the Cyclopure PFAS filter attached.
After, “say, every 10 gallons they would collect a sample and send it to us. We would really just be looking at the filter’s performance in a very analytical way,” Knappe said.
Finding viable solutions to rid PFAS compounds from drinking water is critical, however, Knappe is eying a larger goal.
“I’m interested in looking beyond PFAS … every drinking water has things in it like disinfection byproducts, and maybe some pesticides and other things,” Knappe said. “In the end, we want a filter that is really effective against the broad spectrum of different things that are in the water.”
It will probably be late summer or early fall before Knappe and his colleagues have collected enough samples to produce data and offer an analysis of the Cyclopure filter.
If the Cyclopure filter delivers on the company’s claims, it would cost roughly $200 per year to provide a household with roughly 260 gallons of PFAS-free water, replacing about 2,800 single-use water bottles.
The device is being marketed as a “closed-loop, on-site destruction solution [that] destroys 99.99 percent of PFAS without creating harmful byproducts.”
The company claims that the unit uses a “supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) to safely destroy PFAS chemicals in contaminated water.”
Through this process, PFAS compounds are purportedly separated from the water and transformed into inert salts, leaving the remaining water to be released back into the environment.
Battelle is partnering with Heritage-Crystal Clean (HCC), which operates wastewater treatment plants in locations throughout North America, according to company CEO Brian Recatto.
Recatto said that many of HCC’s customers are searching for treatment options ahead of EPA regulations for PFAS contaminated wastewater management that are widely expected to come in the near future.
The Annihilator Mobile Unit could be deployed to locations such as a landfill to treat wastewater leachate or to process finite amounts of contaminated wastewater housed in containers, said Amy Dindal, Battelle PFAS program manager.
In addition to the mobile unit, Battelle claims the company could scale the technology to create a solution at the source of contamination that would allow them to remove PFAS compounds before they enter local drinking water. This process could relieve individual homeowners of the need to purchase filtration systems and – if it lives up to its promise – could eliminate contaminated PFAS filters from entering the landfills.
“If [the] supercritical water oxidation works, and it can be applied, using Chemours as an example, we don’t have to worry anymore downstream,” Donovan said. “All these residents no longer become polluters themselves … because we no longer have to deal with the PFAS coming into our pipes.”
One issue that would need to be addressed is where the money would come from to pay for a stand-alone PFAS Annihilator system to be housed at a wastewater treatment facility.
Community listening session planned
DEQ Regional Supervisor Trent Allen said the office is planning to hold community listening sessions before making a final decision on the Chemours draft permit request. He said that once the dates and locations for the community listening sessions are finalized, an announcement will be posted on the DEQ website.
However, DEQ is hosting a public meeting on Monday, May 9, 2022 to discuss private drinking water well sampling that Chemours is required to conduct in the lower Cape Fear River Basin. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Lumina Theatre on UNC Wilmington’s campus. DEQ officials ask that attendees park in Visitor Lot M (4941 Riegel Road).
Consumers on the hook
PFAS has been ubiquitous in consumer products for generations but first made its way into the consciousness of North Carolinians, when researchers discovered that the Chemours chemical facility near Fayetteville had been dumping one of the PFAS chemicals known as GenX into the Cape Fear River for decades. A preponderance of evidence now suggests links between PFAS exposure in humans to diseases such as diabetes, cancer and immune system deficiency.
There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, and they can be found in a range of products, such as water repellent clothing, non-stick cookware, microwave popcorn bags and fire fighting foam, among other things.
One of the stipulations contained in a 2019 consent order with the state Department of Environmental Quality requires Chemours to provide public water or reverse osmosis filtration systems to people with contaminated wells. While Donovan supports addressing the needs of well owners, she is adamant that more needs to be done.
“What we’re really frustrated with is that there just seems to be unequal treatment from this particular polluter, with how they’re handling contamination,” Donovan said. “And it all is contingent on where you’re getting your drinking water from, whether it’s from a private well or from the Cape Fear River.”
Local residents receiving their drinking water from the Cape Fear River end up paying out of pocket for filtration systems to remove PFAS contaminants, Donovan noted.
Not only are homeowners required to provide their own filtration systems – schools are as well, she said.
“Here in the Wilmington, Brunswick County areas there are 49 public schools that rely on the Cape Fear River as their primary source of drinking water,” she said.
Local utility companies regularly test the water at local schools for contaminants and post the findings on their websites. North Carolina has a goal of not allowing GenX chemicals to exceed 140 parts per trillion in drinking water. The U.S. EPA has a drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS – PFOA and PFOS.
According to Donovan, the levels documented by the local utilities often exceed those benchmarks.
Currently, the North Carolina DEQ is considering a draft permit from Chemours that, if granted, will allow the company “to treat PFAS-contaminated groundwater, surface water and stormwater before discharge into the Cape Fear River.”
Donovan and other supporters drafted a letter that garnered 1,000 signatures. In it, they requested DEQ hold community listening sessions so local residents could express their concerns about the proposed draft permit directly to DEQ officials. May 2 marked the close of the public comment period and, according to Donovan, DEQ officials have not yet responded to the letter.
Correction: This story originally stated that Battelle was based in a different state. It is based in Ohio.