PFAS-contaminated foam found in Falls Lake, Neuse River

Maps by Lisa Sorg; source data, NC DEQ

Latest state data show 15 locations across NC in which PFAS have been detected in foam or nearby surface water

First it appeared in Gray’s Creek in southern Cumberland County.

Then it showed up in a private driveway on Marshwood Lake Road near the Bladen-Cumberland County line. In the Georgia Branch that feeds the Cape Fear River.

Near the Huske Dam near Tar Heel, in Marshwood Lake, and in a pond, again near Gray’s Creek.

These incidents of mysterious foam — foam that contained toxic PFAS — occurred in waterways near Chemours. While infuriating and concerning for residents, the results weren’t a complete surprise, considering the company’s history of discharging contaminants into the environment.

But then foam appeared 200 miles west, in Shelby.

And at the headwaters of the Neuse River, just beyond the Falls Lake Dam in Wake County. Between rocks at the Falls Lake Dam Recreation Area — nowhere close to Chemours.

Over the past year, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has received a half-dozen citizen complaints about unusual foam in and near waterways. Those sightings spurred the Division of Water Resources to test the material at more than 15 locations, according to data provided by the agency.

“This experience has informed the division’s efforts to prioritize and scale up its efforts to understand PFAS and its transport through different media, Julie Grzyb, deputy director of the Division of Water Resources, told Policy Watch via email.

Major drinking water sources affected

State investigators collected 1,372 individual samples, including foam and surface water from rivers, lakes and streams, as well as effluent from Chemours. Of those samples, a third — 496 — contained PFAS, ranging from 2.1 parts per trillion to 39,126 ppt. PFAS concentrates in foam, so levels are higher in that material than in surface water. Nor is there an EPA-approved testing method for PFAS in foam, so the figures are estimates.

 

The other samples measured below 2 ppt, the “practical quantitation limit” or “PQL” for short – the lowest concentration the laboratory could detect. That means there could be PFAS below 2 ppt, but the testing method wasn’t sensitive enough to detect them.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Exposure has been linked to a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, reproductive problems, low birth weight, thyroid disorders, and a depressed immune system.

The compounds are found in many firefighting foams, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant and water-resistant materials, and other consumer products.

At the Falls Lake Dam Recreation Area, foam collected between some rocks contained 17 types of PFAS, with levels as high as 223 ppt. Among the types of PFAS detected were GenX, and another compound used in firefighting foam. A second foam sample, skimmed from water near the pier, had four types of the compounds.

Nearby surface water contained just three types, and concentrations were lower: 2.1 to 4.6 ppt.

In addition to being a popular boating and fishing area, Falls Lake is the primary drinking water supply for a half-million people in Raleigh, Garner, Knightdale, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon.

At the headwaters of the Neuse River, below the Falls Lake Dam, foam contained 19 types of PFAS, as high as 13,289 ppt.

At 275 miles long, the Neuse River is also a major drinking water supply for several towns and cities, including Smithfield, Goldsboro and Kinston, before it empties into the Pamlico Sound near New Bern.

Neither the state nor the EPA has established maximum safe levels for PFAS in surface water, soil, drinking water or foam. The EPA has set is a “health advisory goal” of 70 ppt in drinking water for all PFAS combined, and/or no more than 10 ppt for a single PFAS; North Carolina has adopted that goal.

Most sources remain a mystery

The division is investigating potential sources, but given that PFAS are so widespread, not just in North Carolina but globally, in some cases it could be difficult to pinpoint them.

In Shelby, a possible source is the firm Environmental Soils, which has a state permit to accept dirt that contains petroleum products. The facility treats the soil and then spreads it on land for non-food crops. In cases of gasoline spills, however, firefighting foam is often used to keep the fuel from igniting and it’s possible PFAS could have been present in the soil when it arrived at the Shelby site.

Land application of sludge from wastewater treatment plants could also contaminate soil; runoff from those fields could enter the groundwater and surface water.

Some PFAS, including GenX, can travel in the air. That’s how drinking water wells near the Chemours plant became contaminated. When the facility sent emissions through its stacks, the compounds were blown offsite, then fell to the ground, polluting the groundwater and the wells. DEQ has since required Chemours to remove 99.9% of the compounds from its emissions.

Once released into the environment, PFAS can take decades, if not hundreds of years, to degrade in the environment – a fact that has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.” That persistence could explain why PFOS and PFOA, which manufacturers have phased out, still show up in waterways, such as Falls Lake.

Downstream at Chemours, foam and wastewater leaving the plant through Outfall No. 2 into the Cape Fear were also contaminated with 32 types of PFAS. This include PFOS, which Chemours maintains it never manufactured at the Fayetteville Works plant; nor did Chemours’ predecessor, DuPont, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Randall.

“PFOS has never been manufactured or used in the manufacturing processes at our Fayetteville Works site,” said Randall. “We are aware of a DEQ sample taken after foam was observed in the river near Outfall 002—and it reflects the makeup of the foam, not the makeup of our outfall discharge.”

PFOS can also be formed by environmental degradation of other related compounds, so it’s possible for it to appear even through it was not manufactured at the plant.

Very high levels of PFOS and GenX were also found in foam in the Cape Fear River, downstream of Chemours, at the Huske Lock and Dam, near Tar Heel.

Beth Kline-Markesino, co-founder of North Stop GenX in Our Water, urged people who come across foam not to touch it or allow their pets around it. They should call DEQ, she said. “This is alarming and we don’t know the sources,” she said.

A private driveway a mile north of the plant contained elevated levels of PFOS, as well as GenX and other compounds known as “precursors.” Precursors can break down to form a different type of fluorinated compound.

Some foams are naturally occurring, the result of decaying leaves and plants. Harmless foam is usually off-white and/or brown, according to the Michigan Department of the Environment. It often accumulates in bays, eddies, or river blockages, and might have an earthy or fishy smell. However, foam containing PFAS can be bright white and is usually lightweight. It can be sticky and tends to pile up like shaving cream. The compounds can also mix with natural foam.

Grzyb of the Division of Water Resources said the agency is designing a statewide foam survey to better understand PFAS in the material and in surface water. The agency has also requested in the state budget 10 additional positions devoted solely to addressing the proliferation of the compounds.

Mystery foam in Cumberland County contains high levels of PFAS, investigation ongoing

Source: EPA

This article has been corrected to say that neither Chemours nor DuPont produced PFOS at the Fayetteville Works plant.

High levels of toxic PFAS – perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds – have been detected in a stream, as well as in foam that had accumulated in small pond in Cumberland County, about seven miles from the Chemours plant.

Prompted by a citizen complaint, the NC Department of Environmental Quality tested the water and the foam for 28 types of PFAS in March and April of this year.

The state and the EPA have issued a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion; DEQ has also stated that no one should drink water containing any single compound above 10 ppt. However, other states, like Michigan and New Jersey, have enacted enforceable standards that are more stringent.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disorders, reproductive issues, low birth weight, high cholesterol, immune system problems, and other serious health issues.

 

Here are the foam results, all in parts per trillion:

PFOS     614.5
PFDA      90.1
PFNA      28.39
PFHXS    12.2

DEQ spokeswoman Anna Gurney said the agency is “investigating the composition and potential sources of the foam.” Since the investigation is ongoing, DEQ has not identified Chemours as the source. There is not an EPA-approved testing method for PFAS in foam, so the results should be interpreted in that context, Gurney said. There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, but neither North Carolina nor the EPA regulates them in drinking water or foam.

Lisa Randall, spokeswoman for Chemours, said DEQ has not been in contact with the company regarding these results. “Based on results you have shared with us, many of the compounds listed are not associated with Chemours’ manufacturing operations. The highest PFAS levels were for PFOS, which is not associated with Chemours’s chemistry.

It’s true that Chemours does not use or produce PFOS. The chemical industry phased it out in the U.S. in the early 2000s.

However, PFOS is known as a “legacy” compound because it persists in the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years.

  • PFDA and PFNA are found in stain- and grease-proof coatings on food packaging, couches and carpet.
  • PFHxS is also found in stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams and food packaging. Production of this compound has been phased out in the U.S., but products containing PFHxS can still be legally imported.

Surface water in the unnamed stream, which flows into Rockfish Creek, also contained 18 types of these compounds, including GenX. Chemours routinely discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River Basin until state regulators prohibited it from doing so.

Concentrations of all the compounds in surface water totaled 53 ppt for the first sample and 78 ppt for the second.

Individual concentrations ranged from below 1 part per trillion to 24 ppt.

Based on the test results, Gurney said, PFAS appear “to concentrate in foam at levels higher than the underlying surface water.”

Gurney said the agency is urging the people to avoid contact with any unusual foam, as a safety precaution. Pets should not be allowed to touch it, either.

After passing the House, bill regulating PFAS in firefighting foam lingers in Senate

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, has co-sponsored several bills that would regulate toxic PFAS in North Carolina. (Photo: NCGA)

Lawmakers dedicated to eradicating “forever chemicals” from water supplies across the state filed three bills this session that would more stringently regulate PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Only one has made it out of committee and has a chance of becoming law.

While the larger, sweeping bills were aspirational, legislation regulating toxic fire foam did pass the full House in May, raising hopes that this year could be more promising. 

“You would have thought that after Gen X in the Cape Fear, that we would get more movement than we have,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), who has worked on PFAS legislation for years. “But we couldn’t even take a crisis and turn it into really strong legislation, so we’ve got these sort of incremental approaches.”

PFAS are a large group of human-made chemicals commonly used in industrial production, firefighting foams and consumer products. They have chemical properties which make them water-, oil-,  and grease- resistant, and difficult to degrade.

“PFAS don’t break down, they move from place to place, they accumulate in living organisms, and the ones we’ve studied show adverse health effects.” said Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology at East Carolina University.

Highest exposures have been documented in people who live near industries that use PFAS in their products and individuals whose drinking water is contaminated with high levels of PFAS.

PFAS have been termed “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for decades and are found in the organs, tissues, and blood of both people and animals. The amount of PFAS in an individual’s system increases with higher exposure. 

High levels of PFAS have been linked to higher blood cholesterol, increased risk of thyroid disease, and decreased vaccine response. They can also cause reproductive issues such as decreased fertility in women, increased risk of pregnancy complications, and lower infant birth weight.

“As a toxicologist who tries to understand how PFAS exposure affects the immune system, it’s surprising to me that more data aren’t available on their health effects,” DeWitt said.

The full House passed a bill banning the use of foam containing PFAS during firefighting training Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover) is the primary sponsor. There are 13 co-sponsors, 11 of them Democrats and two Republicans. Harrison said she expects the bill to pass this session.

“We had this small bill to tackle this easy piece. That took a few years to get past the industry,” Harrison said.

 The bill, HB 355, would also require fire departments to report their use of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). PFAS is a major ingredient in AFFF, which are effective at extinguishing caused by flammable liquids. In December 2019, Congress directed the military to phase out the use of PFAS firefighting foam by 2024.

But in North Carolina, broader bills, including one that would impose an outright ban on PFAS within the state, Harrison said, were filed to be purely aspirational. The bill banning PFAS was also filed last session, but did not pass.

“Getting an outright ban of that chemical is going to be tough right now, in the current political climate,” Harrison said. 

Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) is the primary sponsor of HB 444, which would compel companies who discharge PFAS into public water supplies to provide permanent water replacements. 

Butler said the bill is a “natural extension” of a bill passed in 2018, which mandated that companies like Chemours provide alternative water supplies to those people with contaminated private wells.

However, the bill never got out of committee.

The bill’s intent is to reduce the cost and burden of providing safe water on the ratepayers of public water supplies. As authorities attempt to remove PFAS using new technology, this would save users of public water supplies increased water bills.

Butler uses Wilmington as an example. Currently, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is building a $50 million granulated carbon filtration system to get PFAS out of the public drinking supply. If passed, the bill would compel Chemours to pay for the technology. 

Harrison is the primary sponsor on two other PFAS-related bills — HB 502, calling for increased mitigation measures, and HB 503, which directs agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Environmental Quality to study issues associated with PFAS contamination in areas like the Cape Fear River. It also requires the Office of State Budget and Management to estimate the costs of PFAS contamination in the state. 

Both stalled in committee and it is unlikely they will be taken up this session.

It’s been five years since the Wilmington Star News first reported that GenX, a member of PFAS, was found in the Cape Fear River, tipping off a state-wide investigation. Data in 2020 showed that the level of PFOS in the Cape Fear River Basin was more than 14 times greater than what the federal Environmental Protection Agency has advised is safe. 

The contamination was traced to Fayetteville Works, a manufacturing site that the Chemours Company has run since 2015. It was run by DuPont prior to that, when the plant began discharging GenX since at least the 1980s, when chemical giant DuPont owned the plant. 

The Department of Environmental Quality mandated Chemours to stop dumping toxic waste into the Cape Fear River, and the company signed a consent order in 2019 with treatment measures designed to stop 99% of residual PFAS from seeping into the river. Most recently, North Carolina environmental regulators fined Chemours almost $200,000 for failing to meet the terms of the consent order.

Neither DEQ nor the EPA has enforceable drinking water standards and regulations on PFAS.

Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat, lives in New Hanover County where PFAS entered the drinking water supply. (Photo: NCGA)

How other states have regulated PFAS

Because of these chemicals’ prevalence and the negative effects, lawmakers in many states have proposed legislation to reduce the impact on their constituents.

New Jersey has taken aim at PFAS by passing their own Safe Drinking Water Act. The act specified that in the first quarter of 2021 all public water systems would begin monitoring two types of the compounds — PFOA and PFOS — and that levels would not exceed 13 parts per trillion.

In California, lawmakers have created comprehensive legislation of PFAS monitoring and notification. Chapter 4, Article 3 of the California Safe Drinking Water Act states that if the amount of PFAS in any water system is found to be above the set maximum level, those in charge of the water system must notify those who use said system within 30 days of the confirmed PFAS detection.

The act goes on to describe that if public water PFAS levels exceed 5.1 parts per trillion, the system providing the water must take specific steps to notify those affected. Steps include, sending both letter mail and email of the notice, as well as posting the notice online, in local newspapers, and around the area affected. The notice must also describe the confirmed detection, health risks of PFAS exposure and the populations that may be vulnerable.

Do these bills do enough?

Although other states have made strides towards reducing and banning PFAS, North Carolina still has a long way to go.

“To be realistic, I don’t expect a ban on PFAS to pass in North Carolina,” Rep. Harrison said “It might pass in California, but not here. But if we set a standard of what is a best-case scenario, maybe we’ll get close to that by at least limiting its use.”

Many environmental organizations in the state have felt similarly about the lack of action  for PFAS regulation. 

In October 2020, six North Carolina environmental groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Toxic Substances Control Act, to have the Chemours chemical company fund health studies on 54 types of PFAS that were released from its Fayetteville Works plant. The petition was rejected.

One of the groups from the 2020 petition, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), stated that they believe “chemical makers have no right to expose [people] to concoctions that affect [their] family’s health.”

Right now the groups have their focus on the EPA and Biden Administration to overturn the rejected petition they filed.

Where do we go from here?

Butler warns there will be litigation pending on the bill requiring pollutants to pay for water replacements in public water supplies.

“It’s gonna take years and years and years and years, and that’s part of the polluters playbook,” Butler said. “They have very deep pockets. They can pay the lawyers forever.”

Butler fears that by the time people stop turning a blind eye to PFAS accumulation, it’ll be too late to clean them up. 

“We can all live, believe it or not, without Teflon,” Butler said. “I like the non-stick pan as much as anybody, but I don’t need them anymore.”

Ramishah Maruf is a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Gov. Cooper should delay no longer in pardoning exonerated man

Image: Screenshot from BBC documentary

Dontae Sharpe’s supporters will gather this afternoon outside the Governor’s Mansion to renew their pleas for justice

In 2019, after having been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for more than a quarter century for a murder he didn’t commit, a Greenville man named Dontae Sharpe was released from prison by a North Carolina judge.

Click here to watch a powerful BBC documentary that tells the story of Sharpe’s wrongful conviction at age 19 and ultimate exoneration.

As the documentary also explains, since his release, Sharpe has sought a state pardon so that he can have his record cleared and get on with what’s left of the rest of his life.

This shouldn’t even be necessary. When the state is found to have erred so egregiously and wrongfully stolen the best years of a person’s life, such pardons – along with financial compensation – ought to be automatic. This is actually the case in some jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, North Carolina law makes no such provision and so the matter is left exclusively up to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Reverends Barber and Spearman at Thursday’s press conference

Yesterday, at press event outside the Governor’s office, advocates — including national Poor People’s Campaign leader Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, Diana Powell of the group Justice Served NC and Dennis Gaddy of the Community Success Initiative — revealed that, after years of pleas from Sharpe’s family, lawyers, civil rights advocates and others, a Cooper assistant had recently indicated that a pardon might be in the offing, but probably not until the end of the year.

This is simply wrong. As all the speakers yesterday repeatedly and persuasively explained, a deserving person like Sharpe who’s been so horrendously and wrongfully punished for so long should not have to wait another day for justice.

Indeed, they said, it is offensive and smells of politics that Sharpe’s pardon might be “batched” with a group of holiday season pardons when it could be granted now.

The bottom line: Gov. Roy Cooper has been an extraordinary chief executive for North Carolina over the last nearly five years. On issue after issue, he’s battled the forces of reaction and prejudice and done his best to move our state forward.

In the case of Dontae Sharpe, however, he’s making a big and inexplicable mistake. The Governor should come address protesters at this afternoon’s “freedom vigil” and issue the pardon immediately.

NC flight attendant testifies before Congress on huge uptick in pandemic ‘air rage’