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.