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State Senate budget would fund new DEQ section to address PFAS in drinking water

The state Department of Environmental Quality would receive more than $974,000 to establish a new emerging compounds section, according to the State Senate budget published today. The money would pay for 10 new positions within the Division of Water Resources; it is recurring, which means funding is expected to be renewed each year.

Emerging compounds include PFAS — perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds — and 1,4-Dioxane. Both are toxic and have been widely detected in the state’s — and nation’s — water supplies.

The funding is a small part of the department’s overall appropriation of $104.7 million for the 2021-2022 biennium. In 2022-2023, the agency would receive $107.9 million.

The addition of an emerging compounds section marks a reversal in decade-long cuts to personnel within DEQ. The proposed number of full-time equivalent positions is 1,123, up from 1,096 in 2017. However the Senate figure is still 100 positions fewer than what was budgeted for in 2016.

The current budget would create several more positions as part of DEQ’s permit transformation program.

Under the Senate budget, the NC Policy Collaboratory would become permanent. Created in 2016, it harnesses researchers from North Carolina universities to study environmental and public health issues. Its main tasks early on were to conduct research on water quality issues in Jordan Lake, then expanded to PFAS monitoring and removal in drinking water, and more recently COVID-19.

The budget would require the Collaboratory to work with the Office of the State Fire Marshal to track the storage and use of Aqueous Film-Forming Foams, known as AFFF. These foams historically have contained PFAS, which not only jeopardizes the groundwater, but it can cause serious health problems in firefighters who are chronically exposed to the material.

The Office of the State Fire Marshal would report each year to the Environmental Review Commission on the use and inventory of AFFF by fire departments across the state. Information would include the names and addresses of the fire stations; the number of trucks that carry AFFF and the volume; where the foam was used; and the trade names.

People whose private drinking water wells are contaminated with PFAS could also be eligible for public funds to pay for alternative water supplies, regardless of income.

Since 2006, the Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund has paid for private well testing in areas with suspected groundwater contamination for low-income households. If contamination is detected, those households can also receive funding to be connected to a public water supply or other alternatives, such as drilling a deeper well or installing a reverse osmosis system.

The income limitation is lifted for households whose water is contaminated with PFAS above the health advisory goals set by the state Department of Health and Human Services or the EPA; that maximum level is currently 70 parts per trillion, although some states have established stricter standards.

Chemours, which is responsible for contaminating private groundwater wells in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, must pay for testing and alternatives under a consent order; these funds would presumably help cover households whose contamination has not been traced to Chemours.

To accommodate the anticipated demand for testing, the Senate has nearly doubled the Bernard Allen Fund, from $400,000 to $700,000 in nonrecurring funds each biennium.

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