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New legislation would allow DEQ to regulate some types of PFAS in drinking water

The Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people, is contaminated with PFAS, some of it from groundwater seeps originating at the Chemours plant in north Bladen County. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

After five years without meaningful legislation on PFAS contamination, North Carolina could adopt its own threshold for the toxic compounds in drinking water, under a new bill introduced in the General Assembly yesterday.

House Bill 1095 would authorize the state’s Environmental Management Commission to adopt a maximum contaminant level for one or more per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances compounds. Currently, there is only a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion for total PFAS in drinking water, which is legally unenforceable. For GenX, a type of PFAS, the goal is 140 ppt.

State health and environmental officials have advised not to drink water that contains more than 10 ppt of any individual compound.

Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers. In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, fast food containers, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products.

The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS in drinking water, although it plans to release a more stringent toxicity assessment for GenX and PFBS this year. States can use those assessments to set their own regulations.

North Carolina lags behind several states in regulating PFAS. Michigan and New York, for example, have maximum contaminant thresholds of 8 ppt and 10 ppt, respectively for certain types of the compounds.

PFAS don’t break down in the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Traditional drinking water treatment systems can’t remove the compounds.

Primary bill sponsors are Republicans Ted Davis, Jr. (New Hanover), Frank Iler (Brunswick), and Charles Miller (Brunswick, New Hanover), and Democrat Robert Reives (Chatham, Durham).

GenX was discovered in Wilmington’s public drinking water system more than five years ago. Chemours,  100 miles upstream near the Cumberland and Bladen County line, discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River; the company is also the primary source of other PFAS in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin. PFAS  from other sources have also been detected in Pittsboro’s drinking water, in Chatham County.

Since 2017, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has installed expensive technology — at ratepayers’ expense — to sharply reduce levels of PFAS in drinking water. The proposed legislation addresses that inequity by authorizing the NC Department of Environmental Quality to order responsible parties to repay the public water system for costs associated with reducing levels of PFAS contamination below the permissible concentration level.

In turn, the public utility that had expended funds would reimburse ratepayers through a reduction in future rates.

The bill would appropriate $2 million  in nonrecurring funds for the 2022-2023 fiscal year to DEQ to carry out the legislation’s requirement. The funds would be deposited into a special PFAS Public Water Protection Fund. The NC Collaboratory, housed at UNC-Chapel Hill, would receive an additional $2 million in nonrecurring funds to, conduct research and analysis to provide scientific and  economic support for maximum contaminant levels for PFAS.

SB 830, sponsored by Sen. Kirk DeViere (D-Cumberland) would appropriate $5 million to phase out firefighting foams that contain PFAS, and replace them with materials that don’t contain those compounds. The Firefighting Foam Replacement Fund would award up to $100,000 in grants to eligible fire departments to cover costs related to the replacement.

Firefighting foam is another major source of PFAS contamination. The foam not only contaminates waterways, but has been linked to elevated levels of cancers in firefighters. PFAS has also been detected in firefighting gear.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied 29,992 career firefighters in San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York, and compared their cancer rates with the U.S. general population. The results of the study, published in 2020, confirmed higher rates of several cancers, including those affecting the digestive and urinary tracts, in firefighters, as well as leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

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