Environment

Reverse osmosis removes PFAS better than filtration pitchers — for a price

Drinking water filters in pitchers and refrigerators reduce levels of perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — less effectively than reverse osmosis and two-stage filtration systems, according to a new study conducted by Duke University and NC State University scientists.

Teams lead by professors Heather Stapleton and Detlef Knappe compared the levels of contaminants in raw water and filtered water from 76 point-of-use filters, such as pitchers and in-fridge models. The scientists also tested water from another 13 under-sink reverse osmosis or whole-house systems. The homes were located in central and southeastern North Carolina.

The reverse osmosis and dual-stage systems were “very effective,” Stapleton told reporters today, “and removed at least 90%” of PFAS the scientists tested for. The pitcher, countertop, faucet-mounted and refrigerator filters, which use granulated activated carbon to remove the contaminants, decreased levels by only 50%.

“It’s unclear why,” Stapleton said. The filtration systems are proprietary, and the companies don’t have to release that internal information.

“The whole-house systems were also widely variable,” Stapleton said, “and in some cases actually increased PFAS levels in the water.”

Duke University scientist and professor Heather Stapleton. (Photo: Duke University)

The PFAS-removal efficiency of whole-house systems using activated carbon filters varied widely. In four of the six systems tested, PFSA and PFCA levels actually increased after filtration. Because the systems remove disinfectants used in city water treatment, they can also leave home pipes susceptible to bacterial growth.

“The under-sink reverse osmosis filter is the most efficient system for removing both the PFAS contaminants prevalent in central North Carolina, and the PFEAs, including GenX, found in Wilmington,” said Knappe of NC State. “Unfortunately, they also cost much more than other point-of-use filters. This raises concerns about environmental justice, since PFAS pollution affects more households that struggle financially than those that do not struggle.”

A 10-cup Brita pitcher with two filters runs about $30; replacement filters cost roughly $6 each. But the price of under-sink reverse osmosis systems ranges from $300 to $500, plus installation. Replacement filters run from $80 to $100.

In general, the frequency of filter replacements did not affect the removal or reduction levels. However, Stapleton said that at some homes, the filters did reach “the saturation point.” And in some of those cases, the filtered water contained higher levels of contaminants than the raw water. That could have occurred because the filter membrane essentially sloughed off the excess compounds into the water. It’s important for residents to replace the filters regularly.

“Home filters are really only a stopgap,” said Knappe, whose lab teamed with Stapleton’s to conduct the study. “The real goal should be control of PFAS contaminants at their source.”

NC State University scientist and professor Detlef Knappe (Photo: NC State)

The type of PFAS in the water also influenced the filters’ effectiveness. “Long-chain” compounds such as PFOA and PFOS were more thoroughly removed — 70% to 80% — than “short-chain,” which had reduction rates of 40%.

After 3M and DuPont phased out their manufacture of long-chain compounds, like C8 (so- called because they contain eight carbon atoms), the companies replaced them with short-chain compounds. Those contain four to six carbon atoms. GenX is a short-chain compound.

Environment

Leak in pipe at Chemours plant emitted a type of PFAS into air; amount not independently confirmed

Fifty pounds? Or less than half a pound?

Last fall, Chemours workers discovered a pinhole leak in a pipe at the Fayetteville Works facility that was emitting a type of PFAS, perfluoropropionyl fluoride, into the air. The company initially estimated about 50 pounds of the compound was released, according to its report to the US Coast Guard National Response Center. The center fields pollution and railroad incidents and forwards that information to appropriate federal and state agencies for response.

Today, in a response to an inquiry from Policy Watch, a Chemours spokeswoman said the amount has since been recalculated to be fourth-tenths of a pound.

It’s hard to gauge what is most accurate, since the amount has not been independently confirmed. For context, Chemours reported to DEQ that in the entire year of 2016 it had emitted 66.6 pounds of GenX-related compounds. That figure turned out to be a drastic underestimate. The state Division of Air Quality conducted its own study  and calculated the facility emitted roughly 2,700 pounds in 2016.

Zaynab Nasif, spokeswoman for the state Division of Air Quality said the agency is “currently evaluating any potential enforcement action at this time and continuing to follow up with Chemours’s evaluation of the incident, as well.”

The recent release occurred on Nov. 22, 2019, in the Vinyl Ethers North Tower, according to correspondence between the company and state environmental regulators. Workers discovered the leak incidentally, while they were conducting stack testing. Chemours subsequently “followed shutdown and decontamination procedures” so the hole could be repaired.

The European Chemicals Agency   lists the substance as potentially “fatal if inhaled and contains gas under pressure and may explode if heated.”

Chemours provided nebulizers to workers who were potentially exposed to the compound, but the company said none became ill.

Environment

Why NEPA matters and why the public should speak-up to protect this bedrock environmental law (podcast)

The Trump administration’s move to narrow clean water protections is not the only policy maneuver this month that has North Carolina environmentalists worried.

Earlier this month the administration proposed weakening key aspects of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.

As reporter Lisa Sorg explained on our site:

NEPA doesn’t dictate environmental decisions, but the process is designed to ensure that agencies follow a proper procedure, including robust public input, to reach its conclusions. In other words, as NEPA’s guiding principle states, the law is intended to “… foster and promote the general welfare. Man and nature can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”

For example, NEPA currently requires a full analysis and assessment of environmental impacts, including cumulative and indirect ones – such as climate change. But the Trump administration would would eliminate considerations for climate change impacts – a very real and existential threat – that accompany natural gas pipelines, fracking operations and offshore drilling. Meanwhile, economic considerations would be mandatory.

Last week we sat down with attorney Kym Hunter of the Southern Environmental Law Center to discuss efforts by the Trump administration to gut this 50-year-old landmark rule.

A public comment period on changes to NEPA runs through March 10th. A public hearing will also be held in Washington, DC, on Feb. 25. Details on how and where to comment are on the Council for Environmental Quality website.

Environment

Trump administration narrows clean water protections, NC wetlands likely to suffer

A restored stream in Forest Hills Park in Durham, conducted under the state’s mitigation program. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In case you missed it on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule that environmentalists say will gut long-established clean water protections.

Announced at a national home builders show in Las Vegas, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Navigable Waters Protection Rule delivers on President Trump’s promise of a revised definition for “waters of the United States” and results in economic growth.

But as Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg first reported last September, this rule change could hold dire consequences for North Carolina:

In North Carolina, wetlands cover 5.7 million acres of land, about 17 percent of the state. Most of the wetlands are in eastern North Carolina, where they provide crucial flood protection and wildlife habitat. In addition, 51,000 miles of streams — equivalent to two trips around the equator — are at risk from the WOTUS rollback. Some parts of the state, Gisler said, could lose protections for 50 percent of their streams.

Even with Clean Water Act protections, North Carolina’s waters are still polluted: from coal ash pits, chemicals, hog waste, raw sewage — 85 million gallons of which spilled into the state’s waterways last year. Repealing the federal protections would likely despoil the water quality we do have.

“We could see dramatic increases in number of streams plowed over, developed, paved,” if the repeal withstands legal challenges, said Geoff Gisler, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There’s going to be a visible and noticeable difference in the quality of our waters.”

And while the change is clearly intended to benefit developers and industry, the Southern Environmental Law Center notes:

…. the overwhelming majority of the 626,075 public comments EPA received weighed in against the proposed rule. The list of Americans from across the country that the rule drew criticism or concern from is long: floodplain and wetland managers, state wildlife agencies and international councils, state environmental agencies, associations representing family commercial fishing businesses, several fly-fishing-related businesses, river guides and paddling outfitters, outdoor apparel company Patagonia, outdoor recreational enthusiasts represented by several organizations, 59 craft breweries, 12 scientific societies that represent more than 200,000 scientists, numerous associations representing public and children’s health advocates, cities and counties, small and family farmers, environmental law professors, faith organizations, and conservation organizations too numerous to count.

So what’s next? According to Politico, you can expect a deluge of new lawsuits:

Legal experts say the Trump rule is likely to be placed on hold by federal courts in at least some states, if not nationwide, as the litigation works its way through the courts. In the meantime. developers and other industries will have to decide how much of a risk they’re willing to take.

For more, read Sorg’s full story: How a Trump attack on the federal “Waters of the United States” rule imperils the waters of North Carolina.

Environment

Fence at Umstead would be “permanent eyesore,” says NC Parks to RDU Airport Authority

The proposed fence would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, shown at the bottom of the map. Airport officials contend the fence is necessary to keep trespassers off nearby RDU property — land that has been leased to a quarry company for a controversial stone mine. (Map: NC Parks)

The RDU Airport Authority today delayed a vote on an 8-foot high, 8.3-mile fence that would cut through parts of Umstead Park, after meeting with state parks officials who have serious reservations about the project.

The Authority has proposed building the security fence, which would be topped with three rows of barbed wire.

It would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, bisecting it in two places. The trail  is used by tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists and equestrians every year. The fence’s purpose is to keep trespassers off airport property, which intersects with the park.

Bill Sandifer, the Authority’s chief operating officer, told the board that the airport would be seeking a “compromise” to the fence.

“There’s more conversation to be had,” Sandifer said. “We’re taking a short pause. But the fence isn’t going away. We have needs on that side of the airport.”

However, the fence is clearly unpopular not only with park lovers — Umstead is one of the state’s most popular park destinations — but also state officials, who were frank about their opposition to the project.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, D. Reid Wilson, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which is over the parks system, told the Airport Authority that the proposed fence would create “a permanent eyesore and marring the look and ‘feel’ of the park.”

The proposed fence also “would greatly harm a fundamental purpose of the park, namely to provide public access to a natural setting for people to enjoy nature and improve their physical and mental health,” Wilson wrote. It would also hurt water quality and wildlife habitats.

The fence would cross four large streams, 19 small streams and 29 temporary streams or ditches. “It would damage stream banks, wetlands, and water quality downstream in Umstead Park,” Wilson wrote. It would also “block movements of wildlife, effectively trapping them between airport fences.”

The proposed fence perimeter Map: RDU

To accommodate the fence, RDU would clear cut forested areas and ecological valuable understory for 15 feet on either side of the fence, for a total of 30 feet along the length of the barrier.

The fenced area is also part of a larger 105-acre tract the airport has leased to Wake Stone for a controversial quarry.

Sandifer has justified the need for the fence by saying trespassers are creating legal liabilities for the airport. In addition, Sandifer alleged that trespassers have damaged stream and riparian buffers — 16.5 miles, according to the airport. The airport’s engineering and environmental consultants estimated it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to repair the damage.

Policy Watch has requested documents showing the extent of the damage and how the costs was calculated.

The Reedy Creek Trail predates the airport and has been part of Umstead Park for 85 years, said Umstead Coalition member Jean Spooner, who opposes the fence and the rock quarry that would be built adjacent to it. The airport over time has expanded its land holdings and infringed on the trail, not the other way around, Spooner said.

“Every park map since the airport was built shows that the trail goes into the airport property,” Spooner said. “We’ve had two major  projects to improve that trail. It’s no secret that it’s there. We didn’t move the trail.” 

Wilson wrote that it would be far too expensive for State Parks to move the Reedy Creek trail, but offered several alternatives to a fence for further discussion. These include hiring additional park rangers, at airport expense, although the cost, Wilson said, would be less than the $2 million to build a fence.

“We believe that enhanced law enforcement presence, coupled with strong public communication alerting bikers that citations will be issued to those illegally accessing RDU property, can serve as an effective deterrent,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson suggested the department could also work with RDU and state and federal agencies to buy or lease nearby 151-acre airport property, known as the “286 tract” and to add it to the park. Federal law prohibits RDU from selling the land that is used for aeronautical use, but it can lease it. RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

Airport spokeswoman Crystal Feldman issued a statement saying RDU is seeking a third party to lease 151 acres of land for mountain biking – “a proposal originally included in RDU’s Vision 2040 master plan.”

The Airport Authority is already under public scrutiny for leasing other nearby land to a quarry company, and the fence has further soured some members of the public on the airport’s operations. “This degradation of the visitor experience would likely create among trail users an ongoing negative impression of the airport,” Wilson wrote.

This post has been updated to clarify that RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.