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.

Endangered species to get a reprieve under Biden administration plans

Federal judge halts Biden pause on new oil and gas leases across the U.S.

Photo: Daily Montanan

A federal judge in Louisiana has ordered the Biden administration to restart regular sales of oil and gas leases, forcing the administration to prematurely abandon a central piece of its climate change agenda.

In a preliminary ruling issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty granted the request of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and 12 other Republican-led states, including Georgia, Missouri and Montana, that filed a court challenge, and ordered the administration to hold quarterly lease sales nationally at least until the case is decided.

The order in the Western District of Louisiana is not a final ruling on the case, but does indicate Doughty expects the states to eventually prevail.

As part of a Jan. 27 executive order meant to address climate change, Biden temporarily paused new oil and gas leases on public lands while the administration reviewed leasing policy, including the contributions to climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2017 that energy development on public lands is responsible for nearly one-quarter of the country’s carbon emissions.

Doughty, whom former President Donald Trump appointed to the federal bench, ruled federal laws compel the administration to hold regular lease sales for oil and gas rights on public lands, and only Congress can change the laws to make a pause legal. The administration overstepped its constitutional powers by ordering the pause, he said.

The public interest weighs in favor of immediately blocking the administration’s pause because of the losses in state funding that would result from the lost bonus payments when lease sales are held, he said.

“Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” he wrote. “Local government funding, jobs for plaintiff state workers, and funds for the restoration of Louisiana’s coastline are at stake.”

The Interior Department canceled quarterly lease sales for the first two quarters of 2021, and had not indicated when it planned to lift the pause. Interior has said an interim report on the findings of its review of leasing policy would be finished early this summer.

In a statement Wednesday, Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the department was “reviewing the judge’s opinion and will comply with the decision.”

“The Interior Department continues to work on an interim report that will include initial findings on the state of the federal conventional energy programs, as well as outline next steps and recommendations for the Department and Congress to improve stewardship of public lands and waters, create jobs, and build a just and equitable energy future,” she said.

Schwartz declined to answer if the administration planned to appeal the ruling. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

Senate Energy Committee ranking Republican John Barrasso, a vocal critic of the leasing pause, praised the ruling in a statement.

“President Biden’s ban on new oil and gas leases is illegal,” said Barrasso, of Wyoming. “This decision is a victory for the rule of law and American energy workers.”

Environmentalists have called for the pause to be permanent. Prohibiting oil and gas development on public lands is key to Biden’s pledge to address global warming, environmental groups have said. A ban on new leases would also be crucial to the administration’s goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2030.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, said on Twitter on Tuesday that the environmental community would continue to “challenge any attempts at issuing new federal public lands leases in the Western U.S. that fail to grapple with the urgency compelled by the climate crisis, protect our public lands, or remedy inequities & injustices to communities.”

House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said the ruling was wrong on its legal merits and shows why the leasing laws need to be updated.

“We need to update our fossil fuel leasing laws across the board to establish a cleaner, more sustainable standard of use for our public resources, as this committee is already seeking to do,” he said in a statement. “Our economic and environmental future shouldn’t be subject to rulings based on industry-funded science or opportunistic complaints that we didn’t hear until President Biden was sworn into office.”

Jacob Fischler helps cover Washington for the States Newsroom network.

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.

North Carolina has a newly designated endangered species, which is nothing to be proud of

Carolina madtom, a species of catfish, is now listed as federally endangered. Its protected critical habitat includes 257 river miles in 12 counties in North Carolina: Durham, Edgecombe, Franklin, Granville, Halifax, Johnston, Jones, Nash, Orange, Vance, Warren and Wilson. (Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Carolina madtoms are armed with stinging spines on their fins that can stun their attackers, but these small catfish are helpless against their main predator: urbanization.

Because of human encroachment on their native homes, the Carolina madtom is now on the federal Endangered Species list, the Center for Biological Diversity announced yesterday.

The Center had petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the courts for more than a decade to add protections for the species.

“The Endangered Species Act is the most effective tool available to save plants and animals from extinction, so it’s good news that these special North Carolina creek critters now have the habitat safeguards they need to survive,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center, in a press statement.

The Carolina madtom occurs only in the Neuse and Tar River basins, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. It is the only madtom native to North Carolina.

The Carolina madtom lives in larger streams that flow into the Tar and the Neuse. But runoff, sediment and other byproducts of urbanization and industrialized livestock farms have degraded the water quality in most of these streams. Before its designation as endangered, the Carolina madtom had been listed as threatened and a federal species of concern since 2007.

The Neuse River waterdog, an aquatic salamander found only in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins of North Carolina, is now listed as threatened. It has been eliminated from 35% of its range, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The waterdog is very sensitive to pollution and changes in its habitat, which can occur from runoff attributed to logging, industrialized livestock farms, as well as development. The salamander will be listed as threatened with a “4(d) rule” that allows ongoing logging in its habitat if certain management practices are followed to protect streams from sediment pollution.

An additional 25% of the Neuse River waterdog’s historical streams are in such poor condition that the waterdog is unlikely to survive there. The most significant declines have occurred in the Neuse River near Raleigh.

Protected critical habitat for the Neuse River waterdog includes 779 river miles in Craven, Durham, Edgecombe, Franklin, Granville, Greene, Halifax, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Orange, Person, Pitt, Wake, Warren, Wayne and Wilson counties. (Photo courtesy USFWS)