U.S. House to vote next week on expanding PFAS regulation, backers say

Pittsboro hit with another dose of 1,4-Dioxane from Greensboro

This story has been corrected. Greensboro told Policy Watch today that they do not believe Shamrock Environmental is the source of the contamination. The data provided by the Town of Pittsboro did not account for dilution factors in Greensboro.

Pittsboro’s drinking water took another hit of 1,4-Dioxane last week, which the town attributes to an “additional slug of contamination coming from Greensboro” on July 6, according to a press release today.

As Policy Watch reported, on June 30, the City of Greensboro illegally discharged levels of of 1,4-Dioxane 20 times higher than EPA recommended levels from its TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant into the South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River, according to a NC Department of Environmental Quality press release. Pittsboro sources its drinking water from the Haw River.

1,4-Dioxane is a toxic chemical used in degreasers that the EPA has classified as a likely carcinogen. There is no regulatory standard for 1,4-Dioxane, but the EPA has set a health advisory goal of 35 parts per billion for drinking water, which equals a 1-in-10,000 lifetime excess cancer risk. The surface water goal is more stringent, at 0.35 ppb, a 1-in-1 million lifetime excess cancer risk.

Testing results announced by the Town of Pittsboro show that on July 6, levels of 1,4-Dioxane in raw water — straight from the Haw River — ranged from 26.5 parts per billion to 93.6 ppb. Treated drinking water at two sources were also elevated: Chatham Forest, 66.8 ppb and the water tank, 21. 7 ppb. Treated water from the Horton tank was 1.71 ppb.

These levels are above those on July 2 when raw water contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane at 76.5 parts per billion and treated drinking water showed levels of less than 1.25 ppb.

Meanwhile, upstream Shamrock Environmental test results showed that its mixed effluent into the TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plan on July 6 and 8  reached 98.8 ppb. A “flume grab” — before Shamrock’s wastewater had been mixed — measured 466 ppb.

However, City of Greensboro spokesman Elijah Williams said Shamrock Environmental is not the source of the contamination. Accounting for dilution factors, Shamrock’s levels would need to have been much higher for it to be responsible for this spill.  Shamrock Environmental is in the waste management business, including tanker cleaning services. It was responsible for a previous spill in 2019, but Greensboro has recently ruled out the company in this incident.

Although 1,4-Dioxane is extremely difficult to remove from drinking water using conventional treatments, the Town of Pittsboro is refreshing water in their stored tanks with better-quality finished water to dilute and flush the contamination.

The TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greensboro receives effluent from both residential and industrial customers in Guilford County.

Pittsboro officials in a press release said that recent rainfalls, along with flushing the town system, is helping to reduce contamination levels. The town will continue sampling until the levels of 1,4-Dioxane are not detected.

Pittsboro expects to release results of its sampling through July 9 tomorrow.

Also, the Environmental Management Commission is scheduled to discuss 1,4-Dioxane at its meeting tomorrow, which begins at 9 a.m.

EPA knew fracking fluid can degrade into toxic PFAS, approved it anyway

Fracking has been legal in North Carolina since 2014, but because of a lack of easily accessible natural gas and local governments’ temporary moratoria on the practice, only test wells have been drilled. These areas shaded in yellow represent parts of the state where the gas is thought to be present. (Map: NC Geological Survey)

The EPA in 2011 knew that chemicals used in fracking fluid can break down and form PFAS — potentially contaminating groundwater and drinking water — but approved them anyway, even though agency scientists acknowledged they could be toxic.

The New York Times reported the story this morning, based on documents received by Physicians for Social Responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act.

From the story: “EPA scientists pointed to preliminary evidence that, under some conditions, the chemicals could ‘degrade in the environment’ into substances akin to PFOA, a kind of PFAS chemical, and could ‘persist in the environment’ and ‘be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” The E.P.A. scientists recommended additional testing. Those tests were not mandatory and there is no indication that they were carried out.”

DuPont was among the companies that manufactured the compounds used in fracking fluid.

Fracking, also known as horizontal drilling, has emerged as a destructive but common method of extracting natural gas from deep inside the earth. Not can fracking contaminate groundwater, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The deep fracturing of the rock also can cause earthquakes in areas that never experienced them before. Fracking also requires millions of gallons of water, which is in short supply in drought-stricken areas in the West.

Fracked gas from West Virginia would be the source of energy for the stalled Mountain Valley Pipeline and the MVP Southgate projects.

Exposure to PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, is linked to many serious health problems: cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, reproductive problems, low birth weight, among others. They are also called “forever chemicals” because they remain in the environment.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, used in nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, microwave popcorn bags, carpets, furniture and grease-resistant and water-resistant clothing.

They are widespread, including in the drinking water of an estimate 80 million people in the U.S. This includes North Carolina, particularly in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, where Chemours has a factory. However, PFAS have been detected in other areas of the state, as well.

Around the same time that the EPA was approving the chemicals, many North Carolina lawmakers has joined the bandwagon supporting  fracking, also known as horizontal drilling. (I reported on fracking at that time as a staff writer at the INDY.)  In 2011, then-State Rep. Mitch Gillespie, was a primary sponsor of House Bill 242, which directed the NC Department of Environmental Resources (now DEQ) to study fracking. “It’s my intention to move ahead with this drilling as long as it’s safe and sound,” said Gillespie, a Republican from Burke County at the time.

Gillespie has since been appointed to the Environmental Management Commission.

Fracking became been legal in North Carolina in 2014, when then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Energy Modernization Act. It had several co-sponsors, including Sens. Paul Newton, Brent Jackson and Joyce Krawiec, who are still in office.

However, since then only test wells have been drilled, and because of the low amount of accessible natural gas, there has been no fracking in the state. Several counties, including Chatham and Lee, have enacted temporary local moratoria on fracking. In 2015, the legislature passed a law, also signed by McCrory, that prohibited cities and counties from banning fracking within their jurisdictions.

The Energy Modernization Act also established the nine-member Oil and Gas Commission, whose job is to adopt rules regarding fracking and energy exploration. The commission has done little substantive work.

In 2018, Policy Watch reported that then-chairman Jim Womack claimed  five people had written to to the commission, alleging that they had been unfairly prohibited from applying for drilling permits in Lee County because of a local ordinance establishing a temporary moratorium on fracking. In their petition, the complainants asked the commission to essentially overrule Lee County government and allow them to frack for natural gas on their land.

Four of the letters contained identical language, were sent to the commission on the same day, and were ostensibly written by neighbors or friends of Womack.

Womack, a former Lee County commissioner, at the time refused to answer repeated questions about whether he helped write the letters or encouraged the complainants to write them. He did acknowledge having met with the people who filed the complaints.



EPA recommends that Army Corps of Engineers not grant Mountain Valley Pipeline stream crossing permit

An erosion control device at a temporary equipment crossing for Mountain Valley Pipeline in May 2021. (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission construction report)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers not grant Mountain Valley Pipeline a critical permit to cross several hundred streams in Virginia and West Virginia.

“EPA has identified a number of substantial concerns with the project as currently proposed, including whether all feasible avoidance and minimization measures have been undertaken, deficient characterization of the aquatic resources to be impacted, insufficient assessment of secondary and cumulative impacts and potential for significant degradation, and the proposed mitigation,” EPA Wetlands Branch Chief Jeffrey Lapp wrote in a May 27 letter.

The letter was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by environmental law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Roy Seneca, a regional spokesperson for the agency, said in an email Thursday that “EPA’s recommendation in the letter still stands.”

Among areas of concern highlighted by the EPA are the Upper Roanoke watershed, which will experience 200 of the project’s proposed 719 stream impacts, and the Middle New watershed, which will see nearly 100 impacts. Numerous Southwest Virginia counties and cities, including Montgomery, Floyd and Roanoke, fall within these watersheds.

“While many of the discharges of fill associated with the proposed construction activity may be considered temporary, the impacts from those discharges may have lasting effects, particularly due to the sensitivity of the aquatic resources and the repetitive nature of impacts to some of the tributaries,” EPA wrote.

Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for Mountain Valley Pipeline, said in an email that the company has “continued to work closely with all federal and state agencies to address MVP’s permit applications.”

“These efforts remain ongoing, and we are committed to meeting or exceeding all applicable compliance requirements related to environmental protection,” she wrote.

Mountain Valley has struggled throughout its development to obtain and keep required environmental permits, causing its price tag to balloon to nearly $6.2 billion and its projected completion date to be repeatedly pushed back.

This May the company said it expected to complete the project by summer 2022, due to extensions sought by Virginia and West Virginia regulators to review the stream-crossing permits. On June 28, the Army Corps of Engineers gave Virginia regulators until Dec. 31 to review the project’s state water quality certification.

In North Carolina, the fate of the Mountain Valley Pipeline will likely determine whether the MVP Southgate project is built. MVP Southgate starts at the end of the main line in Virginia, enters North Carolina in Rockingham County, then travels roughly 50 miles southeast, traversing Alamance County and ending in Haw River.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has twice denied the MVP Southgate’s water quality permit application, citing in part, the uncertainty of the main line. DEQ has told MVP Southgate that if construction begins without the main line, the environmental impacts to rivers, streams and forests would be for naught. This scenario has a precedent: Duke Energy and Dominion Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline after contractors had already begun clearcutting forests, excavating and laying pipe. Now the ACP must restore those areas, although in the case of the forests, it will be decades before those areas are made whole.

“It’s not just us that sees the deficiencies,” said David Sligh, conservation director for environmental group Wild Virginia, which has been one of Mountain Valley’s most outspoken challengers. “EPA sees the serious deficiencies. And we expect (the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) to insist that they get all the right information, and if they don’t get all the right information, they can’t issue a water quality certification, not legally.”

Sarah Vogelsong is the environment and energy reporter for the Virginia Mercury, which first published this report. Lisa Sorg contributed North Carolina information.

Colonial Pipeline cuts deal with federal pipeline officials over Huntersville gasoline spill

Colonial Pipeline contractors have installed monitoring and recovery wells near the spill site. This photo was taken from the back yard of Marc Bellet, who lives nearby. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Colonial Pipeline has signed a consent agreement with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which allows the company to avoid federal civil penalties in connection with a 1.2 million gallon gasoline spill in Huntersville —  the largest onshore fuel spill in the U.S. since 1997.

According to the consent agreement, Colonial “neither admits nor denies any allegation or conclusion” laid out in the document. The consent agreement does not prevent the state from assessing fines or penalties, nor does it immunize the company from third-party litigation or criminal penalties.

The consent agreement was first reported by E&E News and independent journalist Rob Jaeger on Substack.

The consent order stems from the Aug. 14, 2020 incident in Huntersville that has extensively contaminated the groundwater and the soil near homes and in the Oehler Nature Preserve. The cleanup continues, including removing gasoline from the groundwater and excavating soil. Colonial says no drinking water wells have been affected, but the company paid to connect some nearby residents to the public water supply out of caution. The company also purchased three homes near the spill “to minimize the inconvenience” of the cleanup activities, Colonial said at the time.

A leak detection system failed to alert the company of the spill, one of a series of failures over the past five years throughout the Southeast.

In Huntersville, Colonial attributed the spill to a broken “Type A” sleeve repair that was installed in 2004. The sleeve was supposed to protect and reinforce a shallow dent in the pipeline, but over time became weakened by corrosion.

The PHMSA determined earlier this year that the problems with the pipeline in Huntersville were likely present throughout Colonial’s entire 5,500-mile route.

The consent order requires Colonial to submit a remedial work plan within 120 days, including inspections and evaluations of the leak detection system, as well as upgrades. The company must also inventory all of its Type A sleeve repairs and determine whether they need replaced.

“In accordance with our safety management practices, Colonial Pipeline began to implement learnings from the Huntersville incident almost immediately after it occurred,” a Colonial spokesman wrote in a prepared statement. “The consent agreement outlines a number of steps that Colonial has agreed to undertake and we appreciate the opportunity to settle this matter following consultation with PHMSA.”

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued a Notice of Continuing Violation to Colonial, requesting more information about the extent and amount of the spill. Colonial has revised its estimates several times, and the 1.2 million gallon figure is likely an underestimate, according to a letter from the company to the Division of Waste Management. A new modeling method shows that “unique geological and hydrogeologic conditions” in the northern part of the spill site shows there is fuel below the water table. That amount has yet to be accounted for in the spill estimates.

To conduct this modeling, the company would need to collect samples in the northern part of the site. But the sampling would need done under “static” conditions, when no other pumping of contaminated groundwater is occurring. In the words, Colonial would have to shut down its recovery wells for several weeks.

Colonial proposes delaying the new sampling so that it can continue to remove the contamination and lessen the risk that it will spread.

There are still questions about how PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, were found in some samples of fire suppressant foam used during an emergency response at the spill site. The manufacture of the suppressant and Colonial say the foam is PFAS-free.

However, stormwater samples taken on Aug. 20 from puddles at the spill and emergency response area  contained several types of the compounds, including PFOSA and others that are found in firefighting foam. All soil and residual water was excavated, removed and shipped to a lined landfill at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, according to a Colonial spokesman.