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.

Pine needles can contain toxic PFAS compounds, according to NC State study

A photo of pine trees against the sky

Pine needles don’t lie.

Scientists at NC State University have detected more than 70 types of toxic PFAS in pine needles, including extremely high levels of several compounds in needles collected near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The findings, and others detailed in a recent study, could help scientists “fingerprint” the compounds and trace them over time to their original sources.

Since the needles have a waxy coating whose function is to protect the tree, pollutants, such as PFAS, can accumulate in them. This can occur either through the air or in uptake through the soil.

The scientists collected and analyzed needles from loblolly and longleaf pine trees in six North Carolina counties: Brunswick, Cumberland, Durham, Onslow, Robeson and Wayne. Some needles were gathered within the past five years; others were much older. Because PFAS persist in the environment for decades — earning them the nickname “forever chemicals” — scientists found the compounds in pine needles that had been stored in university collections since the 1960s.

The needles were then dried at low temperatures so as not to remove any PFAS.  After extracting the PFAS from the needles, scientists used mass spectrometry, which analyzes chemical substances according to certain properties, to determine their concentrations and their type.

The scientists found that the number of compounds detected increased over time. That trend aligns with manufacturing practices. Only a few types of PFAS were made in the 1940s. Now roughly 9,000 types have been produced.

PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, are widespread in the environment. They have been manufactured since the 1940s, and are found in consumer products, such as microwave popcorn bags, Teflon cookware and water-, stain- and grease-resistant materials. 

Chronic exposure to PFAS has been linked to multiple health effects, including several types of cancer, thyroid disorders, depressed immune systems, reproductive issues and problems with fetal development.

There were also interesting patterns in where certain types of PFAS were found.

“Extremely elevated levels” of three types — PFSA, PFCA and PFASA — were found only in needles collected near RDU Airport.

“That surprised us,” said chemist Kaylie Kirkwood, one of six scientists who worked on the study. “Once we got the results were knew we had to go back and really get a full picture.”

Another compound, PFECHS, was detected only at sites near RDU. This compound was a replacement for PFOS, which has been phased out. It is considered as an essential for use in aircraft hydraulic fluids. 

Compounds were also found in tree needles near a National Guard facility adjacent to RDU. “They were the highest levels we saw in the entire study,” Kirkwood said.

Needles from trees near the Fayetteville Regional Airport had different types of PFAS than those found at RDU. These were a type of chlorofluoroether, which Chemours reportedly does not use or make. Scientist theorized that the compounds found at the Fayetteville airport are likely a “component of materials at the air port or another unknown source in the area.”

Since 1960, the military and the aviation industry have used firefighting foam that contained PFAS, both to extinguish blazes and in training exercises. That could also explain why a spike of the compounds were found in pine needles originating in Wayne County in 1967. Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is located in Goldsboro, in Wayne County.

Predictably, there was an uptick in PFAS in needles near of the former DuPont plant, now Chemours, on the Bladen-Cumberland County line. DuPont began discharging PFAS into waterways and the air in 1980. Over the next 30 years, needles from trees within two miles of the plant showed the presence of PFAS, including two that are very specific to Chemours plant: GenX and Nafion Byproduct 2. 

However, the study results showed that there is a “decreasing trend” in the abundance of PFAS  in pine needles near Chemours, likely the result of state regulators requiring the company to rein in its emissions and discharges.

The scientists limited their research to detecting PFAS in the needles. (For areas with different tree types, eucalyptus and other plants could be used.) It’s unclear what becomes of the PFAS once the needles fall to the ground — or are used for plant mulch. Presumably, the compounds would enter the soil as the needles decomposed.

The study has could be expanded to learn how quickly PFAS accumulate on the needles, for instance, after a chemical spill. Or trees could be planted close together around a manufacturing plant to study how wind patterns affect how PFAS travel in the air.

“I don’t think we were trying to like instill any panic about pine needles,” Kirkwood said. “We were more wondering how can we use something that is already accumulating — PFAS — and  to learn more about it.”

Kirkwood was joined by fellow scientists Jonathan Fleming, Helen Nguyen, David Reif, Erin Baker and Scott Belcher on the research. The results were published in February in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal.

EPA: Two types of PFAS far more toxic than previously understood

Sampling locations for PFOA, PFOS and GenX (Map: DEQ)

The EPA released data yesterday that suggests two types of PFAS are more toxic than previously understood, which could trigger a drastic reduction in what the agency considers acceptable amounts in drinking water.

The data showed that PFOA and PFOS were found to cause health problems at much lower reference doses by thousands of times. The reference dose is the maximum amount of a toxic chemical that can be ingested, but that doesn’t result in an excess risk of cancer or other health disorders.

The EPA has forwarded the data to its Science Advisory Board for review. If the SAB agrees with the findings, the federal and North Carolina health advisory goal for PFOA would be nearly 14,000 times more stringent. Instead of 70 ppt, the goal would be reduced to .005 ppt, a minute amount. The EPA has said data shows that PFOA is likely carcinogenic, meaning it’s been linked to cancer.

For PFOS, the health advisory goal would be 3,000 times stricter, at a level of .02 ppt.

A health advisory goal is not legally enforceable, but it is among the steps toward a national drinking water standard, which is law.

There are thousands of types of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds. They are used in myriad products, including Teflon cookware, floor waxes, water- and stain-resistant upholstery and clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams.  

Exposure to some of these compounds, including GenX, has been already been linked to several types of cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, and thyroid disorders.  

In North Carolina, PFOA and PFOS have been detected in many drinking water supplies. Over the last two years, monitoring in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin has consistently shown levels that, if the new health advisory goals were in place today, would far exceed them. (Before November 2019, sampling data is not reliable because laboratory testing methods weren’t sensitive enough to detect low levels of the compounds.)

PFOA and PFOS results November 2019-July 2021
(minimum, maximum and average, all in parts per trillion)
Bladen Bluffs Water Treatment Plant
PFOA: 2 ppt • 7.6 ppt • 3.86
PFOS: 2 ppt • 9.8 ppt • 3.70

Brunswick County WTP
PFOA: 2.0 • 7.6 • 4.0
PFOS: 4.3 • 16.4 • 12.0

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority
PFOA: 1.81 • 3.57 • 2.49
PFOS: 1.06 • 3.55 • 2.0

Pender County WTP
PFOA: 1.16 • 4.8 • 2.7
PFOS: 1.49 • 3.34 • 2.3

Chemours Fayetteville Works discharge, Outfall 002
PFOA: 4.125 •  52 • 8.7
PFOS: 3.2  45.2 • 10.9

DEQ directs Chemours to expand PFAS well sampling downstream, plus prepare for strong EPA regs on GenX

This is a developing story and will be updated.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced today it is requiring Chemours to expand the sampling area for GenX and PFAS contamination to private well owners in New Hanover, Pender, Columbus and Brunswick counties.

DEQ has determined that Chemours is responsible for contamination of groundwater monitoring wells and water supply wells in those areas. The company must assess the extent of contamination in downstream communities, DEQ said in a press release, and identify residents who may be eligible for replacement drinking water supplies. Chemours must submit plans to DEQ for approval.

“The contamination from Chemours extends down the Cape Fear River into multiple communities and Chemours’ actions to address that contamination must reach those communities as well,” said DEQ Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser in a prepared statement. “DEQ will continue to take the necessary steps to provide relief to affected North Carolinians as the science and regulations require.”

Also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS have been linked to multiple and often serious health problems: thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancer, reproductive issues, low-birth weight, high cholesterol, and a depressed immune system.

There are at least 5,000 types of PFAS, which are specifically manufactured or are the byproducts of industrial processes. PFAS are found in many consumer products, including fast food packaging, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, carpeting, furniture, fire-fighting foam, Teflon cookware, and stain- and water-resistant materials.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority supported the agency’s actions. “The announcement by [DEQ] Secretary [Elizabeth S.] Biser is welcome news for our community,” said Kenneth Waldroup, CFPUA Executive Director. “The PFAS in our community’s groundwater is there because Chemours and its predecessor DuPont released it into the Cape Fear River and the air over multiple decades of profitable operations upriver from our community. As a result of Wednesday’s announcement, Chemours can no longer ignore its responsibilities to the residents of New Hanover County.”

Emily Donovan of Clean Cape Fear lives in Brunswick County. She has long advocated for more protections for private well owners downstream of Chemours’s Fayetteville Works plant. “Secretary Biser took decisive action today to protect groundwater users in every impacted county–not just the ones closest to Chemours,” Donovan told Policy Watch via email.

“Biser is building off of the good work coming from EPA Administrator Regan’s newly released GenX toxicity assessment. This is how taxpayer funded governments are supposed to work. We pay for these institutions. They should be protecting us, not poisoning us. Unfortunately, today’s actions still do not address the high levels of PFAS currently in downstream municipal ratepayer’s tap water. There is much more work to be done, but this is a good start.”

DEQ is also requiring Chemours to review existing well sampling in communities surrounding the Fayetteville Works facility to determine if more households could be eligible for whole house filtration and public water, in light of the revised Toxicity Assessment for GenX from the EPA.

Based on the new EPA data, the state’s health advisory goal would decrease from 140 parts per trillion between 4 ppt and 5 ppt. Hundreds more well owners could then qualify for alternative water sources.

Lisa Randall, spokeswoman for Chemours, told Policy Watch via email that the company “is a part of the solution to addressing PFAS contamination in North Carolina, and we will continue working with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), as we have been for several years, to move forward with efforts to address PFAS found in the environment related to our Fayetteville Works manufacturing site. We have worked closely with NCDEQ on implementation of on-site and off-site programs, including a private well sampling program, as part of the consent order agreement between Chemours, Cape Fear River Watch and the state of North Carolina.

“We are continuing to review the NCDEQ correspondence we just received and will follow-up with the agency for further clarification of their correspondence.”

Chemours has been advised that EPA will be releasing a federal drinking water health advisory level for GenX in the coming months.  The 2019 Consent Order requires Chemours to provide replacement permanent drinking water to private wells with “detections of GenX compounds in exceedance of 140 ppt, or any applicable health advisory, whichever is lower.”

DEQ is also requiring Chemours to develop a plan to switch residents who have previously received reverse osmosis systems based on GenX results to either public water or whole house filtrations systems  based on a lower GenX health advisory level.

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.