Read the full article by Greg Barnes (North Carolina Health News)

“A water sample taken in September from the Deep River as it flowed into a Sanford sewage treatment plant uncovered ‘staggering’ concentrations of forever chemicals, newly released documents from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality reveal.

The sample contained perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — or PFOS — measuring 1,000 parts per trillion. That is more than 14 times greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.

The data coming out of Sanford is just one example of the high levels of potentially carcinogenic chemicals that a new monitoring program has detected in rivers and streams throughout the Cape Fear River basin, from Reidsville to Wilmington.

From July to September, the DEQ required 25 utilities in the basin to test for 19 or more different types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, at their wastewater treatment plants. The DEQ made the data public in mid-January.

The highest level of total PFAS detected was in Sanford, which recorded a concentration of 4,026 parts per trillion in September. Burlington saw the next highest spike — nearly 2,296 parts per trillion in August.

Of the 25 utilities, 19 recorded total PFAS levels above 100 parts per trillion at different periods in the reporting cycle. (No data was provided for one of the 25 utilities, Columbus County.)

National PFAS study

To put the DEQ data into perspective, the Washington D.C. based Environmental Working Group recently tested tap water at 44 locations in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Data from that testing, which was released last week, found measurable levels of PFAS at all but one site.

The highest level detected in the national study was 186 parts per trillion at an elementary school in Brunswick County, at the North Carolina coast. Brunswick County pulls its drinking water from the Cape Fear River.

David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, reviewed the DEQ’s data and called the numbers ‘absolutely incredibly high.’ Only one other site in the organization’s national study measured PFAS above 100 parts per trillion in drinking water.

PFAS in drinking water

Although the DEQ required the 25 North Carolina utilities to test for PFAS only at sewer plants — and not in tap water — it is a known fact that high levels of PFAS are flowing downstream and getting into public drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people who live in the Cape Fear River basin.

Sanford’s Big Buffalo wastewater treatment plant, where DEQ documents show the highest readings were recorded, lies about 15 miles upstream from Sanford’s drinking water intake.

It is not known whether high levels of PFAS showed up in Sanford’s drinking water after the September sample was taken. Scott Christiansen, the city’s water filtration administrator, said the city doesn’t regularly test for PFAS because the chemicals are unregulated, and no one alerted him to the high levels detected at the Big Buffalo sewer plant.

In an email to NC Health News, DEQ spokeswoman Sarah Young wrote that ‘there have been no documented levels of PFOS at the downstream water supply intake (for Sanford) showing a concentration greater than the EPA drinking water health advisory level.’

Young noted that two rounds of testing by the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, which for about two years has been testing for PFAS in all of the state’s municipal water systems, found ‘no high levels of individual PFAS compounds in the City of Sanford water sample.’

But Duke University professor Lee Ferguson, a collaboratory director, said in an email that it is ‘entirely feasible’ the contamination had not made its way to Sanford’s drinking water intake when the collaboratory took its sample.

The sample was drawn Sept. 5, a day after the sample at the Big Buffalo sewer plant was taken. Big Buffalo lies about 15 miles upstream of the Sanford water intake.

The sample at Big Buffalo contained 2,650 parts per trillion of a specific PFAS, called 6:2 fluorotelomer sulfonate, which is widely used in firefighting foam and metal plating. The absence of the chemical suggests that the contamination had not yet reached Sanford’s intake when the collaboratory took its sample, Ferguson said.

Officials with the DEQ and Scott Siletzky, Sanford’s water reclamation administrator, said they do not know where the contamination came from. The DEQ’s monitoring  program aims to find out which industries may be responsible.

In Fayetteville, about 45 miles downstream of Sanford, the level of PFOS in drinking water remained below the EPA’s health advisory during the monitoring period, but total PFAS spiked to as much at 244 parts per trillion…”