Read the full article by Kirk Ross (Carolina Public Press)

“When it comes to  PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – which have been dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ because they aren’t easily broken down, news and worry aren’t in short supply.

Documentation showing the presence in many parts of North Carolina of some of the roughly 5,000 compounds that fall under the PFAS category has expanded rapidly with an increase in testing and research, including new studies that are due to be released this summer.

Even as communities along the coast and lower Cape Fear River continue developing their response, central North Carolina communities upstream on the Haw and Deep rivers are seeing heightened concerns from more recent testing.

For policymakers and advocates of finding a way to regulate PFAS and its cousins, ‘forever chemicals’ seems to also apply to how long it will be before state and federal governments take meaningful action toward regulating their use and preventing them from flowing into the groundwater, lakes and rivers where communities and individuals draw their drinking water.

Political paralysis after GenX

For the past two years, the N.C. General Assembly has all but shut out attempts to put further controls on PFAS, despite public outcry, lawsuits and enforcement actions, most notably against Chemours, the company identified as the source of GenX, the best-known PFAS compound.

Researchers discovered GenX flowing down the Cape Fear River in high concentrations from the company’s Fayetteville-area manufacturing facility.

Last year, legislative leaders rebuffed efforts to regulate and ultimately reduce firefighting foam, which includes a class of related compounds used as flame retardants. But the only legislative proposal to pass was a provision creating a statewide inventory of its use…

Levels of the compound eventually dropped in the river after the state Department of Environmental Quality revoked Chemours’ discharge permit in 2017 and filed suit against the company, forcing it to agree to stop discharging GenX into the river. That didn’t stop the presence of GenX and other PFAS compounds from showing up, however, and testing still shows levels occasionally spiking.

Upstream, testing in Cumberland and Bladen counties also showed high levels in private wells, lakes and ponds, including some upstream from the plant.

That led to concerns about air dispersal of GenX or a precursor compound that turned into GenX when it came into contact with water…

Upgrading water treatment for chemicals

In response to the discoveries, coastal Brunswick and New Hanover counties, which draw the bulk of their water from the Cape Fear River, are moving ahead with high-cost upgrades to their water treatment facilities in part to assure water customers that what they’re drinking is safe, but also as an acknowledgment that the likely presence of PFAS in river sediment and other potential sources such as groundwater and seeps around the manufacturing facility requires additional, permanent measures.

Last month, school systems in both counties announced plans to install reverse osmosis water filtration dispensers in each school as a stopgap measure until the counties’ new water filtration systems are completed.

Additional filters at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s main treatment plant are expected to take about three years to install. Construction of a new Brunswick County water plant is expected to be completed in 2022.

Legislative response has taken time as well…

Contaminant chemicals above the lower Cape Fear

Meanwhile, as the science proceeds, the extent of North Carolina’s PFAS contamination is coming into sharper focus as data continues to show contamination that extends far beyond the original 100-mile stretch of river between Fayetteville and Wilmington.

In addition to the university-led research, DEQ has also required testing. Last year, it mandated sampling for  25 of the wastewater treatment facilities in the upper Cape Fear region and recently released data showing high levels in the Deep River downstream from Sanford.

At a press conference at Duke University in early February, some of the PFAS Testing Network’s researchers discussed findings from the initial round of sampling, which focused on identifying 48 PFAS compounds in 405 water sources.

Those tests confirmed that, in addition to the lower Cape Fear River, the upper parts of the watershed, including the Deep, Rocky and Haw rivers also showed high levels of PFAS compounds, particularly the town of Pittsboro, which operates a treatment plant using water drawn a few miles upstream from where the Haw River flows into the Jordan Lake reservoir, the water supply for more than 230,000 residents in and around the fast-growing Wake County communities of Cary, Apex and Morrisville, as well parts of Chatham County and Research Triangle Park…

Focus on chemicals in Pittsboro water

All showed some levels of PFAS, but by far the highest levels were found in Pittsboro. Tests of wells from the areas, Stapleton said, showed levels close to zero, further increasing the likelihood that the river was the source.

Samples from Pittsboro also identified seasonal variations in the levels with about a twentyfold increase in levels from June to September.

‘The highest concentration we measured in Pittsboro was over the summer at 760 ppt,’ she said. ‘This increased our interest in understanding what was going on in Pittsboro.’

The researchers began sampling at 13 sites along the Haw River from Burlington to Jordan Lake and began comparing levels to try and identify potential upstream sources. They took samples upstream and downstream of the East Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant, where wastewater from several of the town’s industrial customers is treated.

‘We observed statistically higher levels downstream compared to upstream,’ she said, the seasonal variation was there, too. ‘In summer, it’s about five to 10 times higher 100 yards downstream relative to upstream, which suggests to us that a major input is through that wastewater treatment plant and also suggests that there are likely industrial users discharging PFAS and PFAS precursors into those streams that are entering the wastewater treatment plant.’

Legal action on chemicals in the wings

While research continues, a potential lawsuit against Burlington is brewing.

Last November, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue Burlington over violations of the federal Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, a clean water advocacy group based in Bynum, not far from the Pittsboro water plant.

The notice states that the city is discharging PFAS and 1,4 dioxane, which is classified by the EPA as a likely carcinogen, into the Haw River and its tributaries in violation of its federal wastewater discharge permits.

The notice also states that PFAS in sludge from the plant, which is sprayed on fields in Orange County, has contaminated both the Cane Creek Reservoir, the county’s largest water supply, and Cane Creek, which flows into the Haw River just downstream from Saxapahaw…

Impact of chemicals still unknown

Researchers are still trying to determine health impacts of the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ along with how prevalent they are in the waters of North Carolina.

Last month, a state science advisory panel considered new rules that would set a drinking water standard for combined PFAS at 70 ppt. If adopted, the proposal would go through the state’s rule-making process, which can take years to complete and if challenged would be subject to review by the General Assembly…”