State budget, new scientific tests shine a light on NC’s growing drinking water pollution problem

By: - May 31, 2019 9:02 am
Image: Adobe Stock

PFAS contamination found in both Jones and Orange counties

Maysville, which sits on the rim of the Croatan National Forest in Jones County, is home to 1,000 people — about half of whom rely on the town’s sole drinking water well.

And that well, according to a brief sentence in the both the House and Senate versions of the state budget, is contaminated.

But the budget doesn’t say contaminated with what, only that Maysville needs $500,000 to construct a new public supply.

Sampling results from May 7 show that 13 types of perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — were detected in raw water in Maysville’s sole well. Combined, levels of PFOA and PFOS were 103 parts per trillion; the cumulative total of all PFAS compounds was 323 ppt.

PFAS is a class of at least 4,500 compounds, some of which have been linked to thyroid and liver disease, developmental and reproductive disorders, a depressed immune system, high cholesterol and cancer.

The testing was conducted by the PFAST Testing Network. It is a group of scientists whose work on the project is funded in part by state appropriations to the NC Policy Collaboratory, housed at UNC Chapel Hill. (Unlike previous years, the Collaboratory received no money in the environmental budget, but did receive $1 million from state education funds after lawmakers granted it a one-year extension, until December 2020.)

The network is testing for 55 types of PFAS in water supplies statewide. If any single compound is above 70 ppt, or a combination of PFOA and PFOS exceeds 70 ppt, it is flagged.

Jeffrey Warren, research director of the Collaboratory, said the results are then sent to the affected towns, the lawmakers who represent those constituents and the state Department of Environmental Quality. In the recent testing round, Warren asked DEQ to forward the results to the Department of Health and Human Services.

While Maysville might need a new well, or not — a cheaper granulated active carbon filter system could possibly remove the contaminants — the appropriation gives insight into the legislative caprice of the state environmental budget.

Finding PFAS is easy; the compounds are widespread and persistent in the environment. But there’s still too little money to fix the problem.

“There is no money for emerging compounds,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, during yesterday’s floor debate. “It [the Senate’s proposed budget] eliminates seven water quality positions. There is nothing for the critical Reedy Creek Lab” — DEQ’s water testing facility that hasn’t been upgraded in more than 20 years.

“It violates how Ralph Lane” described the future North Carolina, Woodard said, quoting the 16th-century explorer, “to bee the goodliest soile under the cope of heaven.”

Maysville’s appropriation is one of several transfers from the PFAS Recovery Fund. Lawmakers seeded that fund with $2 million last year, anticipating it would be used to replace water supplies contaminated by Chemours, a former DuPont facility on the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

But after DEQ and Chemours signed a consent order requiring the company to cover costs of alternate water supplies, the money became available for other projects.

Maysville recently conducted its own sampling, both of raw and treated drinking water, said Town Manager Schumata Brown, and should have results within a week. The PFAST Network’s tests were the first to be conducted for PFAS, Brown said.

The source of the contamination is unknown, Brown said. “We are not like Wilmington, with heavy industry that uses these chemicals in production, and we don’t have a firefighting training center that uses firefighting foam. So having the tests show a high level of PFAS raises concerns.”

The town’s 300-foot well draws water from the Castle Hayne Aquifer and provides about 75,000 gallons of water per day. Tests conducted by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority recently showed PFAS in raw water tapped from the Castle Hayne and PeeDee aquifers.

Meanwhile, testing conducted by the PFAST Network earlier this month showed another water system also had elevated levels of PFAS in its raw water: The Orange County Water and Sewer Authority, whose water supply is University Lake, and the Cane Creek and Quarry reservoirs.

OWASA serves the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, and is a much larger system than Maysville.

Seven types of PFAS were detected in OWASA’s water supply, at a combined total concentration of 106 parts per trillion. For PFOA and PFOS, the total was 73 ppt.

OWASA spokeswoman Linda Lowe told Policy Watch the contaminant source is unknown, but the lakes could have become tainted by runoff from fields where wastewater sludge is applied as fertilizer. OWASA does not apply sludge in the watershed, but other utilities do.

PFAS contamination has been a persistent problem for OWASA since the utility began testing for the compounds early last year. Recent tests conducted by the utility showed raw water from Cane Creek Reservoir contained a total of 132 ppt for all PFAS, with 88 ppt of just PFOS and PFOA.

These raw concentrations are lower than a year ago, but levels in treated water are trending upward.

In this quarter, treated water contained 43 ppt for all PFAS and 20 ppt for PFOA and PFOS. But earlier this year, treated water had just 27 ppt and 11 ppt, respectively.

PFAS have also detected in treated wastewater, indicating there is contaminant loop of the compounds both entering and leaving the utility.

While, as a larger system, OWASA is presumably in a better financial position to tackle pollution problems than a small town like Maysville, PFAS clean-up can be a very expensive proposition. At this point, however, neither the House nor the Senate would provide any funding to OWASA for this purpose in their proposed budgets.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.