What to do about pollution from “forever chemicals”?

By: - January 9, 2020 6:00 am

This map, provided by DEQ, shows groundwater contamination (the highest levels in red) for PFAS and GenX near the Chemours plant. DEQ is proposing a permanent groundwater standard of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFAS.

State and federal officials are starting to act, but proposed rules and standards take time and vary widely

Toxic PFAS perfluorinated compounds are known as forever chemicalsbecause they persist in the human body and the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years.   

It also takes forever to pass permanent environmental standards regulating them.  

North Carolina plans to enact stronger rules for one type of PFAS, also known as —perfluorinated compounds — toxic chemicals that are widespread not only statewide but throughout the world. But people living in affected areas say the proposal is too weak.  

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a maximum concentration of 70 parts per trillion, equivalent to 0.07 parts per billion, for PFOS and for PFOA in groundwater. This is the same level as recommended by the EPA.

These compounds, of which there are thousands, are used in myriad products, including Teflon cookware, floor waxes, water- and stain-resistant upholstery and clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams.  

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

DEQ has submitted the proposal to the Environmental Management Commission for approval, but even on a fast track, it could take as long as a year for the new regulations to be finalized.  

PFOA and PFOS are just two of the 47 chemicals and compounds for which DEQ is recommending permanent groundwater standards. Others include strontium, beryllium, and many herbicides and pesticides.  

EMC members balked at the idea of tackling all 47 chemicals at once, but agreed that perfluorinated compounds should be prioritized.   

There is a high degree of urgencyfor PFOA and PFOS, said committee member Stan Meiburg. People are eager for a number.  

PFOA has an Interim Maximum Allowable Concentration (IMAC), which is temporary, of 2,000 ppt. It has been in effect since 2006, said Bridget Flaherty, DEQ groundwater standards coordinator.   

The proposed new permanent standard of 70 ppt  is stronger than the interim. New toxicological information prompted the change, according to DEQ documents.  

The proposed groundwater standard for PFOS is also 70 ppt.   

However, because PFOS doesnt have an interim concentration, as a default it is subject to a different threshold a “Practical Quantitation Limit.”  

The Practical Quantitation Limit or “PQL” for PFOS is 2 ppt. The proposed groundwater standard is weaker, but its important to note a PQL is not based on health risks. Instead, its set by the ability of a lab to detect the compound at its lowest concentration.  

The PQL varies, though, based on the lab. These limits can also change over time. For example, Michael Scott, director of Division of Waste Management said the agency is analyzing these compounds in firefighting foam. One lab can detect the compounds at 10 ppt; another at 2 ppt.   

We are getting questions about some of these numbers,Scott said. This is real. We need public comment.  

The public comment requirement is a key distinction between an IMAC and a permanent groundwater standard. Although both are legally enforceable, the establishment of an IMAC requires no public input. The concentration is set solely by the director of the Division of Water Resources.  

The procedure for establishing a permanent groundwater standard is more formal. It requires approval by the Environmental Management Commission, a public comment period, public hearing, and fiscal analysis.  

DEQ consulted both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Science Advisory Board in setting the proposed groundwater standards for PFOA and PFOS.  

The Science Advisory Board hasnt sent a final statement to DEQ, but in December, unanimously determined that the 70 ppt standard was reasonable and based on current data. Flaherty of DEQ said the board also agreed that the agency should make these chemicals a high priority when evaluating groundwater concentrations.  

But Emily Donovan of the citizens’ group Clean Cape Fear disagrees with the proposed groundwater standard, calling it “an embarrassment for the state of North Carolina.”

“This proposal is sheer laziness,” said Donovan, who has testified before Congress about the compounds, “and does not accurately reflect the most current scientific consensus on the true toxicity of  PFOA and PFOS.”

Without enforceable EPA standards, states are passing their own regulations and advisories. Further confusing matters, some states dont regulate groundwater, or if they do, only if it will be used for drinking.   

Other states that have standards or guidance for PFOA and PFOS in groundwater, stricter than North Carolina:

  • Just this week, Illinois proposed groundwater standard of 14 ppt for PFOS and 20 ppt for PFOA. For a combination of both, the proposed maximum is 20 ppt. These levels are stronger than North Carolina’s proposal.
  • Minnesota established a “health-based value” of 35 ppt for PFOA and 27 ppt for PFOS, also more stringent than North Carolina. 
  • Likewise, Vermont passed an enforceable standard of  0.02 ppb.
  • New Jersey has an interim groundwater standard of 10 ppt for PFOA and PFOS.

One state, Connecticut, has a similar standard to North Carolina. It has set a “private well action level” at 70 ppt for either compound or the sum of both.

Drinking water standards are generally stronger than those governing groundwater. For example, Michigan is proposing a drinking water standard of 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS. Massachusetts is accepting comment on even stronger standards, a maximum of 20 ppt for six PFAS compounds combined.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s recommended levels for drinking water are generally stricter, ranging from 52 to 78 ppt for adults, and 14 to 21 ppt for children.

But North Carolina health officials have set a less stringent advisory goal in drinking water of no more than 70 ppt for a combined concentration of PFOS and PFOA, and a maximum of 10 ppt for any single perfluorinated compound.

New standards could affect North Carolina cleanups

DEQs proposal for PFOA and PFOS coincides with several key federal and state developments in their regulation. If the EMC ultimately approves DEQs groundwater standards, the decision could affect the degree and cost of cleanup levels at and around the Chemours plant. There, PFOA and PFOS, as well as other similar compounds, persist in the groundwater and surface water.  

A DEQ fiscal analysis for the proposed groundwater standards provided notes that the strengthening standards for PFOA could potentially increase remediation costsat sites where it is the primary contaminant. But those costs would be either fully or partially offset by the potential savingsfrom a weaker standard, as compared to the Practical Quantitation Limit, for PFOS.  

Last month, Chemours submitted to DEQ a proposed groundwater Corrective Action Plan to reduce the PFAS contamination at and around the 2,177-acre plant near the Bladen-Cumberland county line. The plan is required under a 2019 consent order between Chemours, DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch.

Within the 119-page document, Chemours says that it cannot meet the Practical Quantitation Limit for these compounds, in part because given the current limited technology, it would cost tens of billions of dollars to remediate such an extensive area of groundwater contamination at least 70 square miles or the equivalent of three Chapel Hills.  

DuPont originally polluted the area with PFOA and PFOS, but shifted liability to Chemours, a spinoff company. For its part, Chemours contaminated the river, air and groundwater with GenX a replacement compound.

In both cases, the companies contaminated the groundwater on plant property primarily through leaks and spills. In turn, that contaminated groundwater flowed off-site into the Cape Fear River and into downstream drinking water. 

Off-site contamination also occurred through atmospheric deposition. Contaminants entered the air through the stacks, rode on the wind and fell to the surface where they entered the groundwater. From there, the contaminated groundwater then entered dozens of private drinking water wells.  

The proposed cleanup methods include a thermal oxidizer, already operating, that is supposed to remove 99 percent of contaminants from the stacks and stem the groundwater contamination, Chemours says.   

The company is also proposing a pump-and-treat system for groundwater and possibly a subterranean wall that would prevent any remaining contamination from seeping into the river.  

Chemours acknowledged the company may need to consider alternate cleanup strategies at some point, based on new science and regulations.  

The Chemours cleanup and widespread PFAS contamination statewide in Charlotte and on military bases from firefighting training exercises; the Haw River, Jordan Lake, Lake Michie, and the Cape Fear River justify the need for permanent groundwater standards. But rulemaking is a protracted process, and it could take as long as a year to finalize them.  

The Groundwater and Waste Management Committee voted to revisit the PFOA and PFOS recommendation in March, after receiving the Science Advisory Board report. From there, the proposal will go to public comment and a public hearing.  

I want to see PFOS go forward,said Donald van Der Vaart, EMC Groundwater and Waste Committee member. That makes sense. 

US House weighing PFAS law

Absent meaningful regulation by the EPA the U.S. House could vote this week on H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act of 2019.The comprehensive measure covers the manufacturing, disposal, testing, monitoring and classification of these compounds by:

  • Designating PFAS has a hazardous substance, including hazardous air pollutants, which would make them subject to stronger regulations, including those regarding their storage and disposal;
  • Requiring the EPA to set enforceable drinking water standards; 
  • Requiring public water systems to test and monitor for the compounds (grants and other financial help would be available for cash-strapped or small systems);
  • Adding PFOA, PFAS, GenX and two other compounds to the Toxics Release Inventory (the TRI is a public database where companies report their discharges and emissions of certain chemicals);
  • Providing guidance on minimizing the use of firefighting foam; and
  • Expanding EPAs Safer Choice program to alert consumers to household products made with PFAS.

Three North Carolina congressmen — Richard Hudson and David Rouzer, both Republicans, and David Price, a Democrat — are among the 66 bill co-sponsors.   

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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.