“We don’t have time to wait”: Residents tell DEQ it must quickly regulate toxic PFAS in drinking water

By: - December 7, 2021 12:36 pm
NC Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sushma Masemore (Photo: DEQ)

North Carolina lags behind several states in regulating PFAS, prompting residents with contaminated drinking water to again urge state environmental officials to regulate the toxic compounds.

“Lives are on the line,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, at the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board meeting yesterday. “DEQ and DHHS are not acting quickly enough.”

This is nearly verbatim of what Donovan, thousands of residents of the Cape Fear River Basin, scientists, advocacy groups and several lawmakers have told the agencies for more than four years, since GenX, a type of PFAS, was discovered in the Cape Fear River. 

There are thousands of types of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds. They are widespread in the environment, where they linger for hundreds of years, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” 

Most people have been exposed to some level of PFAS. They are found in drinking water, microwave popcorn bags, fast food containers, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products. Depending on exposure levels, the compounds have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers. 

Roughly 1,850 facilities in North Carolina could be handling PFAS and potentially discharging them into water, according to an EPA database. Yet unlike its counterparts in Michigan, New York, New Hampshire and New Jersey, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has not meaningfully regulated the toxic compounds in drinking water supplies.

Since 2017, when the PFAS crisis publicly emerged, DEQ has confirmed only a handful of dischargers of the compounds — Chemours Fayetteville Works Plant being the primary one. Nor has DEQ required industry to disclose the types of compounds discharged or their amounts. 

DEQ officials have often said they were waiting for EPA guidance — guidance that was scant and often politicized during the years of the Trump administration. They have also noted that North Carolina lawmakers have prohibited state agencies from enacting rules stricter than the federal government’s.

For affected communities, not just in the Cape Fear Basin, but statewide, those justifications are wearing thin. 

New momentum in Washington

Under the Biden administration and EPA Administrator Michael Regan — the former head of DEQ — the scientific pace has quickened. The EPA is expected to announce a stricter health advisory goal for GenX this spring, with similar actions for two other contaminants, PFOA and PFOS, in late 2022. These goals are not legally enforceable, but can serve as baselines for states to set their own standards.

It will likely be at least 2024, however, before the EPA enacts a legally enforceable drinking water standard for some types of PFAS. It’s also unclear whether the EPA will regulate all 5,000-plus compounds as a class (which industry will likely oppose), in clusters (based on their chemical makeup), or individually. Because of the extended rulemaking process, regulating the compounds individually would take hundreds of years to accomplish.

“We know that [at the] federal level it will take time; the EPA has to look at national issues,” Assistant DEQ Secretary Sushema Masemore told the Science Advisory Board. “North Carolina will build on the EPA, but meet our needs.”

That includes identifying sources of PFAS discharges, Masemore said, as well as requiring additional monitoring. The agency plans to review existing permits and “take actions as needed to meet environmental standards.”

At an EPA meeting in Fayetteville in 2018, Rusty Goins, second from left, Beth Kline-Markesino, and Katie Gallagher of North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water, recited the names of people in New Hanover and Brunswick counties who have died of rare diseases. Goins has cancer; Kline-Markesino’s infant son, Samuel, died from developmental defects of his kidney, bladder and other organs. At far left is Rep. Billy Richardson, who represents part of Cumberland County. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Those actions must include requiring industry to disclose all PFAS compounds — and chemicals that degrade and become PFAS, also known as “precursors” — in order to renew or receive a discharge permit, said Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton.

A growing statewide problem

In North Carolina, PFAS has been found in the air, soil, water, honey, compost and crops. In the last year, several residents have reported strange-looking foam — foam later found to contain PFAS — washing up on beaches, in driveways, home gutters, and even in mountain streams.

DEQ has yet to pinpoint the origins of the PFAS-containing foam, although in some cases it occurred close to the Chemours plant near the Cumberland-Bladen county line.

Masemore said a team of agency scientists is studying the frequency, location and chemical consistency of the foam, and has developed a testing and sampling protocol.

It’s unclear if any of the foam is related to AFFF, a type of fire-fighting foam that contains the compounds. The foam is often used in training exercises at military bases and airports, where it can run into the groundwater or streams.

Older types of AFFF contained PFOS, which has now been phased out. But newer foams are equally troubling. They contain “a mixture of non-disclosed PFAS that may or may not contain GenX chemicals,” said Sue Fenton, a toxicologist with the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences.

Two facilities in North Carolina make or blend AFFF: National Foam in Angier, in Harnett County, and Buckeye Fire Equipment in Kings Mountain, in Gaston County, according to DEQ. 

The agency plans to require these facilities and other places where foam is used to sample and monitor their discharges. DEQ could also inspect the facilities, Masemore said.

Detlef Knappe of NC State (center, wearing tie), at EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s PFAS Roadmap announcement in October. Knappe is among scientists who identified GenX in the Cape Fear River. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Detlef Knappe, an SAB member, is one of the scientists to first publish findings of GenX in the Cape Fear River in 2016. He told DEQ that PFAS “typically occur in mixtures,” meaning that people are likely exposed to many types in their drinking water. Those mixtures could affect health risks of exposure, he said.

Elizabeth Behl, director of the EPA’s Health and Ecological Criteria Division, said the agency is evaluating those cumulative risks in calculating health goals. “We know [mixtures] are what people are largely dealing with,” she said.

Regulatory challenges

Even with EPA data, Masemore said DEQ will need “additional authority” to regulate PFAS. That will require going before the Environmental Management Commission, which makes rules, and the General Assembly. Both avenues are time-consuming. In the case of the legislature, which over the past decade has weakened environmental laws, the outcome is also likely to be uncertain.

DEQ doesn’t need legislative approval to regulate PFAS in waterways, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. The center has long argued the agency has that authority under the Clean Water Act to require discharges to install technology to prevent PFAS from entering waterways.

(The agency does have some latitude to enact temporary limits. These are known as “IMACs,” and are set at the director’s discretion. DEQ has done that for PFOA. Earlier this fall, however, the EMC recommended against adopting a groundwater standard of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS because it was deemed too lenient — a stance with which members of the public offering testimony overwhelmingly concurred. And once a standard is established, the process of changing it can take years.)

“The EPA and DEQ have the tools today to find out who is discharging, said Jean Zhuang, a staff attorney at SELC. “These discharges can be controlled. The state doesn’t need more data on health effects. … It will take many decades to have toxicity data for PFAS. That’s time communities don’t have.”

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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.