Firefighting foam, used at airports and military bases, has been identified as a source of toxic PFAS chemicals. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration)
More than $55 million is included in the state budget to address PFAS contamination in drinking water, but given the vast scope of the problem in North Carolina, the money won’t go that far.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in Wilmington would receive $35 million: Roughly half is allocated for public water extensions to private well owners in New Hanover County whose drinking water is contaminated with PFAS; the other half would help pay for the consolidation and regionalization of water and sewer systems in the county that are affected by PFAS.
The regionalization approach could help utilities pay for expensive treatment system upgrades to remove or reduce the contamination, but without burdening ratepayers with enormous water and sewer bills.
The City of Burlington will receive $500,000 to address the PFAS contamination in its wastewater discharge, the source of which is the textile industry. The money could help Burlington meet the requirements of a recent legal settlement with the Haw River Assembly.
Exposure to even very low levels of PFAS, short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, has been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, kidney and testicular cancers, immune system deficiencies, obesity, high cholesterol, and reproductive and fetal development problems. There at least 12,000 types of PFAS, and they are found in water-, stain-, and grease-resistant products, like furniture, carpeting, clothing, microwave popcorn bags and fast-food packaging. PFAS are also found in AFFF firefighting foam.
Stripped from the final version of the budget was a provision originally included that would have allowed PFAS-containing firefighting foam to be used in training exercises at a new Advanced Rescue Training Facility at the Stanly County airport. The facility would have been operated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. The Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill still received $20 million to conduct PFAS research, including health studies, and to buy back AFFF from fire departments statewide.
As NC Newsline reported in May, there are drawbacks to using AFFF for training. First, this type of toxic foam is being phased out, even by the Defense Department. The risks of training with AFFF – to human health and the environment – might not be worth any short-term benefit of knowing how to work with it.
And although the training facility would be made of concrete and self-contained to contain runoff from the AFFF, if any of the foam were to escape, it could contaminate nearby Little Mountain Creek. That creek flows through the historically Black community of West Badin, which is already burdened with pollution from a former Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. From there, the creek enters Badin Lake, a popular fishing destination and drinking water supply.
There are several other notable environmental provisions in the budget:
- Electric vehicle owners will pay more to license their cars and trucks, $180 when the vehicle is first registered, up from $140 — a 28% increase. For plug-in hybrid cars, which are similar to electric vehicles except they also can run on gas, the registration fee is now $90. These additional fees are intended to compensate for the drop in gas tax revenues, as car owners continue to wean themselves off fossil fuels.
- Department of Environmental Quality employees who review and process Title V air quality permits — those issued to the largest emitters — will receive hefty bonuses for expediting those applications. Depending on the complexity of the project, permit engineers can receive up to $5,000 per application, meteorologists $2,000, and supervisors $1,400. Administrative staff would receive up to $100 per application.
Because of severe staff shortages, DEQ has a backlog of permit applications. While the bonuses are not contingent on whether the permit is issued or denied, the financial incentives could compel staff to rush through the process. In turn, it’s possible permits would not be as thoroughly reviewed — and protective of public health and the environment — as they could be.
- Siler City, which has violated its state wastewater permit nearly 100 times over the past four years, will receive $2.5 million to improve its treatment plant and sewer system. The budget stipulates that most of the money can’t be distributed until Siler City and Sanford finalize a merger, part of a regionalization project in Lee and Chatham counties.
Mountaire, an enormous poultry slaughter plant in Siler City, is largely responsible for overwhelming the wastewater treatment plant with ammonia and nitrogen. Those pollutants then pass through Siler City’s plant and enter the Rocky River, a tributary of the Haw River. The company has said it is installing its own upgrades to better treat its waste before it enters the Siler City system. However, according to state records, Siler City has still struggled to remain compliant with its permit.
Because of the severity and frequency of the violations, state environmental regulators imposed a temporary moratorium on further sewer connections in Siler City — connections the town desperately needs to accommodate industries building at the Chatham County-Siler City megasite. The infusion of state money is intended to help the town meet the economic demands while keeping pollutants out of the river.
- $7 million was appropriated to Pilot View Resource Conservation and Development for stormwater and stream rehabilitation. Pilot View is affiliated with the politically connected Resource Institute — sharing several board members and office space in Winston-Salem — which was the subject of a legislative probe in 2019. That investigation found Resource Institute, which had received millions of dollars in grants from the state, had submitted 51 duplicate invoices and received at least $20,000 more than owed. As a result, DEQ implemented new tracking and verification systems.
The House passed the budget early this morning, and is expected to clear the Senate today. It will then go to Gov. Cooper.
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