DEQ sampling drinking water wells near Sampson County landfill for PFAS

NC DHHS receives $1m from Biden administration to treat 175 contaminated wells per year in the county

By: - October 26, 2023 11:57 am
An aerial photo of semi trucks dumping garbage at the Sampson County landfill.

GFL, which owns the Sampson County Landfill, which accepts trash from 44 counties in North Carolina. It is the largest landfill in the state. (Photo: Cape Fear River Watch)

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is sampling private wells near the Sampson County landfill to assess potential PFAS contamination in the drinking water, a DEQ spokesperson has confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration announced it is awarding $1 million to the state health department to address private well contamination throughout Sampson County. Residents whose wells contain toxic PFAS or other pollutants could receive free water treatment to reduce or eliminate contaminant levels.

Nationwide, landfills are a known source of PFAS. The compounds are used in hundreds of consumer products – such as pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and other grease-, water-, and stain-resistant materials. 

There are several ways PFAS can enter landfills. The Sampson County facility, the largest in the state, accepts industrial sludge that contains PFAS. The sludge and other liquified material collects in leachate at the bottom of the facility. That contaminated leachate can leak into the groundwater and in turn, streams, creeks and private drinking water wells.

There are roughly 15,000 PFAS — short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This family of compounds has been proven to harm human health, including testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancers, low birth weight, reproductive disorders, depressed immune responses and high cholesterol. They are widespread in the environment, where they don’t degrade, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

DEQ is still reviewing initial sampling results, according to DEQ Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Sharon Martin. “As additional data become available, DEQ will evaluate the appropriate public outreach.”

The landfill is in the unincorporated Snow Hill community, which is historically Black. Census data show that neighborhoods northeast of the landfill are 55% non-white and 74% low-income. Immediately south of the landfill, 75% of residents are low-income and 43% are non-white. Those areas also are home to other pollutions sources, including industrialized swine operations, mines and regional airports.

DEQ knows the Sampson County landfill contains PFAS. The agency recently approved an air quality permit for a landfill gas facility operated by Sapphire RNG, a subsidiary of GFL, which operates the landfill. DEQ is requiring initial sampling of the gas for potential PFAS contamination entering the plant. The company also must disclose sampling results.

“I am glad to see that DEQ is testing to determine or verify the current levels of PFAS in the Snow Hill area,” – a small, predominantly Black community, said Sherri White-Williamson. She is the co-founder of EJCAN, an environmental justice nonprofit based in Clinton, in Sampson County. “I hope that DEQ will be transparent with the process and let community members know as soon as they have results what the level of exposure is and what they plan to do to mitigate this forever chemical. For too long the community has not known what kinds of things are being dumped in the landfill. After 50 years it is time to take real action to begin the process of closing a dangerous and toxic landfill.”

The Sampson County landfill receives waste from 44 counties in North Carolina. It ranks second in the nation for methane emissions – a potent greenhouse gas – and leads the state in vinyl chloride air releases, about 1.6 tons per year. A known carcinogen, vinyl chloride is a colorless gas with a sweet odor that burns easily. It is used to make plastics, but it can be emitted from other sources, including landfills, paper mills and wood product manufacturers.

A small study has also documented PFAS in surface water near the Sampson County landfill. Courtney Woods, a researcher and associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, sampled surface water near the Sampson County and Orange County landfills in 2019 and 2020. 

The results were published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Across the 35 samples collected, Woods’s team detected 12 PFAS near both landfills, with the highest concentrations adjacent to them, compared to upstream sites. “These findings support the need for more comprehensive and more frequent water monitoring near landfills and stricter regulation regarding the landfilling of industrial materials.”

With funding from the Biden Administration, the state Department of Health and Human Services will provide water treatment for at least 175 private wells per year in Sampson County while helping residents understand what pollutants may be in their water and the importance of clean water for health. DHHS oversees private drinking wells, while DEQ is in charge of public drinking water supplies.

Earlier this week, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 292, which directs cabinet agencies to assess and reduce cumulative pollution burdens on underserved communities, such as predominantly non-white and low-income areas.

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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.