The Pulse

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announces $2 billion for small water systems to address PFAS contamination, $62 million for NC

By: - February 14, 2023 9:00 am
Elizabeth Biser, secretary of NC Department of Environmental Quality, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan spoke in Maysville about new funding for small utilities to address PFAS contamination in their drinking water. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The water tower is the tallest structure in Maysville, a landmark to nudge visitors from US Highway 17 to Main Street, the heart of this small Jones County town. More than 70,000 gallons of water flowed each day from the tower, when four years ago, Lee Ferguson sampled the drinking water.

“We were caught off guard,” Ferguson, a Duke University scientist, said Monday at a roundtable discussion with local, state and federal officials in Maysville. “We didn’t expect to see it here.”

Maysville’s drinking water, sourced from the Castle Hayne aquifer, contained exorbitant levels of toxic PFAS: 13 types totaling 334 parts per trillion.

Also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoro-alkyl compounds, PFAS have been linked to serious health problems, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disorders, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, and fetal malformations.

There are at least 12,000 types of PFAS. They are widespread in the environment, where they don’t break down, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” They are found in Teflon cookware, Scotchgard-treated carpet and furniture, fast food packaging, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and firefighting foam; they’ve even have been detected in some compost.

On Monday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Maysville to announce the Biden administration is immediately allocating $2 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to the nation’s small and disadvantaged communities to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in their public water supplies.

Roughly $62 million will go toward projects in North Carolina, Regan said. Although the criteria for towns to receive the funds has yet to be announced, the state Division of Water Infrastructure generally awards federal funds to municipalities, based on objective scoring of their applications.

“Small communities have always been the backbone of nation,” Regan said. “We’re going as far and as fast as we can.”

PFAS can’t be removed from drinking water using traditional treatment methods. The grant money is critical for small public utilities, which can’t afford the millions of dollars to install advanced systems, such as granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis.

“There isn’t a small town in this country with the rate base ” — customers – to pay for the upgrades, DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser said at the roundtable. For example, the Maysville utility serves just 450 households; without a $2.5 million grant it received to install a filtration system on a new well, the cost would be passed on to those households, at $2,500 each. The new water supply is scheduled to come online this spring.

Likewise, Pittsboro’s utility, which provides water to 1,800 homes, recently installed a granular activated carbon filter, costing the town $3.5 million. (The town is suing several PFAS manufacturers, including Chemours, DuPont and 3M, to recover the money.)

Nationwide, the contamination is so widespread that it would require an estimated $600 billion to remove the compounds from public water systems. And that doesn’t include the contamination of private wells.

“Removal starts at the source,” Ferguson said. “We have to keep them out of the environment in the first place.”

Lee Ferguson conducting the water sampling that found PFAS in Maysville’s drinking water.

The source of Maysville’s PFAS contamination is likely a type of firefighting foam known as AFFF. It is used to extinguish fires involving gasoline, petroleum and other substances where water isn’t effective.

Regan said that Congress and state legislatures must also do their part. “We’re always chasing the slickest manufacturer out there,” Regan said. “We need more accountability, but we also need to push Congress and state legislators to change the law.”

In 2017, the Star-News reported that high levels of PFAS had been detected in Wilmington’s drinking water. Since then, North Carolina lawmakers have yet to pass meaningful legislation to penalize the polluters.

Two years later, most independent scientists were just beginning to grasp the toxicity of PFAS. (Scientists working for PFAS manufacturers had known about the compounds’ health effects for decades but did not disclose them.)

Based on the available science at the time, the EPA and state health officials had set a health advisory goal for PFAS at no more than 70 parts per trillion for any single compound. Now scientists know that figure was not nearly protective enough. Last summer, the EPA lowered that threshold, which is not legally enforceable, for several PFAS to parts per quadrillion – thousands of times below what scientists initially believed was acceptable.

In retrospect, Maysville’s PFAS contamination was even worse than initially thought.

Ferguson was – and still is – among dozens of researchers in the NC PFAS Testing Network. It is funded by state and federal dollars, administered by the NC Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill. As Ferguson was sampling Maysville’s water, other scientists within the network were also testing hundreds of public water systems statewide. Of the more than 380 samples, Maysville had the fifth-highest levels.

“We received a phone call [from Maysville],” Jones County Commissioner James Harper said. “They were in dire straits. They said, ‘We have PFAS.’”

Maysville Town Manager Schumata Brown emphasized that local officials need to know how to explain the risks of PFAS contamination to their customers.

Maysville Town Manager Schumata Brown arranged to get water from Jones County, whose supply was free of PFAS. Residents had clean water, but the town now had to pay for it.

And Jones County also paid a price, Commissioner Harper said, because it affects the infrastructure.

“We’re on a very costly journey,” Harper said. “But Jones County will help Maysville for as long as it takes.”

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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.