Biden administration’s action on PFAS: A shift in quality of life?

Biden administration's action on PFAS: A shift in quality of life?

By Will Atwater 

One thing that stood out during Monday’s solar eclipse was the shift in light quality as the moon crept across in front of the sun, shielding the Earth from its rays momentarily before retreating. 

Three days later, some North Carolinians, especially those living in Cape Fear River Basin communities and people across the country, may be considering whether their quality of life could start shifting — for the better — now that the Biden administration has enacted federal standards aimed at shielding Americans from a group of “forever chemicals.”

On Wednesday, a host of speakers including state and federal officials gathered at P.O. Hoffer Water Treatment Facility in Fayetteville to praise the new drinking water standards announced by the Environmental Protection Agency the day before. The safe drinking water standards set maximum contaminant levels for six PFAS, including GenX, which were manufactured at the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. 

All six chemicals found their way into the Cape Fear River, a contamination that was revealed in 2017. The river has been a source of contamination and consternation for people living in the lower Cape Fear basin ever since.

Governor Roy Cooper addresses attendees of the EPA press conference attendees at the Hoffer Water Treatment Facility on April 10, 2024. Credit: Photo: Tony Wooten/City View

When Gov. Roy Cooper came to the podium, set against a backdrop of green lawn and a gray sky, he shared a commitment the Biden administration made a few years ago.

“[The administration] made a big promise that for the first time ever, we would set a national limit on PFAS in drinking water,” Cooper said. “Administrator [Michael] Regan and the Biden administration are delivering on that promise that they made not only to North Carolinians, but to all Americans across this country.” 

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” Michael Regan, EPA administrator, said on Tuesday on a call with the media. “President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide.” 

According to the administration, the water standards will limit PFAS exposure for 100 million people across the country and are estimated to prevent thousands of deaths and lessen thousands of serious illnesses.

Detlef Knappe, the North Carolina State University professor whose research led to the 2017 news story that revealed GenX, one class of PFAS in the Cape Fear River, said he was pleased by the EPA’s announcement and that North Carolina is ahead of many states in efforts to address PFAS.

shows a man and a woman, both wearing safety goggles, looking at a container of murky water
North Carolina State University water quality scientist Detlef Knappe and graduate student Catalina Lopez at work in Raleigh. Knappe’s investigations identified the presence of GenX in the Cape Fear. He will be working with other scientists to probe the extent of the problem and to attempt to identify methods for remediation. Credit: Julie Williams Dixon

Elizabeth S. Biser, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, agreed. “DEQ has already worked with water systems to measure for PFAS in advance of this rule, so they are well prepared to utilize the funding available now to take action and protect the people of North Carolina.”

There are roughly 15,000 to 20,000 unique per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) in the environment, according to experts. PFAS are present in multiple products to help make them slippery and resistant to oils, water and solvents, including some cosmetics and apparel, microwave popcorn wrappers, dental floss, firefighting gear and some firefighting foams.

PFAS are associated with adverse health effects such as increased cholesterol levels, kidney and testicular cancer, pre-eclampsia in pregnant women and decreased vaccine response in children, among other conditions.

Plan details

The EPA is providing close to $1 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help states and territories fund PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems and to assist private well owners with mitigating PFAS contamination. The funding is tied to a $9 billion commitment to eradicate PFAS and other emerging contaminants from drinking water, with an additional $12 billion available if needed, according to the release.

The initiative is directed at six PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, HFPO-DA (GenX), PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS. Because of the new water standards, the administration estimates that the rule will reduce PFAS exposure for about 100 million people.

The EPA has established enforceable maximum contaminant levels of 4.0 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. Maximum contaminant levels represent the highest levels of a contaminant that’s allowed in drinking water. Currently, North Carolina has a maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS at a combined 70 parts per trillion.

The agency has set a goal for PFOA and PFOS contamination at zero, because agency scientists have determined that there are no safe levels of exposure to these compounds.

For short chain PFAS such as  (GenX) the maximum contaminant levels and the maximum contaminant level goals are both set at 10 parts per trillion. 

The water standards are a part of a larger effort by Biden’s Cancer Moonshot program aimed at halving cancer-related deaths by 2047, among other cancer goals, according to Danielle Carnival, deputy assistant to the president for the Cancer Moonshot.

Of the 66,000 public drinking water systems in the U.S. the EPA estimates between 6 percent and 10 percent may PFAS that exceed the maximum contaminant levels. So, the agency is allowing a total of five years to bring those levels in line with the new standards — three years for testing and evaluating and two years to implement remediation technology.

However, a senior administration official said that the number of public water systems identified as having PFAS levels above the new standards may change once nationwide testing begins.


Beth Markesino is the founder of North Carolina Stop GenX Now in Our Water, an environmental advocacy group working to raise awareness about PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear region. She’s worked for this day to come since 2017, when the public learned about the Cape Fear River being contaminated with GenX.

“It’ll be seven years on June 7, and we’ve learned so much [since then],” she said. ”Having the EPA set these limits is going to be life-changing for not just our community but communities around the United States that are just learning about PFAS.”

In 2023, Markesino told NC Health News that she wonders if her son’s health problems — he was born with underdeveloped organs and later died — were caused by her exposure to GenX compounds. Although the pain of her loss has not gone away, Markesino does find comfort knowing that activists’ hard work and dedication spreading awareness about forever chemicals is paying off.

Markesino said hearing about the maximum contamination levels in the water standards “gives myself and our community validation that we did have a reason to question these chemicals that were discovered in our water, and we did have a reason to demand action from the [NC] DEQ [and] from the EPA.”

Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, has also fought to protect her community and family from the Cape Fear River’s PFAS contamination.

A woman standing at podium with a logo shaped like the state of NC is A woman wearing glasses, dressed in a white jacket and dark blue blouse with white polka dots, has her right hand over her heart as she stares into the distance.
Emily Donovan of Clean Cape Fear speaks during the EPA press conference attendees at the Hoffer Water Treatment Facility on April 10, 2024. Credit: Photo: Tony Wooten/City View Today

“I raised my children on this water — 130,000 ppt of total PFAS is the current estimate that we likely drank every day during the peak of our contamination crisis,” Donovan told the audience gathered at the announcement ceremony. 

Donovan added that she and her family have [GenX] chemicals in their blood. “I know we can’t change the past, but we can fight for a more just future. And that is exactly what we are doing today.”

Compliance costs and other concerns

As word of the water standards spread, concerns have quickly surfaced about how much implementing the new standards will cost. 

“We’ve conducted a thorough cost evaluation of this role, including sensitivity analysis, including the variety of different options that systems can make,” a senior administration official said during Wednesday’s media call. “At this point, there are both benefits and costs that have been articulated to be about $1.5 billion.”

That figure lumps costs and benefits together and doesn’t specify how much it will cost compared to the financial benefit. However, the American Water Works Association believes the annual costs for rule compliance will run taxpayers more than $3 billion, according to a New York Times article

Another gray area involves how well water owners will qualify to receive money allocated to help cover costs related to testing water for PFAS contamination and treatment. In the coming weeks, officials say more details will be released about how the plan will be executed.

‘A welcome backstop’

Organizations like the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has represented several groups across the state in legal action against industrial polluters, are pleased by the EPA’s action.

“EPA’s new drinking water standards for several PFAS are a welcome backstop, now agencies and municipalities can and should stop all PFAS pollution at the source under existing law so no more communities suffer from contaminated water in their taps,”Jean Zhuang, senior attorney at the center, said in a release.

Zhuang says enforcing environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, for instance, could reduce the need for litigation, which can be an expensive and drawn-out process. This could be achieved by putting responsibility on polluters to comply with existing laws.

“One thing that we’ve stressed is that it shouldn’t be on communities, riverkeepers, NGOs and our state agency to be looking for where the contamination is because the Clean Water Act requires polluters to disclose what they are putting into our rivers and drinking water sources,” she said.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has filed several lawsuits related to PFAS contamination. Recently the North Carolina Business Court ruled that if Chemours’ predecessor company “old DuPont” is found responsible for “contaminating North Carolina’s natural resources with ‘forever chemicals’,” then the “new DuPont” and subsidiaries can also be on the hook for financial damages.

Some environmentalists argue that the best way to best protect the environment and public health while reducing the need to litigate is to change how business is conducted in the U.S.

“It’s time the USA adopts the precautionary principle followed by other developed countries, which requires companies prove their products are safe before they enter the environment, rather than waiting for people to get sick and die before beginning a decades-long process to regulate them,” said Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

Closing out Wednesday’s news conference, Regan said: “President Biden and Vice President Harris and this EPA will continue fighting until all people — every single person in this country has clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and the opportunity to live healthy and prosperous.”

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