By Will Atwater
“Myself and others were shocked, but in a good way,” said Beth Markesino, founder of North Carolina Stop GenX, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“I’m very pleased. It’s a decade past time we should have done this,” said John Bonitz, Pittsboro town commissioner.
Markesino and Bonitz were reacting to EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s Tuesday announcement that the agency is proposing new drinking water standards for a half dozen per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS.
Known as “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment and the human body, PFAS have been used for decades in the manufacturing of oil and water-resistant products, as well as in products that resist heat and reduce friction. There are more than 12,000 compounds in the PFAS family, and they are used in products such as nonstick cookware, cosmetics, cleaning products, water-resistant clothing and textiles, some firefighting foams and firefighting turnout gear.
Markesino was not the only one who scrambled to make the national news conference — held in Wilmington — once the news broke that an announcement was imminent.
“When I found out about it and tried to make sure I could go, it was pretty late,” said Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, an organization that works to “protect and improve the water quality of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin.”
- If finalized, the EPA proposal would regulate PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) as individual contaminants and set the maximum contaminant levels for both chemicals at 4 parts per trillion.
- Four other PFAS — PFNA (Perfluorononanoic acid), PFHxS (Perfluorohexanesulfonic acid), PFBS (Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid) and GenX chemicals would be regulated as a mixture and evaluated using a hazard Index, according to an EPA news release.
- The new standard would replace the current EPA health advisory, which is 0.004 ppt. for PFOA, and 0.02 ppt. for PFOS and 10 ppt. for GenX.
A milestone, not a victory
In 2019, Cape Fear River Watch, along with the NC Department of Environmental Quality, entered into a consent order that requires chemical manufacturer Chemours to provide mitigation services to residents in the Cape Fear region. Behind the order was a decades-long history of PFAS releases from Chemour’s Fayetteville Works facility into the ground, into the Cape Fear River and out through smokestacks, resulting in contamination in the river water and in drinking water wells for miles around the plant.
But the consent order does not address PFAS-contaminated municipal water. Until last year, when the Wilmington-based Cape Fear River Public Utility Authority invested 43 million to install and maintain granular activated carbon filtration systems at its Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, there was no support for the roughly 200,000 utility customers who had to foot the bill for in-home filtration devices.
However, the EPA’s March 14 announcement on newly proposed drinking water standards focuses solely on municipal water systems.
“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants,” EPA Administrator Regan said.
“No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” Clean Cape Fear co-founder Emily Donovan said. “We all deserve access to health-protective drinking water. It’s a basic human right. We applaud the Biden EPA for having the courage to do what multiple administrations could not.
“Today, prayers were answered.”
While the EPA’s announcement is welcome, some residents of the Cape Fear River Basin have been exposed to PFAS-contaminated air and water for years. Some who now are battling serious illnesses wonder if their health problems are related to the chemicals.
In 2017, after reading the Wilmington Star-News story that broke the news that the Cape Fear River was contaminated with GenX, Markesino founded North Carolina Stop GenX to have a place “where residents could go to find out the latest information about our water contamination,” she said.
“The reason why I [wanted] to know what was going on with our water and this chemical is because, just six months prior to hearing about the contamination, I lost a child,” she added.
At 24 weeks into her pregnancy with her son, Samuel, Markesino said she visited her doctor after experiencing pain. Samuel died shortly after birth.
“We learned that Samuel did not develop his kidneys, bladder or bowels,” she said, “and I had placenta problems.”
Markesino wonders if her exposure to GenX contributed to her son’s death and her being diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgias.
“Losing Samuel has really been the catalyst for why I fight so hard for clean water and for regulations,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to go through what me and my husband went through.”
Cumberland County resident Mike Watters lives near the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility. He said his home is about a mile from the thermal oxidizer stack that, for years, spewed PFAS-laden emissions. Watters, who has battled Chemours for years, had a granular activated carbon system installed to remove PFAS compounds from his well water and an air monitoring system.
Like Markesino, Watters is battling health problems and is also a gardener who is skeptical of his environment.
“I know I can’t grow in my soil, I know I can’t grow in the open air with rainfall, so I’m doing a 20-by 80-foot greenhouse,” he said.
Watters said that there is benefit to the EPA’s proposed water quality standards, even if they only address part of the problem.
“I don’t see where it does anything for the thousands [living] in the eight county area on groundwater wells,” he said. “And, you know, that could just simply be fixed by following the current North Carolina laws, which are extremely lower than what’s listed in the [EPA’s] proposal.”
‘Holding polluters accountable’
In 2022, the Cape Fear River Utility Authority spent $43 million to install a granular activated carbon system at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant to remove PFAS from the municipal water supply. They seem to be having some success, because according to the latest published system test results, approximately 64 out 69 fluorinated compounds register as “non detect” — including all of the ones targeted by the EPA’s proposed water quality standards — according to Vaughn Hagerty, director of communications.
While this is an important milestone, CFPUA and its rate payers are shouldering the cost for cleaning up a problem that was caused by Chemours and its parent company, DuPont. In 2017, CFPUA filed a lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont, seeking to hold the companies responsible for picking up the tab.
A statement on the CFPUA website reads: “CFPUA believes Chemours and DuPont, rather than our customers, should pay for those and other costs and damages related to the companies’ actions. So far though, neither company has stepped up to this responsibility. Until that occurs, we will proceed with the lawsuit.”
The seven-year battle that the state and groups like Cape Fear River Watch have waged against Chemours lends perspective to Sargent’s response about the EPA water standards announcement.
“[The standards are] crucial in this fight, but they’re not going to hold the leaders accountable,” she said. “An [maximum contaminant level] comes with the notion that this is on the utility, or the community to figure out. This is not filtration at the source, this is filtration after the fact.”
Bonitz agrees that Chemours should fund the remediation process that municipalities have to take on.
“Pittsboro still needs more help. We cannot afford the lab fees for testing our water for these ‘forever chemicals’ at such minute levels,” he said in an email to NC Health News. “And we will probably need to change our filter media more often, which is expensive.”
In spite of the remaining challenges, NC State University professor Detlef Knappe offers an optimistic take seven years after he and his student researchers discovered GenX compounds in the Cape Fear River: “It is noteworthy that this proposed regulation is the first in more than two decades that regulates commercially produced chemicals.”
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