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N.C. Bill Would Hold Companies Accountable for Water Pollution

Bipartisan House legislation would allow the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to declare a company responsible for contaminating drinking water with hazardous, long-lasting chemicals.

(TNS) — A bipartisan bill under consideration this week would allow the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to declare a company responsible for contaminating drinking water with so-called “forever chemicals” and force it to pay for treatment upgrades.

House Bill 1095, “PFAS Pollution and Polluter Liability,” has four primary sponsors, all of whom represent areas that have struggled with contamination from per- and polyfluoroalykl chemicals, long-lasting chemicals that are hazardous to human health and are used throughout the modern economy.

The legislation introduced last week gives DEQ the authority to set safe drinking water levels, also known as maximum contaminant levels, for PFAS compounds. It also sets a ceiling of 10 parts per trillion for any one PFAS compound or 70 total parts per trillion.

If a company releases enough PFAS to result in higher concentrations, DEQ could order the company to pay for the installation and operation costs of treatment technology that would result in lower levels. Rep. Ted Davis, a Wilmington Republican who worked with DEQ to write the legislation, said those payments could be applied retroactively.

That applies directly to the situation in the Lower Cape Fear region. If HB 1095 becomes law, DEQ could order Chemours to pay for drinking water treatment infrastructure that has been planned for and installed over the past five years, since the company’s contamination of the Cape Fear River with the PFAS compound GenX became clear.

Paying for Drinking Water Treatment

Wilmington-area Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, for instance, spent $43 million adding technology known as granular activated carbon filters that are designed to capture the compounds. CFPUA Executive Director Kenneth Waldroup said the agency will spend about $4 to $5 million annually operating the eight filters once they are online.

“It will give an avenue to hold Chemours responsible in our case, and it gives regulatory tools for the state to do the same to other manufacturers of PFAS. That’s important,” Waldroup said.

In a statement, Lisa Randall, a Chemours spokeswoman, said the company is still working to understand the bill.

Randall wrote, “On initial review, Chemours is disappointed that the bill appears directed to one company and to propose administrative processes for which legal and judicial authority already exist.”

As a Cape Fear Public Utility Authority customer, Davis finds himself paying for those filters to keep chemicals that flow downriver from Chemours out of the area’s drinking water. In May, the authority’s board raised rates for the first time in four years, adding an estimated $5.37 to customers’ monthly bills, much of which will be used to pay for the new filters.

“Why should I be responsible for having my rates raised to address pollution that was caused by a polluter? The polluter should be responsible for that, not me as a ratepayer,” Davis said.

In neighboring Brunswick County, commissioners voted to install reverse osmosis treatment technology to reduce pollution as part of a water treatment plant project expanding capacity from 24 million gallons a day to 45 million gallons a day. That overall project cost more than $122 million.

Both Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick County have joined a lawsuit against Chemours seeking compensation for the drinking water upgrades. If the local governments are successful, the lawsuit would achieve many of the same aims as HB 1095, but the legislation directs water utilities to reimburse customers for payments used to install PFAS treatment technology.

Dana Sargent, the executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, said the organization generally supports the bill because it would provide drinking water protections in southeastern North Carolina. By requiring manufacturers to pay for proven treatment technology — which could include the approaches taken by CFPUA or Brunswick County — the legislation could provide protection against multiple forever chemicals.

“If it catches one,” Sargent said, “it’s going to catch the rest.”

Setting Safe Drinking Water Levels

The levels HB 1095 proposes to allow the DEQ secretary to take action on — 10 parts per trillion of a single PFAS compound or 70 ppt of total PFAS — are the same as those Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours and DEQ agreed to in a consent order signed in February 2019.

But that order only applied to private drinking water wells around Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility near the Cumberland- Bladen county lines. It did not address contamination that headed down the Cape Fear River into public drinking water intakes or that reached public drinking water wells.

That has been a point of significant contention in the Lower Cape Fear region, where total PFAS levels in raw drinking water are routinely between 130 and 160 parts per trillion. While the granular activated carbon filters are under construction, CFPUA is spending about $1.5 million annually to treat some of the PFAS, but is only able to reduce the compounds to about 70 to 100 parts per trillion.

“When — not if — there’s contamination discovered elsewhere in the state where a manufacturer is a significant contributor, the state would establish these same thresholds. It’s just logical because they’ve already crossed that boundary here,” Waldroup said.

Davis started working on the bill after a call from DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, who, he recalled, asked if he’d be interested in legislation addressing contamination and polluter liability.

Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman, confirmed that the agency requested the bill. If the legislation is approved, Martin wrote, the agency plans to prioritize “the most prevalent PFAS compounds impacting North Carolinian drinking water sources” when proposing maximum contaminant levels. The Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board will help evaluate scientific evidence that will be used to determine the safe level in drinking water.

The legislation would also give DEQ $2 million to implement the legislation and the N.C. Collaboratory, a coalition of researchers based across the UNC system, $2 million to help with analysis and research that could lead to the maximum contaminant level.

Davis said he has not discussed the bill with Chemours or other industries that may be discharging PFAS into the state’s drinking water supplies.

“Why would I? Isn’t that sort of like putting the fox in the hen house?” Davis said, adding that he welcomes any comments from companies or members of the public during committee meetings.

This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a national drinking water health advisory for GenX. Last fall, the federal agency completed a toxicity assessment for the chemical that set a reference dose, or the level that you could likely ingest every day for a lifetime without experiencing health effects, of 3 parts per trillion.

One tweak Sargent would like to see is a set timeline for how long the Environmental Management Commission can take to approve a maximum contaminant level.

Davis will present the bill to the House Judiciary 1 committee, which he chairs, on Thursday. He said that meeting will be for discussion only, followed possibly as soon as next week by a vote.

From there, it would need to be approved by the House Rules committee before returning to the House floor. Then, it would need to be approved by the Senate before heading to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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