PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds) get into our water from direct discharges from industrial facilities. PFAS is a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals used for coatings, fire suppression, water proofing and more that includes PFOA, PFOS, and GenX and is associated with serious health impacts. These contaminants are known as forever chemicals—they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade but stay in water, soil and our bodies. Another industrial compound impacting the Haw River watershed is 1,4- dioxane.
Both of these compounds have been dumped into the Haw from wastewater effluent from Greensboro, Reidsville, and Burlington. These are not removed in traditional drinking water process. Communities downstream in Pittsboro, Apex, Cary, Fayetteville, and Wilmington pull drinking water from the Haw, Jordan Lake, and the Cape Fear.
Where did these chemicals come from?
These toxins have been in use for decades, though we are just starting to fully grasp the problems they have caused. After WWII, chemical companies began looking for ways to use up the chemicals they had been using for warfare, and started to tinker with existing chemicals to find new uses. PFOA and PFOS were created by DuPont for use on nonstick pans and other stain resistant products. These compounds, known as “legacy PFAS” are longer chain compounds, meaning they have 8 carbon chains and are nearly impossible to break down. Companies like DuPont discharged these toxins, with no limitations, no reporting, or no permits since the 1950s. In 1999, a corporate defense attorney named Rob Billott was contacted by a family friend who needed help. A farmer in Parkersburg, WV named Wilbur Tenant had experienced many of his cows dying after drinking from a creek, where DuPont was discharging something upstream that causing piles of white foam. Billott came to Parkersburg and saw that not only the cows, but pets were dying, children had black teeth, the community had increased rates of cancers. This lawsuit resulted in the largest health study ever conducted. Blood samples were taken from all community members, then a search for a clean blood sample for a control was conducted in other parts of the state. When every other blood sample also had levels of PFAS, the search for a control expanded, to nationwide, then globally, then to other animals. No clean sample was found. PFAS had contaminated our entire world population, even polar bears in Antarctica. The lawsuit also resulted in a ban on these chemicals being used in manufacturing in the U.S. PFOA and PFOS were still used in other countries, but this new regulation started a rush to make new PFAS chemicals, or shorter chain PFAS, like GenX and thousands of others that are still in use today.
How do these compounds get into the river? How do they get into my drinking water?
In the Haw, these toxins are discharged from industrial sources within wastewater treatment plant systems. For example, the City of Burlington has dozens of industrial users that send their industrial waste to the treatment plant before being discharged into the Haw. Because there is no regulatory requirement to treat for these, the plants do not monitor or remove the toxins before being discharged. Pretreatment is required for these situations, but it only removes heavy metals and very few regulated toxins. This avenue is the largest source of PFAS into the Haw, with discharges in Burlington, Greensboro, and Reidsville. Biosolids, or the solid waste from wastewater treatment plants, are often land applied on farm fields as “free fertilizer.” This sludge is filled with toxins from these plants and accumulate into the soil, transfer into the groundwater, and runoff into adjacent creeks in rain events. These toxins are also emitted into the air in manufacturing processes, leached from landfills into groundwater, and used in firefighting foams, which contaminate soil and surface water.
What is the risk to my health? Is my water contaminated?
After the lawsuit in West Virginia, a panel of scientists researched the health impacts of a few specific PFAS compounds and determined that they lead to many significant health issues, like diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and low-birth weight in infants.
Drinking water in Pittsboro is pulled directly from the Haw, which we know is contaminated. Other public drinking water supplies in the Haw River watershed have had very low levels of PFAS. Groundwater levels near fields with land applied biosolids have shown higher levels of PFAS.
Reverse Osmosis the the best water treatment for these toxins. Full house filtration poses other risks, such as bacterial growth. Under the sink, or point of use, reverse osmosis treatment is the safest option.
Ongoing work with Southern Environmental Law Center
Haw River Assembly and Southern Environmental Law Center have been working with
the City of Burlington to identify and address levels of PFAS in the Haw since our first
Notice of Intent to Sue was sent in November 2019. As of 2019, measurable PFAS levels coming from the City’s discharge into the Haw were just over 30,000 ppt. This was a violation of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. See the full press release here.
See our Memorandum of Agreement with the City of Burlington here.
Since then, we’ve identified the three major sources of PFAS to Burlington’s wastewater
treatment plant: Elevate Textiles, Unichem, and Shawmut. Unichem will no longer be
using PFAS-containing products at its Burlington facility. Shawmut has reduced its
PFAS discharges and is evaluating additional actions to take for further reductions. The
largest source of PFAS into the City’s wastewater treatment plant, Elevate Textiles, has
yet to show decreases in its levels of PFAS. We are pushing the City to control
Elevate’s PFAS discharges and will continue to push until we are confident that
adequate measures are being taken. We plan to memorialize those and other actions in
a robust settlement agreement with the City.
Check out City of Burlington Sampling Results here.
On June 30, 2021, Greensboro notified the state DEQ and downstream that it had found high levels of 1,4-dioxane in treated wastewater from its TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant. The discharge was into South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw, at levels 20 times higher than EPA’s health guideline of 35ug/L.
On behalf of the Haw River Assembly, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) reached a settlement on December 18 with the City of Greensboro and North Carolina regulators that further limits Greensboro’s 1,4-dioxane discharges from it’s wastewater treatment plant, where industries are sending this chemical in their waste stream. HRA was joined by City of Fayetteville in this challenge, who draws their raw drinking water further downstream on the Cape Fear River. The settlement also requires the Department of Environmental Quality to investigate sources of toxic 1,4-dioxane pollution in the Cape Fear River basin, including the Haw River, and report actions it takes to reduce those amounts, including permit limits. We continue to receive and review Greensboro’s monitoring data.
The numeric limit set by NCDEQ for 1,4-dioxane is 0.35ug/L, which must be included in discharge permits.
Ongoing Research for PFAS contamination and impacts
We are currently partnering with several ongoing research projects to identify all sources of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River watershed.
Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University has concluded her study of PFAS in blood levels of Pittsboro residents. See that study here. One thing to note is that the median levels of PFOS and PFOA were higher than participants in Wilmington. PFHxA levels were also elevated and this compound is consistently high in the Haw below Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant.
We are also partnering with Dr. Jane Hoppin of NC State University who has conducted a blood and urine analysis study in Pittsboro. See that study here. This study found that, of the three sample groups in Pittsboro, Fayetteville, and Wilmington, Pittsboro saw the highest levels of PFAS in their bodies.
Dr. Detlef Knappe of NC State University is also working with us to prioritize sample locations to test for contaminated groundwater near fields where biosolids (sludge) from Burlington’s wastewater treatment plants have been applied. In a similar project, Dr. Mei Sun of UNC Charlotte is working with us to prioritize sample locations where sludge application may be impacting surface waters.
Dr. Scott Belcher of UNC Wilmington is conducting a fish tissue study to understand PFAS exposure through fish consumption in the Haw. This research has two main components: a survey of fishermen to understand consumption rates, and collecting fish tissue samples to quantify PFAS levels.
What is North Carolina doing to address this?
NC Department of Environmental Quality has the full authority to require testing, disclosure on permits, and set limits on PFAS discharges right now, without legislative action. Why won’t they? Great question.
NCDEQ has had their budget slashed for decades, and does not have the capacity to review permits, fight legal challenges, and conduct monitoring to enforce new limits. The budget is decided by legislation, and the politicians in charge of our state are heavily influenced by lobbyists from industrial polluters who do not want increased regulation. However, NCDEQ must use their existing authority to prioritize these actions and protect our communities. Currently, DEQ is requiring quarterly monitoring for PFAS on all new and renewed discharge permits. This frequency of monitoring is not enough, and the monitoring alone does not require any additional action to minimize discharges.
In June of 2022, NCDEQ released its action plan for addressing PFAS compounds in the state. See that report here. These timelines are already extremely behind schedule; we have been told that the process to set surface water standards would begin in late fall 2022/ early winter 2023. We have not yet seen any work on this.
NC Department of Health and Human services have conducted health studies and has released a list of recommendations to clinicians for patients with high levels of PFAS or high risks of exposure. Fish consumption studies have not yet been released in NC. Michigan has released a consumption guidance for fish, deer, and waterfowl. See those reports here.
NC General Assembly has introduced several bills to address PFAS, some in a positive way and some that pose great risk to public health and would cause more harm that good.
We can consistently rely on a handful of legislative members to introduce and support positive PFAS legislation. Rep. Pricey Harrison (Guilford), Rep. Deb Butler (New Hanover), Rep. Ashton Clemmons (Guilford), Rep. Robert Reives (Chatham), and Sen. Graig Meyer (Orange) have been leaders and allies on this work.
In the 2023-2024 Legislative session, the following bills have been introduced to address PFAS:
- HB660: PFAS Free NC- This bill would ban manufacture, use, and distribution of PFAS, requires DEQ to set Technology Based effluent limits for PFAS, monitor biosolids and landfill leachate for PFAS and prevent contamination, create an inventory of all known PFAS discharges in the state, conduct health studies on humans and wildlife to assess impacts of exposure, and provides funding for water treatment systems and proper disposal of PFAS.
- HB349: Firefighter PFAS Management/Research – This bill would create a voluntary buyback program for fire departments to dispose of AFFF PFAS containing firefighting foams. However, this bill would also purchase a training facility in Stanley County to conduct exposure studies on firefighters and their families who will continue to use the PFAS foams.
- HB370: Responsible Firefighting Foam Management Act – This bill would ban the use of these foams in training practices, except in designated training facilities such as the new facility in Stanley County.
- HB279: Break Free from Plastics and Forever Chemicals – This bill would require producers to register with DEQ before distributing any PFAS or single use plastics, and properly dispose of the products with a stewardship plan. This bill would ban PFAS from use in packaging materials.
- HB610: 2023 Safe Drinking Water Act – Requires the Committee for Public Health to set Maximum Contaminant Limits for PFAS and 1,4 dioxane in drinking water.
- SB495: 2023 Safe Drinking Water Act (Twin Bill)
- SB658: Water Safety Act of 2023 – $26 million to NC Policy Collaboratory for PFAS research
What is the EPA doing to address PFAS?
In March of 2023, the EPA set the first ever limits for PFAS. These limits are Maximum Contaminant Limits, or MCLs, and apply only to drinking water. This should trigger states to set limits on dischargers in order to lessen the financial burden of downstream communities to treat their drinking water. However, we have not seen this yet in North Carolina.
In January of 2022, EPA rolled out its Action Plan to address PFAS. See that report here.