State bill seeks reimbursements, standards on ‘forever chemicals’

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 3, 2022

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — State regulators would set maximum acceptable levels of “forever chemicals” — like those discharged for decades into the Cape Fear River — for drinking water in legislation considered Thursday by a state House committee.

The measure also would give North Carolina’s environment secretary power to order a company responsible for excessive levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to pay for public water system improvements designed to remove the chemicals or lessen concentrations.

Without naming the company, the legislation would target The Chemours Co., which a state investigation found had discharged a type of PFAS from its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County into the air, water and groundwater.

But the measure faced strong pushback from several business and trade groups, and not just Chemours — a signal that it could be set aside for the rest of this year’s session.

For years, a little-studied chemical known as GenX flowed down the Cape Fear, which is the primary drinking water source for several hundred thousand residents, including those in Wilmington. Chemours said in 2017 that it would stop discharging the chemicals into the river. Groundwater seepage means high PFAS levels are still showing up downstream.

Leaders of two public utilities in the Wilmington region told committee members they were having to raise rates significantly on water customers to pay for roughly $150 million in aggregate improvements to lower or remove PFAS concentrations. Brunswick County Public Utilities raised rates by 40% in January, director John Nichols told the committee.

“Ratepayers should not be responsible for paying for equipment to treat the water contaminated by PFAS, caused by a responsible party, so they can have safe drinking water to give to their customers,” bill sponsor Sen. Ted Davis, a New Hanover County Republican, said at a news conference that also included an endorsement from state environment Secretary Elizabeth Biser.

Biser said there are currently no federal drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on national standards.

Critics of the measure told committee members it gave too much power to the Environmental Management Commission, which would set PFAS concentration levels that are acceptable for human consumption. The bill says the standards themselves would be exempt from the state’s rule-making process, which usually gives the legislature the opportunity to reject executive branch actions.

“This bill circumvents the traditional processes for new regulations on job creators,” Peter Daniel with the North Carolina Chamber told judiciary committee members. “There’s no need for a state-by-state approach when the federal government is leading on the issue with a predictable, national, multifaceted and well-funded approach.”

As for Chemours, lobbyist Jeff Fritz told the committee the company had already agreed in 2017 to eliminate all plant-operating emissions to the Cape Fear River and that it was following a 2018 consent agreement with the state.

The company says it has spent or committed to spend $400 million on improvements such as on-site emissions control technology at the plant and remediation.

“We have engaged with public utilities and counties in the region and have been, and continue to be, willing to find meaningful solutions,” the company said in an emailed statement later Thursday.

Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro said she was “just appalled’ by the opposition, saying residents must be protected from dangerous chemicals.

Some research shows high levels of certain PFAS may lead to increased risks for kidney or testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels and health challenges for children, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Emily Donovan of Brunswick County with the group Clean Cape Fear pleaded with legislators to pass the bill, saying Chemours “contaminated our water supply” and PFAS concentrations remain high despite the consent order.

“The stakes for my family and my community are too high,” she said. “No one wants to pay to fix something they didn’t break.”