A water sample taken from the Sanford sewage treatment plant that discharges into the Deep River, revealed a shocking concentration of forever chemicals.
Documents released from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality uncovered high levels of potentially carcinogenic chemicals in rivers and streams throughout the Cape Fear River basin in North Carolina — from Reidsville to Wilmington.
The sample contained perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — or PFOS — measuring 1,000 parts per trillion. That is more than 14 times greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.
The highest level of total PFAS detected was in Sanford, which recorded a concentration of 4,026 parts per trillion in September. Burlington saw the next highest spike — nearly 2,296 parts per trillion in August.
To put the DEQ data into perspective, the Washington D.C. based Environmental Working Group recently tested tap water at 44 locations in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Data from that testing, which was released last week, found measurable levels of PFAS at all but one site.
David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, reviewed the DEQ’s data and called the numbers “absolutely incredibly high.” Only one other site in the organization’s national study measured PFAS above 100 parts per trillion in drinking water.
The highest level detected in the national study was 186 parts per trillion at an elementary school in Brunswick County, at the North Carolina coast. Brunswick County pulls its drinking water from the Cape Fear River.
Officials with the DEQ and Scott Siletzky, Sanford’s water reclamation administrator, said they do not know where the contamination came from. The DEQ’s monitoring program aims to find out which industries may be responsible.
In Fayetteville, about 45 miles downstream of Sanford, the level of PFOS in drinking water remained below the EPA’s health advisory during the monitoring period, but total PFAS spiked to as much at 244 parts per trillion.
Mick Noland, chief operations officer for the Fayetteville Public Works Commission’s Water Resources Division, could not say whether the spike of PFAS in Sanford may have caused the high levels in Fayetteville. River flow and other factors come into play, he said.
Fayetteville is upstream of the Chemours chemical plant, where the release of PFAS for decades continues to foul the drinking water downstream for New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. Although the DEQ stopped Chemours from discharging PFAS into the Cape Fear River, it still seeps into the river through contaminated sediment and groundwater around the plant.
According to the EPA, a person who drinks a level of 70 parts per trillion of PFOA or PFOS over a lifetime — or a combination of them both — stands an increased risk of adverse health effects, including testicular and kidney cancer, developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy, low birth weight, liver and thyroid disease, antibody production, high cholesterol, and ulcerative colitis.
But there is mounting evidence that suggests PFAS are a health risk at much lower levels. While North Carolina continues to follow the EPA health advisory, other states have or are considering lowering theirs, some to less than 15 parts per trillion.
Because PFAS are unregulated, North Carolina currently has little control over industries that are fouling its waterways. But the state can go after cities that violate terms of their pretreatment pollution permits.
The state has already taken enforcement actions against Greensboro and Reidsville. The DEQ cited those cities for violating their pollution permits by failing to timely notify the state and downstream water utilities about large releases of 1,4 dioxane that were discovered through the monitoring process.
The DEQ said the citations were issued because the chemical showed up downstream in the town of Pittsboro’s drinking water.
But no enforcement action has been taken against Sanford, even though the DEQ acknowledges that the 1,100 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS detected at its sewer plant could have flowed downstream and caused the levels in Sanford’s drinking water to exceed the EPA’s health advisory.