GenX, an “emerging contaminant,” as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency, is entering the Cape Fear River and public water treatment plants from the Chemours plant upstream in Fayetteville.
But GenX is only one of several known emerging contaminants that have been detected in drinking water throughout the North Carolina. Chromium 6 has been found in private drinking water wells near coal ash plants; 1,4-dioxane, prevalent throughout the US, has been found in the Haw River and other state waterways.
There are no federal health standards for emerging contaminants; they are unregulated. Gov. Cooper and top state environmental officials recently have implored the EPA for at least an interim drinking water standard, scientific studies — some kind of guidance on how to grapple with GenX. (Under pressure from citizens, local governments and the NC Department of Environmental Quality, Chemours halted its wastewater discharge into the river in early July.) The EPA can set health risk guidelines as a stopgap, but the process is lengthy and the recommendations virtually unenforceable.
But North Carolinians who rely on these tainted waters are tired of waiting for answers. These residents — and anyone’s who has been warily eyeing their glass of tap water lately — want to know: Who can we turn to? Absent guidance from the EPA, what powers do the state and local governments have? And is my water safe?
This clarity is important not only for the current crisis, but also for future ones. As technology allows scientists to detect contaminants at even lower levels, there will invariably be more discoveries. Some of these contaminants will prove to be benign. Others will not.
“The state needs to be proactive, not reactive,” said Elaine Chiosso, executive director of Haw River Assembly, who has been involved in the 1,4-dioxane issue. “There is overwhelming evidence this is a problem in our state.”
Who’s in charge?
There are three main agencies that set standards for surface water, groundwater, and drinking water: the EPA, DEQ and the Environmental Management Commission.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is required to identify unregulated contaminants and to establish a program to monitor drinking water for them. But the SDWA directs EPA to flag only those contaminants that meet three criteria: They present the greatest public health concern; they are widespread; and there is a substantial likelihood that risks can be reduced, either through technology or regulations.
The SDWA hamstrings the EPA in many ways, yet it can be amended only by Congress. “If a chemical doesn’t appear in many water systems, the EPA can’t set a primary drinking regulation in the first place,” said Stan Meiburg, who was recently appointed to the Environmental Management Commission by Gov. Cooper. Meiburg worked for the EPA for nearly 40 years, including a stint as Acting Deputy Administrator for Region 4, which includes North Carolina.
Every five years, the EPA must issue a list of up to 30 unregulated “emerging” contaminants — GenX, Chromium 6, and 1-4, dioxane among them — to be monitored by public water systems. Of those, the EPA narrows the list to five that it will consider monitoring and possibly regulating. (The EPA pays for small water systems’ cost to monitor; larger systems pay their own way.) But since 1996, the EPA has decided to regulate just one of 81 unregulated contaminants that made this list: perchlorate.
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office took the EPA to task for its desultory approach to evaluating the health risks of emerging contaminants. By 2014, the EPA had improved its performance, but the GAO still criticized the agency for inadequate monitoring and the length of time it required to select contaminants for the list — an average of two and a half years. The GAO noted that limiting the initial list to 30 contaminants could be insufficient, although Congress would have to amend the SDWA to increase the number.
That is certainly necessary, but under the current administration unlikely. More contaminants are being detected in drinking water, many of which have long been there, but only now are coming to light. “We’re entering a new world where technologies have improved detection limits and those technologies are more widespread,” Meiburg said. “It’s an ongoing dilemma that people have more data than they’re used to. Our ability to collect data exceeds our ability to interpret it.”
However, states, including North Carolina can set more stringent risk levels. But DEQ’s rulemaking authority is limited by existing law and legislative oversight. For the past six years, state lawmakers have routinely tried — and at times succeeded — in preventing DEQ from adopting stronger environmental standards than the EPA’s. Even when DEQ can set a stronger standard, absent EPA guidance, budget cuts have crippled the state’s ability to quickly sample, analyze, monitor and set health risks for these contaminants.
“North Carolina officials need the EPA to provide its guidance in order for the state to be able to set surface, groundwater and drinking water standards for GenX,” said DEQ Communications Director Jamie Kritzer. Once the EPA takes action on GenX, North Carolina can develop an enforceable standard for it instead of having to rely on Chemours agreeing not to discharge.”
Chemours is operating on an expired wastewater discharge permit; it has been administratively continued while the state investigates the GenX case. “DEQ is looking closely at Chemours’ discharge permit and will not renew it while questions remain about the company’s actions,” Kritzer said. Chemours is only one of many facilities whose permits have lapsed, in part because of the increase in the number of permits and a staff shortage to review them.
Once the EPA provides its health guidance, Kritzer said, surface water standards have to go through the EMC and the rulemaking process. With groundwater standards, DEQ can establish interim standards and then go through rulemaking to make those permanent. Rulemaking takes time; it requires not just scientific and legal review, but public comment.
“Once you have the data. you have to decide what’s the right regulatory approach,” Meiburg said. This is important not only to protect the public health but to give some assurance to public utilities. “If you’re running a drinking water system and the EPA says you need to add another treatment, and you’re thinking ‘I have to spend $10 million,’ you need a basis for that.”
Uncertainty is inherent in these judgements, Meiburg said. “Even if you have perfect information, different people respond differently to chemicals. The balance is communicating the risk and uncertainties while affirming people’s desire — and right — to have safe drinking water.”
Solutions expensive, stop pollution at its source
It has been nearly 10 years since EPA began studying the potential health effects of Chromium 6. The chemical is found in coal ash, but also is naturally occurring, so it can be found in private wells far from coal plants. In cases where Chromium 6 shows up naturally, there is no stemming the source, only treating for its presence.
There is no federal drinking water standard for it, but some states, including California and North Carolina, have set individual thresholds. Earlier this month, DEQ set a performance standard of 10 parts per billion of Chromium 6 in filtered drinking water, far higher than the 0.07 ppb health goal established by the Department of Health and Human Services. A performance standard differs from a health goal in that the former is legally enforceable; the latter is not, but represents a lifetime exposure level of one in 1 million cancer risk.
That discrepancy — or the failure to aptly communicate the reasoning behind it — has alarmed residents living within a half-mile of Duke Energy’s coal ash plants. Many of these people have been living on bottled water for more than two years. Under the Coal Ash Management Act, Duke Energy must provide residents with alternative water sources: bottled water, filtration systems or hookups to public water systems. However, relying bottled water is not only inefficient for the users, but the bottle itself also creates an unnecessary demand for plastic and adds to the recycling load. Duke Energy has refused to connect some households to public water systems, citing the cost. Instead, the utility plans to install water filtration systems on those wells, and must adhere to the 10 ppb standard.
DEQ has since announced that Secretary Michael Regan will appoint a science advisory panel to review the agency’s recommendations. That panel could be announced before the end of July.
GenX is not found in nature. It’s a byproduct of manufacturing nonstick surfaces, such as Teflon. The Department of Health and Human Services set a health goal — again unenforceable — of 140 parts per trillion, a drastic reduction of the agency’s original threshold of 70,000 ppt. NC State University professor and scientist Detlef Knappe, who discovered Gen X in the Cape Fear and 1,4-dioxane in the Haw, told a crowd in Brunswick County that reverse osmosis in home systems removed nearly all of the chemical. At a public forum last month, many Wilmington residents said they were considering these systems, also known as RO. However, they are expensive — whole-house systems start at $1,000 — and are largely out of financial reach of low-income households.
Financially healthy utilities could install reverse osmosis and nano filtration systems to remove GenX from drinking water. (Both use certain types of membranes to separate pollutants from the water.) H2GO, a public utility serving 10,000 customers in northern Brunswick County, plan to build a $34 million reverse osmosis water treatment plant, paid for by a $25 million revenue bond and $8.5 million from capital reserves. Although the utility originally wanted to build plant not for environmental reasons but to reduce costs, the timing is fortuitous. This project would plumb the Lower Peedee And Black Creek aquifers for water, not the Cape Fear. Well testing has found no synthetic chemicals in the water, utility spokesman Tyler Wittofsky said.
Meanwhile, the current level of GenX in H2GO drinking water is 66 parts per trillion, below the state health department’s recommendation.. But some residents don’t want to use their tap water because of the uncertainty about the chemical. Wittofsky said that H2GO is considering provide a reverse osmosis drinking station for its customers. That would require a state permit, Wittofsky said.
Yet many cash-strapped utilities can’t afford these upgrades. At a State Water Infrastructure Authority meeting this week, it was announced that to repair and even minimally modernize drinking water and wastewater plants statewide would cost at least $10 billion to $15 billion.
As for 1,4-dioxane, it was found in the Haw as early as 1982, according to the UNC Water Resources Institute. An industrial solvent, it is ubiquitous and easily survives conventional water treatment. The EPA has classified it as a “likely human carcinogen,” and established a health goal of 0.35 parts per billion, equivalent to a lifetime 1 in a million cancer risk. North Carolina has adopted the same standard for streams classified as drinking water supplies.
Knappe told Pittsboro Town Commissioners in 2015 that removing the 1,4-dioxane is “very difficult.” Pittsboro Utility Superintendent Adam Pickett said the only proven treatment to reduce levels of the chemical is advanced oxidation. That complicated process can involve the use of UV light, ozone and hydrogen peroxide. “It’s very expensive,” Pickett said. Concentrations of 1,4-dioxane have decreased over the last several months, Pickett said, but “that is probably due to public pressure on industries upstream.”
Pittsboro has no industries discharging the chemical, so at least some of it is likely coming from Randleman Lake, a reservoir owned jointly by Greensboro, High Point, Archdale, Jamestown, Randleman and Randolph County. 1,4-dioxane has been found in the lake from industry that is not adequately pre-treating its discharge. The chemical is also found in municipal sewage sludge, which is then applied on farm fields. Rain can wash residue from those fields into waterways.
“Clearly the system is broken,” Chiosso said. “We need much broader discharge control and advanced techniques for contaminant monitoring to stop this problem at the source, instead of trying to remove chemicals already in our water supplies. “The burden shouldn’t be on the people downstream.”