For decades Charlotte firefighters would periodically suit up and step into one of 12 gravel-lined pits at the city’s training center on Shopton Road. Industry would donate their flammable solvents, which would be poured into the pits or injected by underground piping. Materials, such as junk cars, would be set on fire, and the firefighters would then attack the blaze.
Sometimes, firefighters would use water. Other times, though, they would use foam — a special type of aqueous foam we now know contains toxic PFAS. Also referred to as perfluorinated compounds, this is a class of 4,000 to 5,000 chemicals, some of which are found in the body of nearly every person on Earth.
Even though PFAS have been linked to dozens of disorders, including cancer, none is regulated by the state or the EPA. This week, several members of a US House subcommittee balked at proposals in several bills to regulate PFAS as a class. And in the state legislature, bills introduced in both the House and Senate to ban PFAS in firefighting foam were exiled to committee, where they never received a hearing.
A year’s worth of monitoring shows alarming levels of more than 17 types of PFAS have been detected in the groundwater and surface water at the Police & Fire Training Academy in southwest Charlotte. The findings prompted the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to send a letter to the Charlotte engineering department this week requiring city officials to submit a plan by June 30 outlining how the department will reduce or eliminate PFAS at the training site.
The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League provided a copy of the letter to Policy Watch; it is also available on the DEQ website.
David Wolfe, a professional engineer and the city’s environmental services manager, told Policy Watch that the fire training captain is implementing new protocols to minimize PFAS contamination. However, live training must continue because it is required by the state Fire and Rescue Board.
Wolfe said the city could install additional monitoring wells to determine the width and depth of the plume in soil and groundwater. DEQ is also requiring the city to also fully assess the source and cause of the PFAS contamination, and to submit monthly reports.
Last year, DEQ required Charlotte officials to begin monitoring for PFAS at the training site because firefighting foam has been — and continues to be — used there. The 2018 annual groundwater monitoring report shows that in the 15 monitoring wells at the training center, cumulative totals of just two — PFOS and PFOA — ranged from 1,810 parts per trillion to 114,000 ppt.
For all 17 types of PFAS, the cumulative totals in groundwater wells ranged from 21,136 to 654,420 ppt.
For context, DEQ has recommended that drinking water should not contain more than 10 ppt for a single type of perfluorinated compound, or 70 ppt cumulatively. However, that recommendation is not legally enforceable.
DEQ has set a legal “practical quantitation limit” — the minimum level at which a substance can be detected — for compounds that don’t otherwise have groundwater standards. For PFAS that limit is 10 ppt.
Although there are no drinking water wells being used down from the site, groundwater in this area travels north-northeast, according to DEQ documents, toward Sugar Creek. Since neither state nor city officials know the breadth or depth of the PFAS plume, it is possible the groundwater could be seeping into Sugar Creek, adjacent to the training center. Over the border into South Carolina, Sugar Creek joins the Catawba River, a drinking water supply.
Downstream sampling of the creek showed combined levels of PFOS and PFOA at 160 ppt. For all 17 types of the perfluorinated compounds, the total was 522 ppt. The compounds were detected both upstream and midstream, albeit at lower levels.
The chemical industry has phased out PFOS and PFOA, also used in Teflon, food packaging and other non-stick coatings, because of their damaging health effects. However, these compounds persist in the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years. (GenX was introduced as a replacement for PFOS and PFOA, but scientists believe it is as harmful as its predecessors.)
The EPA still does not regulate PFAS. This week, the US House Committee on Energy & Commerce held a hearing on the problem of PFAS, at which several conservative lawmakers balked at more than a dozen bills that would address the nationwide problem of contamination, including regulating them as a class.
“I’m not a fan of broad-based changes to federal law,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois. “We have to be very careful about banning things by legislative fiat that we may or may not know are harmful.”
But Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist at East Carolina University, testified before the committee that the compounds should be regulated as a class. “They have the same carbon-fluorine bond,” DeWitt said. “They are persistent.”
There is a precedent for regulating entire classes of compounds. The EPA banned all types of PCBs, widely used in electrical equipment, in 1979, because exposure to them could cause cancer.
PFAS are even worse than PCBs, DeWitt said. “PCBs like fat and they eventually do breakdown. PFAS don’t break down and they like water. The health effects are even broader than those associated with PCBs. PFAS move, they’re persistent, and they’re toxic.”
Although Congress and the EPA have failed to regulated PFAS, the Federal Aviation Administration is requiring commercial airports to stop using PFAS in fire-retardant foams by October 2021. However, there is no such nationwide ban on cities using this type of firefighting foam. More than a dozen state lawmakers introduced bills this session to enact such a prohibition. Neither bill made it out of committee.
But state representatives did pass a bill, “Firefighters Fighting Cancer Act,” which allows certain cancers to be covered under workers’ compensation claims. It now goes to the Senate. Firefighters are routinely exposed to hazardous materials in their line of work, and it’s difficult to tease out which substance — or combination — is responsible for cancer.
At a committee hearing, firefighters thanked lawmakers for the bill. Unfortunately, it appears at this point that the legislature is willing to help them only after they’ve become ill, rather than by eliminating one of the potential sources of their cancers.