What happens when there’s no clean water left to drink?

What happens when there’s no clean water left to drink?

- in Environment, News, Top Story
To view details about the virtual meeting on Greensboro’s Special Order by Consent go to deq.nc.gov and type in “Greensboro special order” in the search box. The Pittsboro meeting will also be streamed. Go to pittsboronc.gov and at the bottom of the page is a link to the Dec. 14 meeting. (Graphic: Lisa Sorg)

Pittsboro, Fuquay-Varina want to buy drinking water from Sanford. But that town’s water is contaminated with PFAS.

At least 1 million people living from Pittsboro to Wilmington in the Cape Fear River Basin could be exposed to high levels of toxic perfluorinated compounds.

However, that figure — equivalent to 10% of North Carolina’s population — is an undercount, because these compounds have been detected in groundwater and other river basins, including the Neuse.

Now two towns, Pittsboro and Fuquay-Varina, facing greater demand for water than they can supply, are considering tapping into another public utility for water: Sanford, where PFAS have also been detected in drinking water.

The towns’ quandaries illustrate the interconnectedness of communities and water supplies; they also raise questions about where utilities will get their water when the supplies are so widely contaminated.

Pittsboro is already  contending with high PFAS levels in its drinking water — and its residents’ blood. Research led by scientist Heather Stapleton of Duke University revealed that 49 residents’ blood is two to four times higher than the national average.

“Drinking water is the primary source of exposure,” Stapleton said during a virtual presentation in late October.

PFAS exposure has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disorders, low birth weight, high blood pressure during pregnancy and decreased immune system response and decreased fertility in women.

The same month as Stapleton’s presentation, a Water Quality Task Force appointed by Pittsboro officials recommended against buying water from Sanford, over concerns that its PFAS contamination in drinking water would add to Pittsboro’s burden.

Instead, the 328-page task force report recommended that Pittsboro source its water from a new intake on the western side of Jordan Lake. PFAS have also been detected in the lake, a drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, but at lower levels than in the rivers, likely because of dilution.

The transit time for the water to travel 15 miles from Sanford to Pittsboro could also encourage the formation of disinfection byproducts. These compounds develop as an unintended consequence of adding chlorine to disinfect the water supply. Several have been linked to cancer, and regulations require utilities to manage them.

Goldston Sanitary District in Chatham County gets some of its water from Sanford, which is 11 miles away, and the rest from Southwest Chatham County. State records show Goldston has been cited for dozens of violations related to disinfection byproducts since 2010.

Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton, who was on the Pittsboro task force, said town officials have been silent on the recommendations. The report also noted that water demand by a massive controversial development, Chatham Park, is the cause of the forecast water shortage. “Pittsboro needs to protect Pittsboro,” Sutton said. “They’re prioritizing Chatham Park over the health of the community.”

Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy did not respond to emailed questions from Policy Watch. The town is scheduled to discuss the report on Dec. 14.

Sanford Water Treatment Plant Administrator Scott Christiansen, told Policy Watch that “to date, the City of Sanford has not received any inquiries regarding emerging contaminants in the Cape Fear.”

Pittsboro’s PFAS contamination originates in its water supply, the Haw River, part of the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. Upstream industries in Greensboro and Reidsville are responsible for most of the pollution.

Sanford gets its water from the Deep River Basin, also part of the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. This morning Julie Grzyb, deputy director of the Division of Water Resources at the NC Department of Environmental Quality, gave a presentation showing that Sanford’s wastewater contains a type of PFAS — 6:2 FTS — unique to certain industries, such as metal plating, as well as firefighting foam.

Gryzb’s presentation was part of a discussion about PFAS at the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board.

Sampling conducted in September 2019 by the NC PFAS Testing Network showed total PFAS levels in Sanford’s raw water — before it was treated — at 192 parts per trillion. Because PFAS can’t be removed by traditional water treatment techniques, levels were likely still elevated in tap water. (The 6:2 FTS reading was not detected in drinking water in this sampling round.)

The NC PFAS Testing Network is a group of scientists and researchers that receives state funding from the NC Policy Collaboratory to study the prevalence of emerging compounds in drinking water, as well as possible treatment technologies.

The EPA has set a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for two types of the compounds: PFOA and PFAS. However, DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman has recommended that people not drink water that contains levels of individual PFAS above 10 ppt.

Sampling conducted in July and August by Sanford and sent to an outside laboratory showed levels in treated water ranging from 50 to 85 ppt. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which requested the data, shared it with Policy Watch.

Sanford’s wastewater treatment plant is actually located upstream of its water treatment plant. That means treated wastewater flows downstream into the drinking water intake. In 2019, that wastewater discharge contained 4,026 parts per trillion of total PFAS.

“The recommended Sanford supply option would not eliminate — and may actually increase — the PFAS contamination issue and must be carefully examined,” the task force report reads.

Where does your drinking water come from? If you rely on a public water system, you can learn the source of the water, sales to other utilities, violations and other key information the DEQ’s Drinking Water Watch: https://www.pwss.enr.state.nc.us/NCDWW/ or go to deq.nc.gov and type “Drinking Water Watch” in the search bar.
This map shows the river basin boundaries and the proposed interbasin transfer of water from Sanford to                 Fuquay-Varina. (Map: DEQ)

Fuquay proposes buying water from Sanford, could add to PFAS load in the Neuse

Last month, members of the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) learned about a proposal that would allow Fuquay-Varina to buy up to four million gallons of water per day from Sanford. Because the two cities lie within two different river basins — Fuquay in the Neuse, Sanford in the Cape Fear — this requires the EMC to approve an “interbasin transfer,” or IBT for short.

Like Pittsboro, Fuquay officials project that future demand for water will outstrip its supply. They’ve ruled out alternatives, such as buying water from Raleigh, because it too, has to save its supply for future growth.

That leaves Sanford.  

The interbasin transfer will require an Environmental Impact Statement, said DEQ spokeswoman Anna Gurney. That document will include a “comprehensive analysis of the potential impacts to water quality issues, which includes emerging compounds, the could occur in both the source and receiving river basins.”

The Environmental Impact Statement will also include a description of measures to mitigate potential harm that could arise from the proposed transfer. And those measures could be included as conditions of the transfer certificate, if the EMC grants it, Gurney said.

Fuquay is developing a draft Environmental Impact Statement, which it will submit to DEQ; the document will also be subject to public comment.

Jay Meyers, public utilities director for Fuquay, told Policy Watch that the two cities are discussing a proposed expansion of Sanford’s water treatment plant, including advanced treatment technologies to address emerging contaminants.

For the last 10 years, Fuquay has bought water from other utilities in the Cape Fear River Basin, including Harnett County, Meyers said.

However, Harnett County water also contains PFAS. In April 2019, sampling conducted by the NC PFAS Testing Network, detected 11 types of PFAS totaling 47.6 parts per trillion. (Fuquay-Varina was not among the 383 public water systems in the network’s first round of testing.)

Once Fuquay’s water becomes wastewater, it is treated at the Terrible Creek plant and discharged into the Neuse. “The Town of Fuquay-Varina is not aware of any environmental issues resulting from the treatment plant’s discharge,” Meyers said.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. Gurney of DEQ said the agency has not tested Fuquay’s wastewater for PFAS.

Since utilities often shield their industrial dischargers from public scrutiny, it’s hard to pinpoint the origins of PFAS contamination. But it is documented that drinking water at several utilities in the Neuse River Basin is polluted with PFAS. 

For example, The Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority gets its water from the river and sells it to eight utilities, including Kinston, Pink Hill and Grifton. Sampling conducted in August 2019 detected 14 types of PFAS totaling 58.2 parts per trillion.

That same month, testing also found a dozen PFAS in Goldsboro’s drinking water, totaling 48.2 parts per trillion.

Since the Neuse River Basin is already struggling not only with PFAS but also legacy contamination from coal ash and ongoing problems with hog waste, the proposed transfer of water from Sanford to Fuquay constitutes a “major misstep for the environment and human health,” said Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. “It’s expanding contamination to a river that a lot of people rely on.”

This story has been corrected to show that 6:2 FTS was detected in Sanford’s wastewater, not its drinking water.