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State officials investigating source of Cleveland County PFAS contamination

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Environmental Soils in Cleveland County is permitted to receive dirt contaminated with petroleum. The company treats the material so it can be applied to fields for non-food crops. PFAS was recently found near a retention pond on company property, as well as downstream. The source is still unknown. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Tests show high PFAS levels at site that received contaminated soil from massive Colonial Pipeline spill, as well as nearby stream

Julia Hughes was walking her dog near Shelby, in rural Cleveland County, last winter when she spotted mysterious foam in a culvert by the side of the road. “It was puffy and cloudy-looking, like if you touched it, it would stick to you,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s odd. This isn’t right.’”

Hughes called the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which tested the water and the foam, which had appeared not only in the culverts on both sides of the road, but also downstream in the stream that runs through her family’s backyard.

The stream feeds Sandy Run, which in turn flows into the Broad River, a drinking water supply.

The results: High levels of toxic PFAS in the foam, with lesser, but still detectable concentrations in water in the culverts and the stream.

This is the first time the state has found PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in Cleveland County. Most of the previous detections have been in the Cape Fear River Basin, from Greensboro southeast to Wilmington. Chemours, which has a chemical plant in northern Bladen County, is a major source of PFAS in the Lower Cape Fear. 

(PFAS-tainted foam was recently found in a creek [2], Marshwood Lake and a private driveway, all areas in which the groundwater has been contaminated by discharges from the Chemours facility. The company has denied it is the source of the foam.)

Naturally occurring foam in waterways is common. It is the result of decomposing plants and leaves. Harmless foam is usually off-white and/or brown, according to the Michigan Department of the Environment. [3] It often accumulates in bays, eddies, or river blockages, and might have an earthy or fishy smell.

However, foam containing PFAS can be bright white and is usually lightweight. It can be stick and tends to pile up like shaving cream.

Unlike many affected areas in the Cape Fear River Basin, there is no industry near the Hughes’s homestead, where Julia, her husband, Barry, one of their children, and their grandchildren live. But across the road, the company Environmental Soils has a state permit to accept dirt containing petroleum, such as gasoline, which is then treated and spread on roughly 40 acres of land where non-food crops are grown. 

Contamination in culverts, gulley, stream

The Department of Environmental Quality is still investigating the source — or sources — of the PFAS, including who might have delivered contaminated dirt to Environmental Soils. 

State investigators conducted more sampling last week; results are not expected until mid- to late August.

Environmental Soils vice president Matt Rice did not return a text message or a phone call from Policy Watch.

Petroleum-contaminated soil can come from excavations of leaking underground storage tanks or even the scenes of traffic accidents if gasoline has spilled. In those situations, it’s possible that firefighting foam containing PFAS, known as AFFF, could be used to prevent the gasoline from igniting. The foam could then enter the soil.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS. Exposure has been linked to a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, reproductive problems, low birth weight, thyroid disorders, and a depressed immune system. 

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An area of the stream where the Hughes family spotted the foam that later tested high for PFAS. The stream runs through their back yard. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In addition to some firefighting foams, the compounds are found in pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant and water-resistant materials, and other consumer products.

Once released into the environment, PFAS can take decades, if not hundreds of years, to degrade in the environment – a fact that has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Neither the state nor the EPA has established maximum levels for PFAS in surface water, soil, or drinking water. The EPA has set is a “health advisory goal” of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water for all PFAS combined, and/or no more than 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS; North Carolina has adopted that goal.

Parts per trillion is a minuscule amount, equivalent to about an eyedropper of liquid in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

DEQ tested several sites on the Environmental Soils and Hughes properties. Depending on the location, six to 10 types of PFAS were found. There is no EPA-approved method for testing PFAS in foam, so the following results are estimates:

Source unknown, but DEQ forced Colonial Pipeline to excavate soil from site

State records also show that DEQ has scrutinized deliveries from Colonial Pipeline, which shipped dirt to Environmental Soils immediately after a massive gasoline spill [5] in Huntersville in August 2020. That spill, at least 1.2 million gallons, is the largest onshore accident of its kind in the U.S. since 1997. The company sent the dirt to Environmental Soils between Aug. 16 and Aug. 27, state records show.

However, DEQ has not identified Colonial Pipeline as the source of contaminated dirt at Environmental Soils.

As part of its emergency response, Colonial Pipeline used a fire suppressant known as F-500 encapsulate to prevent vapors from the gasoline from igniting. Both Colonial and the manufacturer of the F-500, Hazard Control Technologies, have emphasized that the material does not contain PFAS. 

Nonetheless, DEQ asked Colonial to test for PFAS in the suppressant because agency staff were aware of the potential for contamination based on other investigations, as well as the magnitude of the spill.

The results showed several types of the compounds were found in pooled water [6] and in samples taken directly from a fire hose connected to a tanker truck, according to a September 2020 lab report sent to the company. (DEQ and Colonial disagreed on how to interpret some of the results because of quality control issues.)

Since the tanker truck with the F-500 came from Pelham, Ala. it’s possible that residue from older types of firefighting foam contaminated the material. However, that has not been verified with sampling.

Based on initial sampling results, DEQ required Colonial to excavate the dirt it had shipped to Environmental Soils, according to a June 2021 progress report on the clean up at Huntersville. 

It was later transferred to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Landfill, which is lined, between Oct. 9 and Oct. 16. Any additional excavated soils have been transported directly to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Landfill, according to the report.

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The Hughes family is on county water, but they irrigate their crops and water their livestock using well water. The family recently adopted a pig, Porky, who wandered up one day. He’s since made friends with the goats. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard told Policy Watch in an email that the agency required the excavation because land disposal facilities, such as Environmental Soils, have processes that allow compounds in petroleum-contaminated soils to break down. “These permitted facilities do not have systems in place to control other contaminants, like PFAS,” Leonard wrote.

Eight of the types of PFAS detected at the Huntersville spill were also found among the sampling sites near Environmental Soils and the Hughes property. However, because PFAS are so widespread, Colonial is not necessarily a source.

According to its state permit, Environmental Soils must log each load of material, and list the source of the petroleum contamination, including the type of fuel and the amount. The soil also must be analyzed for compounds known to be in petroleum; that does not include PFAS. 

Policy Watch has requested the company’s semi-annual reports from DEQ. They were not available at the time of publication. 

Routine quarterly monitoring at Environmental Soils showed no chemicals associated with petroleum have entered the groundwater. However, those tests, conducted after Colonial delivered, and then excavated its soil, did not include PFAS.

Policy Watch asked DEQ why those groundwater tests omitted PFAS considering the recent history at the Environmental Soils, but the agency had not responded at the time of publication.

The Hughes family is connected to the county water system. However, they irrigate their farm and water their livestock from a well. They say while they’re on good terms with Environmental Soils, there should be more oversight into what the delivered material contains. 

“Somebody needs to be on the ground at the beginning,” said Barry Hughes, a retired firefighter.

“We and Environmental Soils have the same goal: to do the right thing and get the dirt clean. I want something done,” Julia Hughes said.

She acknowledged that now that PFAS has been found in the stream, it is impossible to remove it. “There’s no going back,” she said.

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Workers move dirt around at Environmental Soils in Cleveland County. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)