North Carolinians Deserve Stronger Protections from PFAS

The people of North Carolina deserve clean drinking water, and there is plenty that North Carolina can do. The question is whether the state will actually use its full power to protect the people of North Carolina from PFAS contamination.

On August 10, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced he would conduct an investigation to identify sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the state. It’s a step in the right direction for North Carolina, but the state needs to do more. PFAS are a dangerous class of chemicals that are found in the bloodstream of almost every American, and are nearly indestructible, remaining in our bodies and in the environment for years—hence their nickname, “toxic forever chemicals.” These chemicals are harmful even at very low doses and are linked to cancer, immune system dysfunction, and developmental disorders.

PFAS chemicals have been manufactured in North Carolina for decades by DuPont and now by its spinoff, Chemours. Data collected in 2019 found PFAS contamination throughout North Carolina. Their persistent and pervasive presence in the state only came to broad public attention relatively recently in 2017, following the release of research conducted by N.C. State University. Agencies and elected officials in North Carolina likely had been aware of the state’s PFAS problems for some time before then; for example, an EPA study published in a scientific journal had found PFAS in the Cape Fear River as far back as 2007. 

During his August 10 announcement, Attorney General Stein referred to PFAS pollution in N.C. as “significant and dangerous” and stated that “North Carolinians expect and deserve clean water to drink.” The investigation seeks to identify factories, manufacturers, and other PFAS sources, and the focus appears to be drinking water contamination and to hold companies accountable for damages to the state’s other natural resources. Groups at the forefront of this battle are hopeful that the Attorney General’s investigation will lead to meaningful PFAS cleanup.

The investigation broadens the state’s efforts to address its staggering PFAS problem

A week after the Attorney General launched the PFAS investigation, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced it was seeking comments related to its litigation with Cape Fear River Watch against Chemours. Parties entered a Consent Decree on February 26, 2019, and the addendum proposed on August 17 seeks to address Chemours’s discharge of PFAS via groundwater, stormwater, and on-site streams. This summer, Chemours reported the detection of over 250 unknown PFAS in its discharge and process wastewater. The Southern Environmental Law Center represents Cape Fear River Watch in that litigation and stated that the proposed addendum would result in “significant reductions in PFAS levels in the [Cape Fear R]iver.” Comments on the addendum are due to DEQ on September 17. 

North Carolina is still lagging behind other states

While the Attorney General’s recent announcement and DEQ’s latest actions in the Chemours litigation signal that the State is serious about addressing PFAS contamination, North Carolina still lags behind. Several states across the nation have taken action to address PFAS-polluted drinking water, with Michigan and New York recently setting some of the most stringent drinking water maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) in the nation. North Carolina, on the other hand, has yet to set an MCL for any PFAS or even begin the process. Some states have also sought to address other sources of PFAS contamination like biosolid spreading and surface water contamination; meanwhile, N.C. stands idly by. 

Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper, is all too familiar with the state’s PFAS problems: “This problem is much bigger than Chemours—these harmful chemicals are getting into our waterways and drinking water supplies throughout the state. North Carolina has to step up and follow the examples of other states leading the fight against PFAS contamination. These forever chemicals must be regulated and eliminated at the source of the discharge to prevent serious health issues for communities downstream.”

Indeed, as Emily Donovan, co-founder of the community group Clean Cape Fear said; “DuPont and Chemours took a knowingly dangerous chemistry and irresponsibly manufactured it in North Carolina for decades causing unspeakable harm to our communities. We did not consent to the poisoning of our bodies, air, soil, water, and food supply with toxic PFAS chemicals. The consequences of this behavior have a ripple effect. Multiple industries like paper mills, textiles, performance plastics, aviation, farming, and waste management have perpetuated the spread of these forever chemicals. We believe DuPont and Chemours must be held accountable for the harm committed and the lives shattered.”

Representative Pricey Harrison sought to make North Carolina a leader on PFAS when she proposed three bills last spring that would have addressed major sources of PFAS contamination, banned their manufacture and use, and provided funding to study the effects of PFAS. Unfortunately, the bills did not advance. 

Perhaps the Attorney General’s recent actions signal a change in states agencies’ and elected officials’ willingness to address this serious issue. The people of North Carolina deserve clean drinking water, and there is plenty that North Carolina can do. The question is whether the state will actually use its full power to protect the people of North Carolina from PFAS contamination.