Last week, North Carolina took a giant step forward to address a major source of water, air, and soil pollution in the state: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAS contamination has been discovered throughout the state, particularly in the Cape Fear River basin.
These substances, a category of chemicals that consists of thousands of manmade compounds, are often added to consumer products ranging from cookware to cosmetics to make them stain- and water-resistant. PFAS are nearly indestructible, so they stay in the environment for an extremely long time. They are harmful to human health even at very low doses, with some being linked to cancer and developmental disorders.
Because of their longevity, PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals,” and North Carolinians are all too familiar with them. DuPont, and now its spawn Chemours (spun off from DuPont in 2015 to insulate the company from liability), have been dumping the chemicals into the Cape Fear River for decades, polluting the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people. In addition to directly polluting water, the DuPont/Chemours facility has literally rained PFAS pollution down on North Carolina’s residents.
Fortunately, a new set of bills in the North Carolina State Legislature now aims to take on these urgent problems. State Rep. Pricey Harrison introduced three bills that would help in important ways. One bill seeks to stop the flow of and exposure to PFAS water pollution by preventing the release of these compounds into the state’s waterways; it would also fund treatment systems for drinking water wells. A second bill bans the manufacture, use, and distribution of PFAS. A third bill funds studies of the human and ecological health impacts of PFAS. These bills are in addition to the bill Representative Harrison proposed last year, which would ban the manufacture, distribution, or sale of firefighting foam containing PFAS. Specific details on the three recently introduced bills are provided below.
A Bill to Prevent and Address PFAS Contamination
HB 1108 would require wastewater treatment plants to eliminate PFAS in their discharge, or a reduction of PFAS in industrial users’ discharge to the plants themselves. The bill reiterates the requirement that Clean Water Act permit applicants and industrial users must disclose PFAS discharges to the state, and would require the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to study and report, by September 2, 2021, on PFAS in land-applied biosolids and landfill leachate, including recommendations for action. The bill also includes funding for monitoring, for treatment of polluted drinking water wells, for the creation of a PFAS Chemical Action Plan, and for a study on safe disposal techniques. Finally, the bill would require the Attorney General to track government expenses related to certain provisions and report on options to recover these costs.
A Bill Banning the Manufacture, Distribution, and Use of PFAS
HB 1109 would ban the manufacture, use, and distribution of PFAS, and the processing or distribution of products containing PFAS except for products specifically authorized or required to contain PFAS under federal law. Civil penalties would range from $5,000 to $25,000 for the first offense, and $10,000 for subsequent offenses, with a maximum penalty for one month totaling $200,000. The bill would also appropriate money for additional monitoring and enforcement.
A Bill Financing Studies on the Effects of PFAS
HB 1110 would appropriate over a half of a million dollars for various studies, including studies conducted by the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Wildlife Resources Commission on the various effects of PFAS compounds on human health and wildlife, respectively. DEQ would also be required to create an inventory of ongoing discharges of PFAS into surface water, and any known and likely instances of contamination of soil and groundwater.
These actions are a welcome sign from a legislature that has largely lacked the appetite to address the vast problem posed by PFAS contamination in North Carolina. Representative Harrison has been leading the way, and we are hopeful that members of the General Assembly will move the bills forward.
Groups in North Carolina, individually and through their work in the North Carolina Environmental Health Coalition, have been fighting tirelessly to spur state action to stop the spread of PFAS pollution and clean up existing contamination. State agencies such as DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services have the authority to address many of the problems posed by PFAS and have taken steps to hold Chemours accountable for its pollution; however, there has been little action to address PFAS contamination statewide. Thanks to legislative leadership and public interest groups’ efforts, North Carolinians may soon see better protections and more state action to address a major source of water contamination.