In North Carolina’s Cape Fear River basin, levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been recorded at 1,000 times the level considered safe for human consumption. Both federal data and anecdotal evidence strongly suggest that these manufactured chemicals are linked to abnormally high rates of thyroid cancer and some other rare cancers.
PFAS have been at the forefront of an emotional public debate in the southeastern part of the state since 2016, when it was discovered that a plant owned by PFAS manufacturer Chemours in Fayetteville had contaminated the drinking water for 250,000 downstream residents. But as people plead for stronger government action, underfunded state agencies haven’t been able to fully respond ― even as North Carolina sits on a $2.5 billion budget surplus.
That’s because the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has financially kneecapped the agencies dealing with PFAS-related issues, leaving them unable to adequately test water, study health impacts, clean up the contamination and hold polluters accountable. Meanwhile, money that could save lives around the Cape Fear region now sits unspent.
“It’s almost criminal,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of the Clean Cape Fear advocacy group. “There seems to be an unwillingness at the state level to fully research PFAS exposures and we’re left almost begging them to please pay attention and do something.”
Instead of appropriately funding the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency that officially handles environmental crises, the legislature created the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, a program made up of state university researchers who study issues around PFAS contamination.
While those on all sides agree that funding academic research is a useful step, critics say the collaboratory merely creates the appearance of serious action but has been deliberately designed to be ineffective.
University researchers don’t have regulatory authority so they can’t enforce environmental laws, order cleanups or take legal action against polluters. The DEQ and other state agencies also can’t use information that the collaboratory gathers in a regulatory capacity because their data must be collected using an officially approved methodology and must remain in the state’s “chain of custody.”
State agencies are left unable to carry out basic responses to the PFAS crisis and protect the public, said Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network. The state hasn’t been adequately monitoring tap water, regularly checking residents’ blood or mounting a sufficient legal challenge against polluters, he said.
“[The collaboratory is] generating excellent information but it’s not information that you can regulate with, and that’s by design,” McCallie said, adding that the state has enough money to fully staff both the DEQ and the collaboratory. “It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.”
The debate is also political. Republicans in the state legislature installed the collaboratory’s leadership, which gives the GOP more control over environmental regulation at a time when Democrats control the state’s regulatory agencies. Critics contend that Republicans have executed a cynical plan to strip Democrats of their power to hold chemical companies and polluters accountable for PFAS contamination.
“PFAS is now a political issue, though it should be nonpartisan,” said Democratic state Sen. Harper Peterson, who in 2019 introduced a comprehensive PFAS bill that Republicans killed. “They’re happy to study and not take the necessary action.”
Assault On The Regulatory System
PFAS is a class of about 7,500 fluorinated compounds dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down and can’t be destroyed. They make products water- and stain-resistant, and are used in everything from Teflon to Scotchgard to food packaging.
The now-ubiquitous compounds are increasingly linked to a range of cancers, liver disease, kidney disease and other serious illnesses, and are behind a growing number of public health crises around the country.
Though the DEQ should take the lead on addressing contamination in North Carolina, the GOP-controlled legislature in 2010 began a six-year process of slashing the department’s budget by nearly 40%. The cuts forced the elimination of about 400 positions. And while Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who was elected in 2016, has requested more funding for the DEQ, Republicans have repeatedly rejected those requests.
At the same time, GOP budget cuts to the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, now run by Democrat Josh Stein, forced the elimination of 23 attorneys from its environmental division. (Cooper and Stein are both up for reelection this year.)
Though some positions in the attorney general’s office have since been restored, the cuts have directly impacted the state’s ability to take on PFAS polluters, Stein said in an email.
“While I have great confidence in my attorneys and the hard work they do to protect our state’s clean air and water, there’s no doubt that our Environmental Division is underfunded and understaffed,” Stein said. “We are simply not funded at a level that allows us to protect the state from these dangerous chemicals to the extent needed.”
The state has been successful in its only legal battle over PFAS contamination. A consent order issued last year and updated in August requires Chemours to cut emissions, reduce discharges and begin cleanup.
But McCallie said “the fight is far from over” as Chemours, which was spun off from chemical giant DuPont in 2015, is hardly the only company discharging PFAS in North Carolina. Multiple industrial polluters are thought to be responsible for contamination in the Haw River, and sewage sludge spread on agricultural land is also behind high PFAS levels in some waterways. Stein’s office hired outside help to look at legal strategies for addressing contamination statewide, and on Oct. 13 it announced the first lawsuit stemming from that effort. The suit seeks damages from DuPont, which it alleges created and undercapitalized Chemours to avoid “massive liabilities.”
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have also proposed $73 million in additional cuts to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which is the agency that should execute epidemiological studies essential to an effective response.
The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has further complicated the situation. The state may need to dip into some of its reserves to cover revenue shortfalls, and it’s in the process of developing a new budget. The GOP is already floating the idea of more cuts to the DEQ.
By not fully funding these agencies, Republicans have amassed a budget surplus at the expense of North Carolinians’ lives, said Democratic state Rep. Deb Butler.
“GOP leaders run around touting that there’s a surplus, but it’s not a surplus when you’re not meeting people’s needs,” she said.
Where Are ‘The Water Police’?
As in many towns in North Carolina and across the nation that have discovered PFAS in their water, public health advocates in Pittsboro suspect the chemicals are behind a range of illnesses.
One family reports that their two children have lost the ability to regulate their body temperature, said Emily Sutton, the designated riverkeeper for the Haw River Assembly. Another child who moved to Pittsboro started getting migraines that stopped once they quit drinking the town’s water. Other longtime residents are facing health problems that studies have previously linked to PFAS — gall bladder disease, thyroid disease and miscarriages.
Sutton said that recent Haw River sampling found PFAS counts over 1,000 parts per trillion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory limit for PFOA and PFOS — two types of PFAS — in drinking water is 70 ppt. Some states have set their own lower limits, though North Carolina is not one of them.
“We don’t know for sure what the health impacts are, but these are healthy people who move to the community and start having health problems,” Sutton said. The contamination’s source is unclear, but upstream industry, landfill leaching and sewage sludge applied to cropland are all suspects.
Despite the clear concerns, the state is offering Pittsboro little help, Sutton said. A scientist with the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory has tested residents’ blood, but the DEQ is focusing its limited resources downstream where Chemours is responsible for much of the “staggering” contamination in the Cape Fear basin.
Cities across southeastern North Carolina face similar uncertainty, but the state isn’t undertaking the type of wide-scale epidemiological study that’s needed to understand the scope of the crisis and respond appropriately. The collaboratory is gathering some health data and working to understand more about how PFAS impact human health, but McCallie said those efforts represent “a fraction of what we need to know.”
“There’s room for a lot more money to be spent on epidemiological research and studies on different health impacts,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state isn’t monitoring tap water. The DEQ and the collaboratory have conducted piecemeal testing of drinking water supplies and sewage plants throughout the state, and the DEQ is attempting to identify some PFAS polluters. But only a few local water districts are sampling water that comes out of the tap, said Donovan. The levels of PFAS found are consistently high. Though most other states aren’t monitoring tap water either, those that are have also found unsafe levels of fluorinated compounds in multiple districts.
The data on PFAS in water supplies gathered by the collaboratory could be used to generally inform the state’s decision-making. The DEQ can’t use it to enforce discharge limits, water quality standards or permit conditions with reporting requirements, however, because the agency has a legal process it must follow in enforcing laws.
The DEQ could be considered “the water police,” Donovan said. “They have a system that they have to follow to be able to enforce the law, so it’s almost like we have these citizen arrests that are meaningless until the actual state agency can get involved and do their due process,” she explained.
Regardless, environmentalists argue that the DEQ could do more without additional funds. It could regulate PFAS as a class instead of on an individual basis. Currently, each PFAS compound is treated separately even though they share similar traits. Regulating one group of chemicals is far more efficient than trying to regulate some 7,500 individual compounds.
It could also outright ban the discharge of PFAS into water or air, McCallie said.
“What that would do is force companies to find a different way of disposing of it, or they would need to change their production process so they’re not generating waste with PFAS,” he said.
Because of the DEQ and the state legislature’s failure to act, North Carolinians whose drinking water is contaminated with PFAS must pay for filters that can cost thousands of dollars themselves.
“That leaves all these communities vulnerable,” Sutton said. “There isn’t any funding and people are left holding the bill to provide their families with clean drinking water.”