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Under The Surface: In GenX's Wake

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Aug 25, 2017
The Cape Fear River serves as the source of drinking water for systems in southeastern North Carolina. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
GenX and other emerging contaminants pose challenges for state regulators and health officials in catching the larger scope of what is being released into the Wilmington area’s drinking water supply.

With dozens of major and minor industrial process and commercial facilities permitted to discharge wastewater into the river and a two-year backlog of permits, how will state regulators balance health and industry when many of these emerging contaminants continue to reach drinking water supplies without regulation?

Permitting Process

GenX, an emerging contaminant discovered in Wilmington’s drinking water supply and linked to The Chemours Co. operations along the Cape Fear River 70 miles upstream, continues to spark reaction from state officials three months after reports first thrust the water-quality issue into the public eye.

The issue has prompted protests, action from local and state officials and both federal and state investigations into Chemours’ handling of the contaminant, which is not filtered by water treatment systems.

But Chemours, and its 2,150-acre Fayetteville Works site, is not the only industrial user along the river.

There are 50 industries regulated under federal Clean Water Act requirements in the Cape Fear River Basin, which extends as far west as Greensboro and Winston-Salem and expands across the state into Wilmington and Brunswick County.

The users are permitted under the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which the state enforces.

Most big industries, such as Chemours, that are discharging millions of gallons of water a day have a major permit, according to Julie Grzyb, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s supervisor of complex permitting.

There are 20 major and minor industrial facilities with an NPDES wastewater discharge permit that discharge to the Cape Fear River and the Northeast Cape Fear River.

In the Wilmington area, some of the local industries with major permits include Duke Energy Progress’ Sutton and Brunswick plants, Fortron Industries, GE Global Nuclear Fuel and Invista S.A.R.L., according to a list of permits provided by DEQ.

Industrial users such as these are required to complete an application and obtain an NPDES permit for discharges of wastewaters to surface waters of the state, Grzyb said.

There are federal categorical Effluent Guidelines and Standards that include limitations on how much of certain contaminants can be discharged from a facility.
Requirements for monitoring frequency are determined by the state, Grzyb said.

“EPA regulations have come up with a list of toxic pollutants. And so certain industries have to test certain parameters on that list. So that’s our starting point.
And then, basically they identify what processes discharge wastewaters, and we work with them to try to understand all the pollutants of concern,” Grzyb said.

The state also has its own regulations, which can sometimes replace those by the EPA, if the state has stricter standards.

As part of its permitting authority, DEQ considers federal and state regulations, the volume and types of waste industries are discharging to a specific waterway and what purpose the water body is being used for, said Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for DEQ.

“These factors and others help DEQ determine what discharge limitations should be required as part of the permit. These laws and rules have been established to require anyone discharging regulated substances to meet federal and state criteria that are based on what’s protective of human health and aquatic life,” he added.

Chemours, a spinoff from DuPont, has submitted an application for renewal of its permit that is currently under review. The chemical giant’s permit expired in October.
It’s one of many expired in the state, all part of the DEQ’s two-year backlog.

When asked about details of its permit, including its status, associated company names and inclusion of the emerging compound, as well as state and federal investigations into the handling of GenX, Chemours spokesman Gary Cambre said only, “We continue to work closely with local, state and federal officials to determine the appropriate next steps.”

In 2010, the backlog of major wastewater permits was 14 percent. The major wastewater permit backlog increased to 21 percent in 2013, and as of May, 42 percent of the expired major wastewater permits are awaiting review and processing, according to state regulators.

The EPA considers a backlog in permits ones that have been administratively continued for 180 days or more beyond their expiration date or facilities awaiting their first NPDES permit for more than a year, according to Bridget Munger, spokeswoman for DEQ.

“There has been some degree of backlog in the NPDES complex wastewater permitting program for a number of years, which is not at all uncommon for any permitting program. However, the major wastewater permits backlog has increased significantly due to staffing cuts and the processing of Duke Energy permits and associated litigation,” Munger said, referring to Duke Energy’s coal ash cleanup.
In the permitting process, new industrial wastewater permit applications and industrial wastewater applications requesting approval for an increased discharge are given priority.

“These types of permits typically take about six months to process. Applications for the renewal of existing industrial wastewater permits can take between one and two years to process,” Munger said.

Other Emergers

That permitting process, however, does not cover emerging contaminants like GenX.
These emerging contaminants – while some are more studied than others – are not regulated by the EPA and more research is needed to understand the human health risks.

Detlef Knappe, an N.C. State University professor, said that addressing these emerging contaminants requires better cooperation between state regulators and industry.

Knappe participated in a study, published in 2016, that found GenX and related compounds in the Cape Fear River.

Between 2012 and 2016, Knappe and other scientists, including some with the EPA, looked into a “sweep of chemicals” in the river.

GenX, and six similar contaminants he called “perfluoro ethers,” were found in parallel with another study that looked at how levels of bromide, a precursor to disinfection byproducts, affect the drinking water treatment process.

Levels of bromide are not toxic to humans in regulated levels when discharged into the water. Bromide, however, makes it difficult for public water treatment facilities to meet drinking standards in the treatment process when mixed into the water disinfection process – byproducts called trihalomethanes.

In the parallel study scientists were interested to find out if the older chemicals – such as Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8), which GenX replaced after DuPont faced lawsuits, and other similar compounds – classified as “legacy compounds” were still prevalent in the waters.

“In 2009 DuPont announced it was stopping the production of PFOA, so one question was, what was PFOA replaced with? And that’s how we stumbled across the GenX,” Knappe said.

If a lab only looked for these legacy compounds, the drinking water sampled in Wilmington would have been declared safe, Knappe said.

“But once we included the ethers on the list, once they were discovered and added, then all the sudden Wilmington had a big problem,” he said.

Out of the three water treatment facilities included in that study, GenX and six additional ethers were found in Wilmington’s water treatment facility in high concentrations, he said.

Chemours disclosed that they have been releasing GenX as a byproduct from another manufacturing process for 37 years.

“And so that becomes a big challenge for drinking water providers and even regulators,” Knappe said. “How do we keep up, if every year hundreds of new chemicals are introduced to the market? Often these chemicals are proprietary, but we don’t even know what they are. How do we know what to look for? And so that’s the big question.”

Knappe added that studies, which included a “non-targeted” method for testing chemicals – something he said the state agency currently does not have – also found remnants of those legacy compounds present upstream at water treatment facilities in Pittsboro and Fayetteville.

In a separate study in 2013, he also began to look into another emerging contaminant called 1,4-dioxane, a chemical found in water treatment facilities in the northern portion of the Cape Fear River Basin, including those in Greensboro and Asheboro.
The EPA classifies 1,4-dioxane in a group that’s likely to cause cancer, based on animal testing with little or no human study.

These chemicals have been linked to potential industry sources in that region. But concentrations trend down as the Cape Fear River makes its way to Wilmington, and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s water system eliminates much (two-thirds) of that compound, Knappe said.

The EPA has established drinking water “health advisories” for the unregulated 1,4-dioxane, including a one-day health advisory of 4 milligrams per liter.

For GenX, DHHS has established its own “health goal” of 140 parts per trillion (ppt), according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

In July, DHHS revised its health goal from 71,000 ppt to reflect information from new data on GenX, according to DHHS. Officials said the revised goal is “expected to be the most conservative and health protective for non-cancer effects in bottle-fed infants, pregnant woman, lactating women, children and adults.”

But the health goal is not a requirement, and the six other contaminants included in the study have no health goal at this time. Since they are emerging, there are no federal regulatory requirements for GenX or the six other contaminants in Knappe’s 2016 report.

DEQ has not confirmed the source of the other six emerging contaminants included in Knappe’s research.

“I think with all of these industrial discharges more questions need to be asked, and industry also needs to be more forthcoming in disclosing what they discharge, including unregulated chemicals. They should know many, but perhaps they don’t know all,” Knappe said. “That’s perhaps a challenge. So that’s been the question: What do we as a society expect perhaps from a regulatory agency like DEQ or EPA? Will they be equipped with the scientists and the analytical instrumentation that would allow us to better characterize the discharges, so we can better identify what the chemical composition of a particular waste stream is?”

Health and Industry

The water discharge permits serve to balance between what’s necessary to protect human health and the environment and what is needed for industry to conduct business, officials said.

“That’s sort of the fine line that DEQ walks as an agency, is to balance the needs for environmental protection with the need to be able to serve the economy,” Kritzer said.

Chemours said in late June it would “capture, remove, and safely dispose of wastewater that contains the byproduct GenX generated from fluoromonomers production.”

Chemours on June 21 began diverting wastewater containing the contaminant to storage tanks to be shipped out of state for incineration, according to the company.

Water samplings along the Cape Fear River have since shown that levels of the emerging contaminant are trending down since a series of StarNews reports starting in June first began drawing widespread attention to the issue.

Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said chamber officials are encouraged that the levels are going down. But at the same time “it has certainly heightened concerns about the water and what’s in the water to a degree,” she said.

“There has to be a balance between the burdens and the expectations that are put on businesses that are providing a product or a service that the consumer is demanding,” she said. “And I don’t mean that we should let industry operate without regulation. What I’m saying is being sure the science backs up the need for the regulation.”

What’s Next

Gov. Cooper has proposed legislation that requests funding to pay for additional scientists, engineers and others to address emerging contaminants in the state, the backlog in wastewater discharge permits and long-term water testing and protection statewide.

The funds would also be used to create a water health and safety unit to help enhance the understanding of unregulated compounds and protect drinking water, Kritzer said.

To address these issues, Cooper has requested from the state legislature emergency funding in the amount of more than $2 million for DEQ and more than $530,000 for DHHS.

But in an early-August letter to the governor, some legislators including two locals – Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) – raised questions about what they called “inconsistencies” in the Cooper administration’s handling of the GenX issue and requested more information to make a “well-informed decision” on how additional appropriations could make a difference in water quality and public safety in the lower Cape Fear.

In a Aug. 14 reply letter signed by DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, the agencies invited legislators to join weekly phone calls and visit water permitting and public health facilities to learn more about how the agencies operate.

As of press time, state lawmakers were slated to meet Aug. 23 in Wilmington for a legislative hearing about the discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River.

“We have deployed our staff experts to address the immediate challenges,” Kritzer said about the state agency’s response. “Longterm solutions such as rigorous water testing and scrutiny of water discharge permits will take more resources than the state currently maintains in DEQ and DHHS.”

The two departments are continuing to monitor GenX in drinking water and taking samples at multiple locations in the Cape Fear River, both near the plant in Fayetteville and in Wilmington for the foreseeable future, he said.

DEQ is also making changes to its permit application process, requiring companies to disclose more information about the unregulated pollutants they release.

DEQ officials have said the agency would not issue a renewal of Chemours’ permit until a state investigation is complete and would not issue a permit allowing the discharge of GenX.

“We are investigating GenX and also testing for the presence of the additional compounds identified in Dr. Knappe’s 2016 report. Part of our investigation involves looking for the source of these compounds. We have met with Dr. Knappe to discuss his research and are working with the EPA’s lab in Research Triangle Park to replicate his team’s analysis using current water samples,” Kritzer said.

As part of its investigation, DEQ is reviewing the current and previous NPDES applications to assess chemical names and other identifying information in Chemours’ permit.

There are additional facilities at the Fayetteville Works complex named on Chemours’ permit renewal application, including Kuraray America Inc. and the DuPont Company FC LLC, according to a Chemours letter submitted with its renewal application in April 2016.

DEQ officials said though it is not common, Chemours is the sole holder of the permit since the company’s wastewater treatment facility on the permit is used by all three companies, Grzyb said.

In addition, a clause will be included in Chemours’ future permit, DEQ officials said.

“Acknowledging the potential for other possibly harmful compounds, Chemours’ draft permit will include a clause authorizing the state to quickly reopen the permit if needed to regulate and enforce levels of any of the emerging compounds based on new scientific findings,” Kritzer said.

DEQ officials also are working with the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn what they can about emerging and unregulated chemicals, Kritzer said.

“I think it’s a very sort of natural human reaction: Here’s a problem. Right now the problem is GenX, let’s fix GenX. And we might overlook ... in the process of solving this problem, a new problem that could develop,” Knappe said. “I think the main point to make is we shouldn’t get hyperfocused on one piece of safe drinking water while ignoring something else.”
 
Is the Water Safe to Drink?

With GenX and other unregulated contaminants, what does that mean for in the greater scope of water quality?
“You can drink your water,” said Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “Most recent testing results are showing levels of GenX trending downward to near or below our health goal. Moreover, it’s important to understand that the treated drinking water people are consuming in the Cape Fear River Basin meets all state and federal standards.”
But the issue of GenX has both residents and local community leaders begging the question: Is the water safe to drink?
N.C. State University researcher Detlef Knappe, who authored a report last year on emerging drinking water contaminants in the Cape Fear River watershed, said the answer is more than a simple yes or no.
Even though there is no federal standard for GenX, DHHS officials said there was sufficient research for its revised health goal of 140 parts per trillion.
“There are no plans to further revise that health goal. A change such as that would occur only after … the introduction of new research and scientific information,” officials with DHHS said. “We are aware that the EPA is working on its own health risk assessment for GenX and, once complete, we would withdraw our health goal and replace it with the EPA’s.”
With drinking water, the GenX risks is assessed in exposure over a lifetime, according to DHHS.
“Basically, what it boils down to ... as much as we want water to be perfectly safe. It’s almost impossible to do that,” Knappe said. “There is no such thing as no risk.” These risks, Knappe said using the examples of water disinfection byproducts, sometimes cause a greater risk to human illness and death, than if the water is not treated, versus the standard of the disinfection byproducts within monitoring.
Knappe said that one of his goals is to lower the risk and promote more responsible management of waste by eliminating discharges of harmful chemicals into drinking water supplies.
“That’s the goal that will lead to safer water,” Knappe said. “But without knowing what some of the toxicity of some of these chemicals are, like the perfluoronated ethers that occur at higher levels than GenX for example, I think just saying the water is safe or not safe it’s a little bit of trap ... The reality is there is a certain risk, and where some people are OK with drinking the water straight from the tap, other people are more careful and would prefer to install a home filter to take these chemicals out.”


The following is a list of websites provided by Detlef Knappe for additional resources on water quality:

• Sixclasses.org – Green Science Policy Institute’s site for understanding chemicals of concern and how to avoid them
• ewg.org/tapwater – Environmental Working Group’s tap water database on contaminants in North Carolina’s drinking water systems
 
The following is a list of government websites for more information:

• epa.gov/dwucmr – EPA information about chemicals and microbes that might be present in drinking water but not subject EPA drinking water regulation
deq.nc.gov/news/hot-topics/genx-investigation – The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s site on updated information about GenX and related contaminants, including a GenX water sample map and data
 
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