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Emma Johnson | Scientific Contributor
After a drainage pipe burst at a Duke Energy coal ash containment basin in North Carolina in 2014, the nearby Dan River turned black. 39,000 tons of coal ash – the waste created in the process of burning coal to make electricity – poured into the river for a week, coating the banks in sludge and infusing the water with toxic pollutants like arsenic, iron, and lead. The river was a source of drinking water for communities in North Carolina and Virginia, who were worried about the effect of the spill on their health. Duke was still working on cleanup and restoration projects five years after.
Coal ash spills remain a worry today as coal power plants remain in operation around the country. To begin rectifying this enormous problem, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) from Tennessee introduced a bill to the U.S. House of Representatives on April 8 to “amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act to ensure the safe disposal of coal combustion residuals.”
The bill would put back coal ash protections that the Trump administration had removed. Some of these include requiring power plants to pay for cleanup costs, prohibiting unlined waste ponds, and requiring regulatory oversight of coal ash facilities. The bill would also prevent coal ash ponds from being located near groundwater and increase public participation and protection for disadvantaged communities.
A 2019 study from the Environmental Integrity Project listed ten sites with the worst coal ash-contaminated groundwater, which spanned nine states. Using public industry data, the study found that the coal ash at 242 of 265 power plants examined contained unsafe levels of one or more toxic pollutants. In addition, more than 95% of coal ash storage ponds are unlined and 59% are built either beneath the water table or within 5 feet of it.
Coal ash also disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color. 70% of coal ash ponds are located in low-income communities and more then 200 are known to have contaminated waterways, according to Appalachian Voices. People who live near these ponds can have elevated risks of cancer, lung and heart problems, and other serious health concerns.
In a statement about the bill, Cohen remarked on the danger that these spills pose, saying: “The measure I am introducing strengthens protections outlined in the 2015 Coal Ash Rule and protects communities by mandating safer and faster disposal of this dangerous waste product of electricity production.”
Cohen’s bill is waiting to be heard by the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change and must make it through both the House and the Senate before it goes to the President’s desk for a signature and turned into law.
For advocates working to clean up coal ash around the country, this bill represents a big step in the right direction for addressing this long-standing pollutant. Christine Santillana, Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice, said, “This legislation aims to correct decades of coal ash mismanagement that has left communities around the country exposed to the toxic chemicals in our waterways.”Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
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What's Going on With PFAS Pollution and Regulation?
Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Head of Policy
North Carolina has been at the heart of a largely under-reported drinking water crisis. Thousands of North Carolinians have been exposed to unsafe levels of an unregulated contaminant called Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, PFAS, or "forever chemicals." The source of the contamination traces back to a fluoro-chemical operation in Fayetteville - causing widespread contamination in municipal drinking water and in private wells. This article will discuss two companies’ legal tactics to try and avoid liability, and how the victims of this tragedy continue to be left in the dark.
Polluter v. Polluter
You may already be familiar with the two companies at the root of this crisis in North Carolina. In short, DuPont had been manufacturing and distributing a category of chemicals called Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances or PFAS, since the 1980's. DuPont created Chemours - a spinoff company in charge of overseeing all fluoro-chemical operations, including the entire category of PFAS chemicals. In doing so, Chemours assumed direct liability for DuPont’s decades of chemical contamination - including all environmental and public health damages. According to the 2019 lawsuit, Chemours claimed that DuPont was not entirely forthcoming about the amount of damages the spinoff company was to incur. Chemours claimed that they were set up by DuPont to be “financially overwhelmed,” and ultimately bankrupt. When Chemours took over DuPont in 2015, they agreed to historical liabilities of no greater than $1.42 billion. Chemours claimed that DuPont wildly underestimated the totality of the liabilities. For example, the cost of one particular class action lawsuit, including 3,500 cancer and bodily harm claims associated with exposure to PFOA, was grossly underestimated. DuPont claimed that settlement would cost no greater than $128 Million, while Chemours ended up owing $671 Million for that case alone.
Chemours v. DuPont was ultimately dismissed by a Delaware judge in 2019. This was bad news for Chemours, and even worse news for the thousands of individuals impacted by PFAS contamination. Both companies are trying to delay and reorganize, in order to pay the absolute least amount of money to the state of North Carolina as possible. If you want to learn more about other Chemours’ litigation in North Carolina, click here. We also have an article about an unrelated case against DuPont, which you can find here.
North Carolina Attorney General Sues DuPont and ChemoursSoon after Chemours sued DuPont, the state of North Carolina turned around and sued both companies. On October 13, 2020, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, sued DuPont and Chemours for PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River. The single Chemours plant in Fayetteville has caused widespread PFAS contamination throughout several major North Carolina counties, including New Hanover, Bladen, Pender, and Brunswick. The recent lawsuit is calling for both Chemours and DuPont to pay for all “past and future costs, necessary to investigate, assess, remediate, restore, and remedy” all damages. We'll have updated information on our blog and social media (@hydroviv_h2o) as this story unfolds.
How Has PFAS Impacted The State of North Carolina?
There's no way to fully estimate how this negligence has impacted North Carolinians. What we do know is that exposure to PFAS chemicals has been associated with a variety of negative health effects, including: an increased risk of cancer, decreased immune function, increased cholesterol, and more. In a study completed just this year, a team of Yale researchers found that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of miscarriage by 80-120%. A PFAS variety that's especially problematic in the Cape Fear River, called GenX, was deemed a "probable carcinogen" by EPA in 2018. Still, none of these contaminants are regulated by EPA or the state of North Carolina, meaning it's not required to be removed by municipal utilities. PFAS have been detected at levels well above public health recommendations in Wilmington, Leland, Winnabow, and other cities that draw water from the Cape Fear River and its tributaries.
What Can I Do?
Media coverage has been propelled by community organizers throughout impacted areas in North Carolina. Organizations like North Carolina Stop GenX in our Water, Cape Fear River Watch, and many other have “blown the whistle” on what’s going on in North Carolina. We recommend following these organizations, as well as our social media channels (@hydroviv_h2o) to stay up to date. It's important to point out that North Carolina is not the only state that has PFAS in its drinking water. Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Hampshire, and California are just some of the states where PFAS have become a serious threat. The Environmental Working Group created a map which shows areas of the country with detectable levels of PFAS in drinking water. You can check out the map here.
If you are planning on purchasing a water filter, make sure that it’s rated to remove PFAS chemicals. Most pitcher, faucet, and countertop systems are unable to remove PFAS. Check out this PFAS filtration removal study completed by Duke and NC State.Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
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Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Policy Nerd
The state of North Carolina and non-governmental organizations have been battling with chemical manufacturing giant, Chemours, over pollution in the Cape Fear River. Dozens of communities draw drinking water from this river, and surrounding groundwater aquifers, which have been contaminated by a harmful category of chemicals called PFAS. Unfortunately, the Consent Order (legal settlement) does not go far enough to protect all residents that have been impacted by the chemical pollution. Little Miss Flint has partnered with Hydroviv to donate filters (free of cost) to residents in New Hanover County that do not qualify for filters under the Chemours Consent Order. The program distributes Hydroviv filters to low-income families who would otherwise be unable to purchase a water filtration system that is known to effectively remove PFAS. We’re excited and hopeful to expand this filter donation program to reach more low income individuals that have been impacted by Chemours’ activities.
Legal Settlement with North Carolina Does Not Go Far Enough:
Under the Consent Order, Chemours is required to partake in a variety of different types of mitigation, including bottled water delivery, offsite water sampling, and installation and maintenance of residential water filtration systems. Although Chemours has completed some mitigation near the Fayetteville facility, PFAS levels in surrounding communities are still extremely high.
Chemours is required to install a water filtration system if a surrounding well test shows above 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS, or 70 parts per trillion for combined PFAS. A critical problem in this Consent Order is that residents, schools, and local businesses must have a concentration of GenX of 140 parts per trillion (or any applicable public health goal, whichever is lower) or higher to qualify for a free water filter. It’s well understood in the scientific community that contaminants like GenX can cause negative health effects at concentrations far lower than 140 parts per trillion. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) determined in 2018 that GenX is considered toxic at 80 parts per trillion. ATSDR also determined that “the data are suggestive of cancer” at this same concentration. It’s not entirely clear how many PFAS variations are considered under “total PFAS.” FDA believes there are as many as 5000 different types of PFAS.
It’s also unclear how many communities the Consent Order actually applies to, and who is eligible for a free filter from Chemours. In January of this year, a representative from Chemours said that the contamination is always communicated to residents that live within a 2.5 miles radius of the facility. We now know that the contaminated zone stretches 90 miles south into Wilmington, North Carolina. At the beginning of 2019, only 1,673 homes within a 9 miles radius of the Fayetteville plant qualified for a free water filter.
Why is North Carolina a “Hot Spot” for PFAS?
According to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, plastic and chemical manufacturing is “growing at 1.5 times the rate of the national average.” PFAS have been used in the production of Scotchgaurd, Teflon, firefighting foam, metal plating, stain-resistant fabrics, and heat resistant products. Industrial facilities that manufacture these types of products are not required to follow strict disposal processes, causing harmful chemicals to end up in waterways. The Cape Fear River, which happens to be the primary source of drinking water for several surrounding counties, has been inundated with PFAS chemicals. It’s important to note that the Chemours facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina is not the only company responsible for the pollution. Despite mitigation efforts and decreased overall production, PFAS are still being detected at levels well above public health goals in the Cape Fear River. A recent study tested various areas of the Cape Fear River basin. Some PFAS samples were as high as 2295.85 parts per trillion for total PFAS. There is also inconsistent testing and lack of disclosure to residents in the contaminated zone. For example, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality detected PFAS levels that exceed the states’ public health goal in wastewater in Holly Springs. There is no mention of PFAS on the Holly Springs website, nor are they required to test for it.
Health Effects of PFAS:
The Centers for Disease Control and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have determined that exposure to PFAS can cause various negative health effects, including an increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, changes in liver enzymes, decreased infant birth weight, and increased risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia in pregnant women. CDC also discovered a “possible intersection” between PFAS and COVID-19, claiming that “PFAS exposure may decrease the body’s ability to respond to vaccines.” A recent study out of Yale University determined that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals increases the risk of miscarraige in pregnant women by 80-120%. In regard to GenX specifically, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated that “the data are suggestive of cancer.”
How Do I Know if PFAS Are In My Tap Water?
At this point, you’re probably wondering how to find out if PFAS have been detected in your drinking water. It can be extremely difficult to find out this information, in part due to the fact that they are not regulated by EPA, and therefore municipalities are not required to test for, report, or monitor for them in tap water. Some states, such as California, Michigan, and New Jersey require municipalities to test for at least one or more PFAS chemicals. Some non-government organizations complete their own PFAS testing. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created an interactive map that shows areas of the country that have been tested for PFAS. If your municipality is not on this map, it does not mean that your tap water is free from PFAS. Feel free to email email@example.com if your municipality is not on this map. Our Water Nerds will do a deep dive into your specific drinking water quality and explain the findings so you are armed with credible information.Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
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Analies Dyjak | Policy Analyst
In last weeks blog post, we discussed what a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit should look like. This article discusses the major problems with the 2015 Chemours-Fayetteville NPDES permit issued by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
History Of PFAS Discharge By Dupont/Chemours
In 2015, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a renewal NPDES permit to the Chemours Dupont manufacturing plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Prior to the media spotlight of GenX in the Cape Fear River in the summer of 2017, Chemours (and Dupont) had been receiving permit renewals since the plant was built in the 1970’s. This particular Chemours plant had been illegally discharging PFAS compounds for years. Similar compounds were not listed or identified in the NPDES permit, which immediately raised a red flag. Our team has taken the time to analyze each section of this 2015 NPDES permit renewal.
Problems With The 2015 Chemours Renewal Permit
First off, there are no units next to the values in the table. The 2015 NPDES permit almost completely lacked uniformity among units. The reader needs to clearly identify if allowable discharge is in mg/kg/day (parts per million), ug/kg/day (parts per billion), and so on. However, Chemours Dupont used “pounds per day” which isn’t constant with the EPA's normal standards of mg/kg/day or ppm. As we discussed in the overview of NPDES permit article, when a permitting agency fails to include units/dosage, they are allowing chemical discharge at any concentration, so long as the total mass does not exceed the stated value. In doing so, they opened up the door for the permit holder to coordinate discharge schedules with their sampling. More on this below.
The second issue is sampling. Chemours mainly used a grab sampling technique to test the surrounding Cape Fear water quality. Grab sampling is a daily one-time collection of water at any given location. This means that Chemours was able to determine the location and time for collecting a sample. As you can probably infer, this would allow Chemours to collect their daily grab sample as far away from the point of discharge as possible. Additionally, this sampling method allows Chemours to collect samples at a time when operation was halted or during a low-discharge period. Either of these sampling tricks could skew concentration levels and water quality being sent to the EPA.
No Plan To Reduce Discharge:
Finally, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System was created to help reduce pollution in US waterways. Permitting agencies should include a plan on how they’re working to reduce chemical discharge in their NPDES permit.
The Chemours NPDES permit is one of many inadequate documents distributed by state governments. Although it’s easy to blame the permitting agency, it’s really the fault of the federal government for not supplying an improved uniform template. Federal and state governments should demand more stringent practices from polluters in terms of allowable limits, uniformity in terms of units, and consistent, thorough, sampling techniques.
Although this particular permit seems is inadequate, there are hundreds of active permits in the US that are much worse. In future articles, we'll be shining some light onto these permits as well.
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