North Carolina lawmakers want polluters to pay for cleaning up ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

North Carolina lawmakers want chemical manufacturers to pay for cleaning up cancer-causing ‘forever chemicals’ when those toxins end up in public water supplies. Customers are often saddled with the burden of purifying drinking water right now. 

New legislation approved by the House Environment Committee on Tuesday would require manufacturers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to pay for cleaning up the toxic substances discharged into public water supplies.

PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that were used in commercial products and industrial processes for decades. Research has shown that chronic exposure to high levels of these substances can hamper child development, increase the risk of certain cancers, reduce immunity and have other adverse health effects.

House Bill 864 holds companies liable for drinking water contamination if they manufacture the chemicals from scratch and discharge or allow them to seep into sources of public drinking water.

“The people right now are on the hook for this contamination that goes into these public water systems,” said Rep. Ted Davis, a Republican representing New Hanover County. “Their rates have to go up to pay for the equipment and you’re talking about millions upon millions upon millions of dollars to get the equipment to put in these utilities so that you can have clean drinking water.”

“It’s not fair for the ratepayers to have to pay this bill while the people who are actually responsible for making this stuff from scratch that got into those utilities are having to foot the bill,” Davis said. “That’s not right. And it’s not fair.”

Elevated levels of PFAS were found in North Carolina drinking water supplies in 2017 and have now been identified in more than 300 state water systems at levels higher than new federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

In April, the EPA set national drinking water standards for six PFAS compounds of about 15,000 known chemicals. 

At least 42 municipal water systems serving nearly 3 million residents combined, as well as 20% of small public water systems tested by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) contain PFAS levels exceeding EPA standards, according to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. 

The Governor’s 2024 Budget Proposal includes a $100 million fund to help communities clean their water from pollutants such as PFAS. 

Wilmington, the seat of New Hanover County, draws its drinking water from the Cape Fear River. Companies like Chemours in Fayetteville have for years manufactured or used PFAS chemicals in manufacturing processes and allowed those chemicals to flow into downstream water supplies. Firefighting foam used by the military on bases like Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg) also is a potent source of PFAS contamination that has made it into drinking water of communities downstream.

Beth Eckert, deputy executive director of environmental management and sustainability at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which serves 200,000 customers in Wilmington and the surrounding county, said the utility has spent $54 million over the past seven years to measure and mitigate PFAS contamination.

“All these millions of dollars come from the rates our CFPUA customers pay, not from those who are financially benefiting from the manufacture and sale of these PFAS chemicals,” Eckert said during Tuesday’s meeting in Raleigh. “Our community of hardworking North Carolina families has spent millions and continues to spend to treat pollution we did not cause but cannot ignore. We believe these costs should be borne by the polluter, not the North Carolina residents who are burdened by the pollution.”

Water customers living just to the south in Brunswick County have seen a 40% increase in their utility bills as a result of PFAS contamination said John Nichols, the county’s director of public utilities.

“Right now, today, the cost burden lies solely on the utilities and their customers not only to remove it from the drinking water, but also for disposal of it after it’s removed,” Nichols told the Environment Committee. “We’ve got a $170 million project that’s increased the rate currently from about $25 per month to $35 per month for our average user.”

Jeff Fritz, chief government affairs executive for Chemours, said the bill targets his company and the employees of its plant in Fayetteville. The company shut down all water discharge into the Cape Fear River when  PFAS were found in 2017.

“We agree with the representative from CFPUA that citizens absolutely deserve clean and safe drinking water,” Fritz said.

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