Cape Fear lawmakers want polluters, not ratepayers, to pay for PFAS abatement

Cape Fear lawmakers want polluters, not ratepayers, to pay for PFAS abatement
Published: May. 27, 2022 at 11:23 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Nearly five years ago residents relying on drinking water from the Cape Fear River learned about the pollution of the river with the chemical known as GenX. The revelation spurred lawsuits, federal intervention, and anger from those impacted by the pollution; but so far, polluters have largely avoided paying for major mitigation efforts — a new bill hopes to change that.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination not only costs those affected by pollution in possible health impacts, but financially as well. Now, lawmakers want to pass that cost on to those who created the problems instead of those impacted.

New Hanover County State Representative Ted Davis Jr. (R) created the bill and is the first primary sponsor of it.

Davis said during his time as the Senior Chair of the River Quality Committee, he worked to address the contamination of the drinking water. That is when he, along with others on that committee, decided something had to be done.

“During that time I really saw the need for something to be done where you can really hold these polluters liable for the damage that they cause as a result of their releasing of these contaminants in the drinking water,” he said.

There are two types of sponsors for bills, primary sponsors and then sponsors. Davis said primary sponsors are responsible for the bill as it moves throughout the House, and sponsors are legislators who wish to show their support for the bill itself.

House Bill 1095, has three Republican primary sponsors, Representatives Ted Davis Jr., Charlie Miller, and Frank Iler, and one Democrat, Robert Reives.

Representative Deb Butler is not a primary sponsor of the bill, but she has joined in efforts to support it and is a sponsor. She said the bill would be a step towards making sure those responsible for the pollution pay for cleanup efforts.

“What this bill would do would require a known polluter to pay for the technology necessary that a public water authority, like the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, would have to expend to get these contaminants out. I think $50 million, in our case here locally for those granulated carbon treatments,”

Growing support from both parties

This is not the first time lawmakers have proposed the idea; in 2021, Butler introduced a similar bill. However, this bill has more bipartisan support, something that Butler says she is grateful for.

“I think that it’s very exciting and I hope that it will move, I hope that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will be able to spearhead this because they they serve in the in the majority at present, and I hope that they will make sure it gets a committee hearing and above,” she said.

Studies have detected the so-called ‘forever chemical’ in ground water, surface water, and even in the air. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality confirmed in 2021 Chemours, a DuPont spin-off company, is largely responsible not only for the surface water contamination, but also for GenX found in wells in New Hanover County.

Local government leaders and advocacy groups have demanded Chemours pay for mitigation efforts, and lawsuits have been filed to hold the company responsible.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo addressed the importance of making polluters pay earlier this year.

“I believe I speak for Council when I say ensuring polluters pay for their actions should be a moral and legal priority and we thank her (Butler) for continuing to lend her voice to that priority,” he said.

So why isn’t the company paying for the problems they caused? It’s a question the Caper Fear Public Utility Authority has asked for years.

“CFPUA has been asking that question since 2017, when Chemours representatives told our community that operations at its Fayetteville Works plant had been discharging PFAS compounds to the Cape Fear River. Those discharges also occurred under DuPont, which created Chemours, and dated to about 1980,” according to CFPUA.

Treating PFAS pollution is not cheap and providing clean drinking water is a priority for water providers.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is working to get a $36 million granulated activated carbon filtration system online at the Sweeny Water Treatment Plant to remove GenX and other PFAS chemicals from drinking water. However, right now the ratepayers of CFPUA are footing the bill for that project, a project that would not be necessary had Chemours not polluted the water.

“Total project costs, including engineering and construction, are estimated at $43 million. Those costs have been financed through the sale of revenue bonds. Paying off the bonds related to funding this project will result in an increase of about $5 on an average customer’s monthly bill,” according to CFPUA.

CFPUA Executive Director Kenneth Waldroup says if approved, this bill would not only pay for that rate increase, but would result in lower costs for customers.

“The bill will help us establish safe limits for PFAS in drinking water, the bill will hold manufactures of PFAS responsible for paying for the removal of PFAS, and the bill requires that public water supply systems return to the ratepayers the benefit of that payment,” he said.

This is just one of several bills in the General Assembly addressing PFAS; another proposal would prohibit manufacturers from even using PFAS and other toxic chemicals in their packaging.

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