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Environmental Groups Pushing NC DEQ To Protect More Waterways

 The Haw River provides drinking water for Pittsboro. PFAS and 1,4 dioxane have been found in its waters.
The Haw River provides drinking water for Pittsboro. PFAS and 1,4 dioxane have been found in its waters.

A regular review of North Carolina's water quality standards has environmentalists and state regulators at odds over how to classify waterways, and protect residents from potentially harmful chemicals.

Every three years, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reviews and updates water quality standards across North Carolina.

For this year’s triennial review, state officials are proposing several changes — most notably in standards for E. coli and 1,4-Dioxane.

State officials are recommending that 19 counties in western North Carolina adopt E. coli testing standards for Class B waterways, which are designated for recreation, such as swimming or diving.

However, officials are stopping short of recommending that standard statewide despite federal recommendations and extensive criticism.

“North Carolina is one of four states that do not use E. coli as a bacteria indicator," said Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton. "We use fecal. The EPA changed to E. coli in 2012. This has been an ongoing criticism of North Carolina since then.”

Across the state, Class B waters are tested for fecal coliform to make sure it’s safe for swimming, boating, and other activities. The EPA considers the presence of E. coli a better indicator of fecal contamination. If E. coli is present, then other harmful bacteria may also be present.

People can be exposed to E. coli bacteria through water that's contaminated with human or animal feces. That can lead to diarrhea and stomach cramping.

“By refusing to have an E. coli standard that is statewide, it ignores a lot of our water bodies," Sutton said.

The state division of water resources (DWR) did not make anyone available to WUNC for an interview. But at a virtual public hearing in July, Water Quality Standards Coordinator Chris Ventaloro addressed this concern during a presentation.

“It's important to note here that the department's intention is to have this be the initial step in the statewide rollout of E. coli recreational criteria," Ventaloro said. "This rollout will occur over time as the department develops the capacity to implement this criteria throughout the state."

State environmental staff near Asheville requested this site specific policy change because they were already testing for E. coli in recreational waters by working with environmental organizations.

In its regulatory impact analysis, DWR said it's not feasible at this time for North Carolina to switch to the E. coli indicator for Class B waters statewide.

"The DWR central laboratory in Raleigh does not currently have the resources to incorporate the new analytical methods required for analysis of E. coli in surface water. It will take time and money to procure the necessary resources," the report stated. "The adoption of the E. coli pathogenic indicator as a statewide standard would require re-evaluation of water quality protection programs... [and] certified laboratories would likely require time to adjust their operations to incorporate new methods for E. coli analysis."

Sutton disagreed with these reasons, arguing that E. coli samples can be collected and tested fairly quickly and inexpensively.

"This is something [with] minimal costs in terms of the equipment that it takes to run E. coli samples," Sutton said. "River keepers have them with our nonprofit salaries."

Sutton added that as far as re-evaluating water quality protection programs, there's enough data about fecal levels in waters across the state to do so.

State officials are proposing to codify how much 1,4-Dioxane is allowed in specific types of water.

The state has used recommendations, or "in-stream target values," to manage this emerging contaminant since 2010. DWR is now proposing that these recommendations are adopted as official regulations.

In water supply waters, 0.35 micrograms per liter (ug/L) of 1,4-Dioxane is allowed. The EPA says this much 1,4-Dioxane represents a cancer risk level of 1 in 1,000,000.

In all other surface waters, 80 micrograms per-liter is allowed.

The problem is that 1,4-Dioxane doesn't break down. According to the CDC, it's stable and easily dissolves in water.

"A continuous connected river system can have multiple designations for water quality standards," said Sutton. "Take the Haw River for example. Upstream in Greensboro, the water quality standard... may be 80 ug/L, but by the time it gets to Pittsboro, it's supposed to be 0.35 ug/L. These standards are set up in a way where the industries are going to be allowed to continue to pollute these compounds."

Under federal law, any business that discharges wastewater must receive a permit. In an emailed statement, DWR said that "permitting process allows for dilution of contaminants in-stream" per state law.

The EPA has identified 1,4-Dioxane as a likely human carcinogen. It's a clear liquid that's primarily used as a solvent to manufacture chemicals. The health affects of the contaminant are still being studied, but research so far shows exposure to high levels can result in liver and kidney damage.

At that July public hearing, Pittsboro town manager Chris Kennedy told state officials that treating 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS in the town’s drinking water is extremely expensive.

“We will likely exceed our entire annual budget, just trying to control contaminants that are coming from upstream neighbors,” Kennedy said. “We urge the [Environmental Management Commission] to get stronger with their limits [and] to get stronger with penalties.”

In the beginning of July, the city of Greensboro reported a large discharge of 1,4-Dioxane into South Buffalo Creek that impacted the drinking water of downstream municipalities, including Pittsboro. The discharge came from Greensboro’s TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant. Preliminary results from the day of the discharge showed levels of 1,4-Dioxane as high as 687 micrograms per-liter in the water near the plant.

Advocates want all waterways across the state to have a 0.35 micrograms per-liter limit of 1,4-Dioxane.

"[This] is protective for human health," Sutton said. "That's what we should be prioritizing - not the ease and convenience and logistics of industries upstream."

PFAS are also known as "forever chemicals," and they're a group of thousands of man-made chemicals that don't break down, but are persistent in the environment and in the human body. Exposure to PFAS can lead to "adverse human health effects," according to the EPA.

Proposed regulations for PFAS are omitted from this year's triennial review. There are currently no federal or state regulations for these harmful chemicals, only health advisories.

Several people asked the state to adopt regulations for PFAS during July's public hearing. Laura Peterson lives in Pittsboro.

“My family has been directly and seriously impacted by these toxins in our water," Peterson said. "We love our home and our community. We should not be forced to choose our home over clean water. We ask for immediate action now."

Growing research shows that exposure to PFAS can lead to cancers, thyroid disease, and other illnesses. PFAS is present in many bodies of water across North Carolina, including the Haw and Cape Fear rivers.

DWR said in a statement they aren't proposing any surface water standards for PFAS "due to a lack of information required per state regulations to calculate the standards."

"These rules require the use of toxicological endpoints as well as bioaccumulation or bioconcentration factors that are derived from studies. Bioaccumulation and bioconcentration factors for PFAS substances are difficult to come by in the scientific literature," DWR said. "Toxicological endpoints... are available for a very limited number of the thousands of PFAS compounds. The science behind these values is also changing rapidly."

The EPA is currently looking into establishing National Recommended Water Quality Criteria for PFAS chemicals. Separately, a bill moving through the U.S. Congress would establish requirements and incentives to limit the use of PFAS.

State officials are still reviewing public comments. The state Environmental Management Commission will meet this winter to consider and possibly approve the proposed recommendations for water policies. Once the plan is finalized, it will go into effect next January.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Celeste Gracia was born and raised in deep south Texas. She’s always loved to read and write, so when she discovered journalism in high school, she knew it was for her. She graduated from the University of North Texas. She previously interned at CBS News Radio in New York and Morning Edition in Washington D.C. She constantly craves cookies & creme ice cream and enjoys singing along to Broadway musicals.