"The water still isn't safe": Locals alarmed over high PFAS levels, private water companies
CFPUA customers and well water users have options for preventing PFAS contamination. But residents hooked up to privately owned utilities are slipping through the cracks.
Every spring, John Nartowicz gets an email with a link to an annual water quality report. In the past, he didn't make a habit of reading them. He figured that if there was a major issue, the water company that serves his part of northeastern New Hanover County, Carolina Water Service, would send out an alert. But in April, he decided to give his 2022 report a skim.
"When I finally got to this chart," he told WHQR. "All I was able to think is the line from Apollo 13: 'Houston, we have a problem.'"
Nartowicz found the chart on the last page of his water quality report. It listed the PFAS levels for his neighborhood's water.
PFAS, or per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are manmade chemicals linked to cancer and other health issues. The drinking water in Nartowicz's neighborhood had an average level of 15.4 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS, a type of PFAS — that's below the EPA's old advisory level of 70 ppt, but hundreds of times higher than the new, stricter 0.02 ppt interim health advisory level the EPA announced last summer (neither level represented a legally enforceable limit).
For over a year, Nartowicz and his neighbors had unknowingly been drinking contaminated water.
"'So, what are we going to do about it?' was my next thought," he said.
What neighbors got in the mail
One of Nartowicz's neighbors, Lindsay Addison, works as a biologist for the Audubon Society. The next time they saw each other after seeing the water quality report, he asked her about it.
"I said, 'Did you read it the way I read it? Because to me, it looks like our water is pretty well contaminated with these chemicals.' And she said, 'Yeah, that's what I read into it, too. You're right on,'" Nartowics recalled.
Even with her background in science, Addison found the water quality report confusing. The EPA has health advisory levels for six types of PFAS, but Carolina Water Service reported only two: PFOS and PFOA. The report gave a short summary of what PFAS are, but it did not mention that consuming high levels of PFAS may trigger cancer.
Above all, she didn't know why it took Carolina Water Service a year to tell customers about their high PFAS levels.
"As soon as they found out that they were exceeding the health advisory levels, they should have communicated clearly to their customers," Addison said. "Instead of providing a water quality report that puts the information at the back."
Eventually, these concerns about PFAS reached Dana Sargent, the executive director of Cape Fear River Watch. Sargent has long fought for PFAS regulation: in 2017, she helped spearhead a lawsuit against Chemours, a company caught polluting the Cape Fear River with PFAS, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). She was appalled by Carolina Water Service's PFAS levels.
"They should have communicated right off the bat," said Sargent. "The first samples they did where they saw PFAS, they should have sent out notices to everybody in English and Spanish."
Carolina Water Service is not the only private water company reporting elevated PFAS levels. Al Bennet, who lives just south of Wilmington, uses the company Aqua NC. His neighborhood's annual report showed test results for the EPA's six PFAS of concern. In 2022, their results for PFOS ranged from 2.2 ppt to 'nondetectable.'
[Note: It's worth noting that 'non-detectable' levels are not the same as non-existent. Even the highly accurate equipment used by companies that test water samples for utilities like CFPUA can't detect down to the 0.02 ppt EPA advisory level; the sensitivity only picks up chemicals like PFOS at around 0.2 ppt, an order of magnitude above the EPA limit.]
The levels in Aqua's report were alarming for Bennet.
"The question for consumers is," Bennet said, "What amount of a cancer-causing chemical do you want in your water?"
[Note: You can read more about studies on PFOS's link to cancer from the American Cancer Society here.]
Privately-owned water companies
Scientists have known about PFAS and their health impacts for decades. But there are still very few laws controlling these substances. The North Carolina DEQ sets and enforces the state standards for drinking water pollution, but currently has no regulations on PFAS. The EPA has published lifetime health advisory levels for six kinds of PFAS, but those levels are not legally enforceable.
There are some stopgaps, though. The Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) requires that the EPA issue a list of unregulated contaminants every five years. Once the list is released, water utilities must monitor the levels of these contaminants in their water and submit an annual report. In 2021, the EPA added 29 PFAS to that list. From 2023 to 2027, major water companies throughout the United States must test for PFAS.
"All public water systems which serve over 3,300 customers are required by [the] EPA to follow UCMR testing," a Carolina Water Service spokesperson wrote via email. "We are also required to report monitoring we choose to conduct on our own accord and have been proactively testing and reporting on PFAS since 2020."
Water companies are also only required to alert customers if their water is polluted by a state- or federally-regulated substance. Both Carolina Water Service and Aqua NC cited this rule as the reason why they didn't send alerts about PFAS.
Still, these regulations are the baseline, not the ceiling, of what water companies can do about PFAS. In 2017, Cape Fear River Watch and other organizations successfully pressured Cape Fear Public Utility Authority into sending notices in English and Spanish to households impacted by PFAS contamination. Since then, CFPUA has installed PFAS filters and began to publish weekly testing results on its website.
Some privately owned water companies have also created their own safety standards. Dr. Chris Crockett, who works for Aqua NC's parent company Essential Utilities Inc., told me that Essential Utilities chose to implement a 13 ppt ceiling on all PFAS levels in 2020.
"[At the time] we had the Center for Disease Control's toxicological profile," he said in an interview. "The lowest number for children was 13 [ppt] for a variety of these — PFOA specifically, and PFOS and PFNA. So we felt there was solid enough data to make that leap forward on a voluntary basis across eight states and 1,500 systems."
If Aqua NC detects a level of PFAS over 13 ppt, that would trigger an internal investigation and a meeting with the North Carolina DEQ.
"We don't want to be crying wolf to people," said Crockett. "We want to be able to say to them, 'Yes, this is going on, this is an issue we're seeing, and here's what we're doing. We're gonna put treatment on, and here's when it's gonna be done.'"
Still, as it stands now, Aqua NC does not filter PFAS out of the water it pipes into Bennet's house. And Bennet is frustrated by the lack of information about Aqua NC's PFAS testing available to him.
"If you want to find that information, the burden is on you," he said.
Hope Taylor, the executive director of the environmental watchdog group Clean Water for North Carolina, said this is consistent with her experiences with privately owned water utilities.
"There tends to be a lot more transparency in the publicly owned water utilities," said Taylor. "There's more accountability — there's more access of the actual utility staff to the public, for getting complaints and feedback and that sort of thing."
When it comes to PFAS contamination, most people in the Cape Fear region have options. CFPUA drastically reduced its PFAS levels after completing the installation of new granulated activated carbon filters in October 2022. Residents who are still concerned about their PFAS levels can attend public meetings and call their representatives.
Those using well water also have options: as part of its 2019 consent order, Chemours must provide free well testing to Cape Fear residents. If the water is too contaminated, the Chemours is required to supply a reverse osmosis filter or a monthly supply of drinking water.
But for customers of privately owned utilities, there are no options. If your PFAS levels are too high, it's on you to fix it.
"Once you've moved there and bought your house, you are stuck with whatever water supply is piped into that," said Taylor.
It is more or less impossible for consumers to switch from a privately owned utility to a public utility. Some folks could try to dig a well. But Wilmington-area groundwater is already contaminated with PFAS in many areas. So if you spent thousands of dollars digging a well only to find GenX in it, you'd be back at square one.
"The most effective way to take care of it? You need a whole house reverse osmosis system," said Bennet. "Most people can't afford that."
"I would need to invest $10,000 or $20,000 for an R.O. system to filter the water that's coming in," Nartowicz said. "To make that my shower, the water I cook with, anything else that I use — to make that clean water."
But that could change very soon. In March 2023, the EPA announced a proposed set of maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for six types of PFAS. Unlike their health advisory levels, these levels would be legally enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water. The EPA hopes to approve them by the end of 2023. If they do, these MCLs would apply to all water utilities used by the general public, both publicly owned and privately owned.
The proposed MCLs are also substantially higher than the health advisory limits. PFOS, for example, would have a limit of 4 ppt. So if the rules were to go into effect today, Aqua N.C.'s water would be in the clear, whereas Carolina Water Service's would not be.
For the 3,770 Carolina Water Service customers and the 5,000 Aqua NC customers in the Cape Fear region, the EPA's proposed rule change is more than just a rule change. It's what will get their providers to listen to them.
"I think the small private utilities have slipped through the cracks," said Addison. "And I think that it's really important for local decision-makers and politicians to know that the interests of their communities aren't being served by these companies. The water still isn't safe."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that CFPUA contracts out its PFAS testing.