Forever Chemicals Bill for “forever chemicals” manufacturers to pay North Carolina water systems advances

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – North Carolina’s top environmental regulator could order manufacturers of “forever chemicals” to help pay for water system cleanup upgrades whenever they are found responsible for discharges that contaminate drinking water beyond acceptable levels, under legislation advanced by a state House committee Tuesday.

The measure was sought by Republican lawmakers from the Wilmington area, where upstream discharges into the Cape Fear River of a kind of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – also called PFAS – have contributed to public utilities serving hundreds of thousands of people to spend large amounts to filter them out. Accumulating scientific evidence suggests such chemicals, which resist breaking down, can cause harm to humans.

One bill sponsor said it’s appropriate for companies that produced such chemicals and released them into the environment to cover the costs of cleaning up the water.

“It is 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 aren’t having to foot the bill,” Rep. Ted Davis of New Hanover County told the House Environment Committee. The panel approved the measure with bipartisan support.

The bill, if ultimately enacted, certainly would threaten more costs for The Chemours Co., which a state investigation found had discharged for decades a type of PFAS from its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County, reaching the air, the river, and groundwater. The discharges weren’t made widely public until 2017.

The bill would authorize the state Department of Environmental Quality secretary to order a “responsible party” for PFAS contamination that exceeds set maximum levels in drinking water to pay public water systems the “actual and necessary costs” they incurred to remove or correct the contamination. The bill also makes clear that a public water system that receives reimbursements must lower customer water rates if they were raised to pay for abatement efforts.

PFAS chemicals have been produced for a number of purposes – they helped eggs slide across non-stick frying pans, ensured that firefighting foam suffocates flames, and helped clothes withstand the rain and keep people dry. GenX – produced at the Bladen plant – is associated with nonstick coatings.

Davis pushed unsuccessfully in 2022 for a similar bill, which at the time also ordered state regulators to set maximum acceptable levels of “forever chemicals.” This year’s measure leaves that out, and sets the standards for action based on new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “maximum contaminant levels” for six PFAS types in drinking water, including GenX.

A Chemours lobbyist told the committee that the company was being targeted by the bill, even as the company has taken actions to address the PFAS release.

Chemours has invested at the plant to keep the chemical from entering the groundwater through an underwater wall and the air through a thermal oxidizer, lobbyist Jeff Fritz said, and it’s worked closely with state environmental regulators to address past contamination.

“Given those actions, we respectfully ask that this bill not proceed,” Fritz said. The company has been required to provide water filtration systems for homes with contaminated wells, for example.

The North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance opposes the bill, while the American Chemical Council expressed concerns about details, their representatives said. They pointed to how the measure would apply retroactively to expenses incurred since early 2017, based on contamination standards that were just finalized in April.

To address the contamination, the Brunswick County Public Utilities embarked on a $170 million construction project, director John Nichols said, resulting in customer average rates rising from $25 to $35 per month. Beth Eckert with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said it had incurred nearly $75 million in PFAS-related expenses to date.

“Our community of hardworking North Carolina families has spent and continues to spend millions to treat pollution we did not cause but cannot ignore,” Eckert said.

The bill would have to clear both the full House and Senate during a session that could end in the early summer. Elizabeth Biser, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s DEQ secretary, endorsed Davis’ bill from 2022. Department spokesperson Sharon Martin wrote Tuesday that DEQ “supports measures that put cleanup and treatment costs where they belong — on the PFAS manufacturer who releases forever chemicals.”

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