An aerial view of the now-completed expansion to improve PFAS filtration while under construction in 2022 at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in Wilmington. Photo: Cammie Bellamy/CFPUA
 An aerial view of the now-completed expansion to improve PFAS filtration while under construction in 2022 at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in Wilmington. Photo: Cammie Bellamy/CFPUA

The number of North Carolinians whose tap water comes from systems that contain at least one chemical compound exceeding new federal contamination limits is “coming down daily,” according to a state environmental official.

Rebecca Sadosky, N.C. Drinking Water Protection Program coordinator, told members of the state Environmental Management Commission Thursday that the numbers — an estimated 3.4 million people — will continue to slide as drinking water suppliers across the state upgrade their systems with technologies that remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Thursday was the first time the commission has convened since North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser sent a letter to its members expressing her disappointment that the agency’s proposed groundwater standards for PFAS would not be put to a vote in July.

In the May 1 letter, Biser stated that the chair and vice chair of the commission’s groundwater and waste management committee were “refusing to hear the proposed groundwater standards for PFAS as an action item” at their Wednesday meeting.

Members of that committee denied that accusation, saying that the decision was made to push back a vote on the standards so members could first review at least a draft of the fiscal analysis that would explain anticipated costs associated with the proposal.

Commission Chair John Solomon kicked off Thursday’s meeting with a pep talk of sorts, telling fellow commissioners that they need to get to know one another, break barriers and “really, really support each other to make good deliberation and good decisions.”

“We have got some big decisions to continue make,” he said. “We’re going to regulated 1,4-dioxane. We’re going to regulate PFAS. I think we’re getting there. I think as a body y’all are coming together, but again, continue to work together as I’ve seen some of you doing in the past week.”

During the groundwater and waste management committee meeting, held the day before the commission’s meeting, committee Chair Joe Reardon and Vice Chair Tim Baumgartner defended the decision to wait for a fiscal analysis and hit back at Biser, saying DEQ chose to “grandstand” by issuing public statements that leveraged accusations at the committee instead of working through the issues with the committee.

DEQ showed commission members a “lack of respect,” Baumgartner said Wednesday. “This committee and commission deserved a right to review a full package before any consideration to move forward on these rules.”

He went on to say that agency officials had indicated last November that the Division of Waste Management was working on a fiscal note at that time. Yet, he said, the committee had not received a draft fiscal note to review. He cited Administrative Procedures Act requirement in his remarks.

“During all DEQ’s grandstanding DEQ did not provide this committee nor the EMC with a complete set of documents two weeks prior to the meeting, which is currently EMC policy,” Baumgartner said. “This persistent disregard for this committee stops today. All documents and any requests before this committee will be provided for this committee no later than two weeks prior to the scheduled meeting date or that item will be removed from the agenda. This public we serve deserves a solid rulemaking process that complies fully with APA, that is completely reviewed and conforms with the statutes and rules. This commission cannot do that if DEQ intends to work against us, withholding documents and grandstanding instead of engaging.”

Reardon said the committee’s decision to remove PFAS from its Wednesday agenda was to give the committee time to have access to “all the materials at one time.”

“The decision to remove this from the agenda was solely based on that all the materials required for rules to be adopted, including the fiscal note, was not provided to us in a timely manner,” he said.

Cape Fear River Watch Executive Director Dana Sargent, in a news release Thursday, thanked Biser for her letter to the committee.

“The environmental management commission’s mission is to adopt rules for the “protection, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air and water resources,” Sargent wrote. “If the new EMC members don’t understand their mission, they should stand down.”

The spat comes a month after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had set maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, on several PFAS.

The new federal regulation means hundreds of water systems will have to routinely monitor for PFAS and report the results of that monitoring to their customers.

Utilities that have drinking water contaminated with PFAS exceeding the MCLs have five years to integrate technology that will bring them into compliance. More than 300 municipal and small water systems sampled in 2022 had PFAS detections above the newly established MCLs, according to DEQ.

Sadosky walked the EMC on Thursday through that timeline, one that requires systems to submit water samples to EPA-certified labs for testing beginning June 25.

North Carolina currently does not have any EPA-certified labs to test for PFAS. Sadosky said the state is waiting for guidance from the EPA on where samples may be sent this summer.

The new federal drinking water standard is expected to put a hefty price tag on utilities. The federal government is funneling billions to assist with costs associated with the measure.

The state needs surface water and groundwater standards because PFAS gets discharged into those sources and ultimately into drinking water intakes and public water supply wells, “driving up the costs for public water systems to come into compliance with the new federal drinking water standards, which has a direct impact on out-of-pocket costs for North Carolinians,” Biser said in her May 1 letter.

EPA does not establish surface water and groundwater standards.

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