News | February 24, 2022

New tests reveal high concentration of PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in NC river

Many North Carolina residents use the Lumber River for all types of recreation, including boating and fishing. (© Julia Rendleman)

Last summer, we wrote about a community in Lumberton, North Carolina’s growing concern over pollution coming from the site of a proposed biomass plant into their iconic Lumber River.

Testing has confirmed those worries, revealing unpermitted toxic PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” discharging from the contaminated industrial site into the Lumber River. We recently warned Active Energy Renewable Power, on behalf of Winyah Rivers Alliance, that if it does not stop polluting the Lumber River with PFAS, we’ll go to federal court to protect the health of surrounding communities and the watershed by enforcing the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Owners of the facility, Active Energy, are denying any wrongdoing.

“The proof is in the PFAS,” says Staff Attorney Heather Hillaker of Active Energy’s denial. She’s leading SELC’s involvement to protect clean water and air in Robeson County, where most residents are Black and Lumbee, and already exposed to high levels of pollution.

Local resident Shalonda Regan (left) and Staff Attorney Heather Hillaker (right) discuss the community’s concerns over Active Energy’s pollution.

Because communities of color have historically been burdened with disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution, SELC’s work to stop Active Energy’s toxic discharges is part of a larger effort to fight environmental injustices and ensure a healthy environment for all.

“Upstream is still pretty good, high-quality water,” says Lumber Riverkeeper Jefferson Currie II. He’s a member of the Lumbee Tribe with a storied relationship to the river.

 “But some of the middle parts near the industrial areas and concentrated animal feeding operations are suffering from pollution, and in recent years, there’s been an increase in these industries that do pollute more heavily,” he adds.

Sampling collected from Active Energy’s wastewater outfall detected total PFAS concentrations of nearly 20,000 parts per trillion in October 2021, and nearly 15,000 ppt in December 2021—thousands of times higher than recommended health values for the chemicals. EPA recently indicated that these industrial chemicals can be harmful to human health at levels below one ppt. PFAS have also been found in high levels in nearby Jacob Branch, a tributary of the Lumber River that borders Active Energy’s site.

“We are extremely concerned that Active Energy is releasing toxic PFAS into the Lumber River,” adds Hillaker. “The company is violating multiple federal laws and endangering people by dumping these chemicals into the river without telling anyone.”

Lumber Riverkeeper Jeff Currie II and Heather Hillaker at the Active Energy site.

The community is speaking out on behalf of its safety.

“This news is devastating to everyone who loves this watershed, including the local community, my fellow Lumbee Tribe members, and travelers from around the state who come here to fish, paddle, and camp,” says Currie. “Active Energy continues to ignore basic environmental laws meant to protect our community—this is just one more example of this company’s disregard for our wellbeing and the health of the Lumber River.”

Only about 40 miles away, SELC reached an agreement in 2019 requiring chemical manufacturer Chemours to stop GenX and other PFAS pollution from its Fayetteville facility—pollution that was poisoning drinking water supplies for hundreds around the facility and for over 300,000 people downstream in Wilmington and downstream counties.

EPA’s study of the toxicity of GenX underscores the importance of regulating these forever chemicals as a class and stopping harmful pollution at its source.

SELC continues to combat PFAS pollution in the South and beyond.