More sources of PFAS pollution behind recent North Carolina fish advisories, SELC says
State enforcing law to stop “forever chemicals” pollution key to preventing more toxic drinking water and fish
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Recent North Carolina fish consumption warnings that some people should avoid eating any fish from portions of the Cape Fear River underscore the urgency for the state to enforce existing laws to stop toxic PFAS pollution from further contaminating water sources and fish and investigate more of North Carolina rivers with known and suspected PFAS pollution sources for safety, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The toxic PFOS levels on which the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services based its fish consumption advisories suggest more upstream pollution sources than Chemours since PFOS was not a significant component of the company’s PFAS pollution.
“DEQ needs to enforce the law to prevent further exposures for families and communities to toxic PFAS through fish,” said Geoff Gisler, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center who led successful litigation against Chemours in North Carolina to stop PFAS pollution of the Cape Fear and drinking water for more than 500,000 people. “The burden of PFAS pollution should be on polluters and not on the families and communities who live nearby and downstream in North Carolina.”
Several facilities with known or suspected PFAS pollution—and sometimes also toxic 1,4 dioxane pollution—that are upstream in the Cape Fear River or on other North Carolina rivers have been largely ignored by the Department of Environmental Quality. The Southern Environmental Law Center recently submitted comment letters on several facilities to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality regarding draft permits that fail to prevent PFAS pollution. In its comments, SELC urges the agency to enforce existing law to stop PFAS pollution before it enters water sources, burdens nearby and downstream communities, and further harms families living nearby and downstream.
Among the facilities and respective state waters discussed in the comments are Asheboro’s wastewater treatment plant discharging into the Deep River, Lear Corporation discharging into the Northeast Cape Fear River, DAK Americas discharging into the Cape Fear River, North Harnett Regional wastewater treatment plant discharging into the Cape Fear River, Lumberton’s wastewater treatment plant discharging into the Lumber River, and Colonial Pipeline discharging into the Yadkin River watershed.
Fish are a critical food source for many families in North Carolina. According to DEQ’s data, it issued 23,208 annual inland fishing licenses with a subsistence waiver in 2021. PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, are extremely resistant to breaking down in the environment. Once released, the chemicals can travel long distances and bioaccumulate in people and wildlife such as fish.
A recently proposed amendment to H.B.600 by the N.C. Senate would have prevented DEQ from stopping toxic pollution, including from PFAS and 1,4 dioxane, at its sources if adopted by the legislature. The provision was removed in the most recent version of the bill.
PFAS have been found in fish tissue across all 48 continental states and PFOS—a particularly harmful PFAS compound—is one of the most prominent PFAS found in freshwater fish. As a result, people who rely heavily on self-caught fish for sustenance and for traditional cultural practices have had elevated PFAS levels in their blood. Researchers concluded that “[w]idespread PFAS contamination of freshwater fish in surface waters in the U.S. is likely a significant source of exposure to PFOS and potentially other perfluorinated compounds for all persons who consume freshwater fish, but especially for high frequency freshwater fish consumers.”
On July 13, 2023, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services adopted fish consumption advisories in the middle and lower portions of the Cape Fear River due to high levels of PFOS detected in many of the fish sampled. DHHS warns women of childbearing age, pregnant women, nursing mothers and children to only eat one meal a year combined for some fish and not to eat other fish at all.
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