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CoastLine: RO and GAC - How Local Governments Are Dealing With Unregulated Toxins In The Water

  Is the water that comes out of your tap safe to drink? 

Until June of 2017, most residents in the Cape Fear region assumed the answer to that question was “yes”.   Then the StarNews broke the GenX story

A member of the PFAS family, GenX is a toxic chemical compound that can only be removed from water using special water treatment methods – such as reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon adsorption.  Local water treatment plants did not – and as of February 2020 – still do not have that technology.

Now on both sides of the river, utilities plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on water filtration systems. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has chosen granular activated carbon. In Brunswick County, it’s reverse osmosis. 

WHQR’s Vince Winkel reports both technologies come with a hefty price tag.


Listen to Vince Winkel's report on RO and GAC water treatment plans.

That was WHQR’s Vince Winkel reporting – who has covered this story since it broke in 2017. 

This story aired in December 2019.  Since then, we have an update on the timeline:  according to Port City Daily, a project addendum sent to prospective contractors in December and made public in early January pushes back construction milestones for the Brunswick County RO project.  It now appears the plant could come online as late as  May 2023, more than one year later than first anticipated.

GenX only represents a fraction of the potentially dangerous compounds in the water supply.  Earlier this year, we learned that Brunswick County has the most contaminated drinking water in the country, according to Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit.

Brunswick County officials released a statement on that report, that says, in part: 

"At this time, the EPA does not have an established health goal for several of the other compounds listed in this report that are contributing to the overall 185.9 ppt sample level, however the PFOA + PFOS and GenX sample levels in this report are also below the provisional health goals… Due to the fact that little or no study has been done on the health effects of combined PFAS or many of these individual PFAS found in the source water, Brunswick County has taken a proactive approach to install the most protective water treatment system at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant to remove these contaminants."

On this edition of CoastLine, we explore what, if anything, is changing in the regulatory world and how local leaders are adopting new technology to clean the water.


Patrick Irwin, Public Utilities Director, Dare County 

Dare County operates five water treatment facilities; four of the plants use reverse osmosis and one uses nanofiltration.

Larry Cahoon, Ph.D., Professor, Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Professor Cahoon is a water quality expert and frequently advises on the issue of emerging contaminants and unregulated compounds.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.