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SELC pushes back on Sanford's 1,4 Dioxane and PFAS river discharges

Chemours isn't the only culprit contaminating the Cape Fear River — and PFAS isn't the only chemical environmentalists are concerned about.

1,4 Dioxane has been a known danger to human health since the 1990s — far longer than PFAS. It’s likely to cause cancer along with kidney and liver damage and it’s found in high concentrations in Cape Fear River water.

At the site of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s water intake, 1,4 Dioxane is found in concentrations as high as 4.6 parts per billion — that’s 13 times higher than the EPA’s cancer risk assessment for drinking water. For years, CFPUA could only filter around 60% of the chemical from the drinking water, but the most recent test puts it at 93%. That's after CFPUA installed its new filter, and began using its other 14 filters to remove 1,4 dioxane and other contaminants more effectively.

Jean Zhuang, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says the city of Sanford deserves some blame for the pollution. That city’s wastewater treatment plant releases contaminated water into a tributary of the Cape Fear, and it’s up for a new wastewater permit.

“Sanford receives industrial waste from a lot of industries that are responsible for toxic chemicals like PFAS," Zhuang said. "And so what we are advocating for is not just monitoring, but also for these toxic chemicals to be controlled.”

Zhuang and other lawyers at SELC wrote a letter saying as much to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

NCDEQ has so far drafted a permit that would allow Sanford to dump both 1,4 dioxane AND PFAS into the Deep River at levels above the NCDEQ and the EPA’s health advisories. The plant would be expected to "monitor and report" the level of 1,4 dioxane in the water — and requires similar monitoring for PFAS.

Zhuang says it's particularly concerning because the wastewater treatment plant releases these contaminants upstream of Sanford’s own drinking water plant, which plans to expand service to more than 135,000 people.

Zhuang hopes to see NCDEQ revise the draft permit to limit contamination by forcing Sanford to ask its industries to clean up their operations.

"The Clean Water Act requires Sanford to know what it's getting from all of their industries, including whether these industries are sending them PFAS or 1,4 dioxane," she said. "Unfortunately, Sanford has not done that here. And so actually, we don't know exactly where the one,four dioxane and PFAS are coming from."

Zhuang suspects that metal plating industries in the area may be to blame for the PFAS contamination, because that industry is the point source in other states that do a better job of monitoring and publicly reporting pollution sources. States like Michigan, she says, have "taken a hard look at their industries, and they are getting the industries to pay to clean up their own pollution."

It would also keep the chemicals out of the river, where they harm fish and other wildlife and contaminate the groundwater.

Zhuang added that she'd like NCDEQ to provide a public hearing on this draft permit. A public hearing about a Chemours permit led to NCDEQ holding the company to stricter standards, which the company is now appealing.

WHQR requested a comment from Sanford for comment; this article will be updated with any response from the city.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.