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CFPUA director talks PFAS, expansion, affordability, and the 'elephant in the room'

One of eight deep-bed granulatar activated carbon (GAC) filters at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant.
One of eight deep-bed granulatar activated carbon (GAC) filters at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority recently celebrated a major upgrade to filter out PFAS chemicals. But there’s a lot more on CFPUA’s plate including new testing challenges, the ubiquitous problem of rate affordability, expanding into the northern part of the county, and the utility's biggest issue — aging infrastructure. WHQR sat down with Executive Director Ken Waldroup for this update.

CFPUA’s updated filters at the Sweeney Water Treatment Center came online last fall, removing all detectable levels of Genx and other PFAS.

Accomplishing that cost roughly $50 million dollars, with millions more in annual costs. The utility believes it is money well spent, but it has also taken Chemours to court, in part to pay them back for these expenses. Director Ken Waldroup is limited in what he can say, because this is ongoing litigation, after all. But Waldroup tells WHQR he thinks CFPUA has a good case — though it won’t be a quick process.

“It was just this year that we started seeing a lot of the major things that you would imagine in litigation unfolding. So, depositions are this year, interrogatory [questions asked by both sides prior to a trial] has just happened. Next year, we may see pretrial motions, it's probably going to be many, many years,” Waldroup said.

“I believe this utility and the community it serves has a very good case that our upstream neighbor Chemours knew for many years that it was discharging these compounds. [They] actually had an in-house study suggesting that the company take action. And the corrective action they took was to spin the company off into three separate companies, put all the liability with one and put all the money with the others. General Stein, Attorney General from North Carolina, has taken some very fundamental steps in state court to correct that imbalance. So I've got to believe that there's a good chance that our community will see some restitution,” he said.

Filtering PFAS out of the water isn’t the only challenge. There’s also testing for them. The EPA recently set new guidance for two major chemicals — at four parts per quadrillion. Waldroup acknowledges it’s hard to conceptualize such a minute quantity.

“I have a hard time wrapping my head around those numbers. So I did a little math. I'm a visual person, so I looked around our apartment. And I was just trying to figure out what can I use to visualize this. I found a stamp — a stamp is about an inch on the side. There's 4 billion square inches in a square mile. So for a single part per trillion, a single stamp, you would have to find it in about 249 square miles. To put that in perspective, the land area of New Hanover County is 192 square miles. So it's like looking for a postage stamp in the land area of New Hanover County plus 20%. And then this part per quadrillion, it's like dividing that postage stamp into 1,000 little pieces and looking for that. It just boggles the mind,” Waldroup said.

Waldroup also acknowledges testing at these levels will be a challenge, especially if federal guidance becomes state-level requirements — but he says CFPUA has a five-to-ten year head start on many other utilities because of its experience with GenX.

The elephant in the room isn’t PFAS

But as important PFAS filtering and testing are, there are far bigger projects on the horizon, including one that dwarfs Sweeney’s $50 million price tag.

“We have one project on our books, the South Side wastewater treatment plant, the replacement of a 50-year-old wastewater treatment plant, it's five times that cost. Five times…So the elephant in the room in the future for this community is not PFAS,” Waldroup said.

And over the next decade, Waldroup says CFPUA will need to invest significantly to keep up a billion dollars worth of infrastructure.

“We have a billion dollars worth of infrastructure serving those customers. So that's 1100 miles of water line, 1100 miles of sewer line, if you laid it end -over-end, we could deliver water to Dallas, Texas, and bring it back for treatment. So you take that billion dollars for the infrastructure, and you compare it to the capital improvement plan that we need to continue orderly growth and replace old failing infrastructure, that capital improvement plan is half a billion dollars,” he said.

Expansions and mergers

That’s for existing infrastructure — but there’s also a lot of potential development in the coming years, especially in the northern part of New Hanover County. A big part of that will be laying down water and sewer infrastructure.

“This is the way it works, a developer will come to us and say I need to buy into your system, and I need to extend water and sewer lines. The developer pays to extend the water and sewer lines, the developer buys into the system, it's called system development charges. The developer pays or the builder pays connection fees, then they sell a home, and they get their investment back and the homeowner through their mortgage has effectively paid to extend the system. So, the first day a homeowner moves in, their mortgages are paying for the infrastructure that served them, including a buy-in to the existing infrastructure, and their water and sewer bills, helping defer the costs for the rest of us,” Waldroup said.

A different kind of expansion that CFPUA is exploring is consolidating Wrightsville Beach’s utilities into its system. It’s a conversation that, for some, dates back to spring of 2019, when CFPUA offered the town an 80% discount on bulk water, after PFAS-contaminated water may have ‘migrated’ from a CFPUA aquifer into a Wrightsville Beach well. The water was delivered through an existing emergency pipeline.

More recently, CFPUA got a $400,000 grant to explore the possibility of a merger. While it’s early days, and the boards of both CFPUA and Wrightsville Beach would have to sign off on it, for his part, Waldroup thinks a merger would be good for both utilities.

Waldroup, who was part of a series of major utility consolidations in the Raleigh area, said these mergers are notoriously difficult — but also potentially beneficial.

“Having been part of six utility consolidations, I consider myself a child of six consolidations. I can tell you that consolidation done right is good for the small utility and the large utility. Because at the end of the day, you're left with a stronger, more stable utility,” Waldroup said, offering the 2008 creation of CFPUA from the former merger of City of Wilmington and New Hanover County utilities as an example.

Rate affordability

While CFPUA faces plenty of challenges that are specific to southeastern North Carolina, rate affordability. Two years ago, CFPUA was facing roughly $3 million in delinquent bills. After facing sharp criticism, the utility scrapped a plan to use ‘flow restrictors’ to compel payment — but the problem hasn’t gone away.

Waldroup notes that, under North Carolina law, water and sewer service is a commodity, not a public good. Because of that, the utility’s main legally available tool is disconnection for nonpayment.

“There is a movement nationwide to try to change that perspective and start looking at water as a public good. But until that movement gets traction, what we and other utilities do is we look to our partner, local governments to the state and to the federal government to provide Bill assistance, which we then route to the most needy,” Waldroup said.

Waldroup noted that thelow-income household water assistance program (LIHWAP), has been the most important recent program; it’s still active, and has helped around 800 households over the last six months, he said.

“That's the type of program that we need. And it's going to need support from the federal government, from the state government and, yes, from local government. We're very lucky to have partners at the City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County who have been supporting customer assistance programs. And they've increased their support through the pandemic. That's how we approach that problem,” he said.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.