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Ask a Journalist: How much PFAS is in the water in Pender County?

There are a number of initiatives in the works to address PFAS in drinking water.
AFP via Getty Images
There are a number of initiatives in the works to address PFAS in drinking water.

In the latest installment of our series based on listener questions, we delve into water quality (and quantity) issues in Pender County.

A listener reached out to WHQR as part of our new ‘Ask a Journalist’ series. His question: we hear a lot about Wilmington’s water quality, but what about Pender County? WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer found out — and answered some of News Director Ben Schachtman’s questions as well.

Ben: So Kelly, how’s the drinking water in Pender County?

Kelly: Well, it comes out of the Cape Fear River, so….

Ben: Not good?

Kelly: Well yeah, our river is gross. As you know, the Cape Fear River is contaminated with PFAS from Chemours, our polluting corporate neighbors in Fayetteville. PFAS are a category of forever chemicals that are correlated with a lot of nasty health effects in humans. PFAS like GenX are created during Chemours’ manufacturing process, but some of the older versions of PFAS come out of landfill runoff, municipal wastewater, and other sources.

Ben: Okay, that’s gross.

Kelly: Yep! But to be honest, up until a few years ago, you would have been better off in Pender than in New Hanover County.

BS: What do you mean?

KK: Well, we only started treating the water in New Hanover for PFAS after the GenX contamination became public knowledge in 2018. But Pender was treating for unknown contaminants starting 10 years ago.

BS: Wait… can they see into the future?

KK: I don’t think so- they just had some great foresight. I talked to Kenny Keel, the director of Pender County Utilities. He says they installed a Granular Activated Carbon filter when they built a new plant ten years ago.

Kenny Keel: Basically our engineers at the time were looking proactively to potential contaminants that may be discovered down the road, considering the fact that we are on the Cape Fear River, and there's just a lot of industrial plants all along the Cape Fear Basin."

BS: That’s some good foresight. And those GAC filters are one of only two types of filters known to get rid of PFAS.

KK: So I asked him for some data, and it looks like Pender’s filtration system is relatively effective. They’re filtering PFAS out at a similar rate to CFPUA before they installed their big GAC filter late last year. CFPUA went really hardcore on PFAS, and their water is now at non-detect levels for two really bad chemicals- PFOA and PFOS.

BS: Those are the ones the EPA just set really, really strict health advisory levels for, right?

KK: Yeah, they set a level that’s not really detectible with standard testing methodology. Pender isn’t quite there — they still have PFOA and PFOS in the finished water, at rates around one or two parts per trillion. Still, it's a lot better than the raw river water.

BS: Ok, so why is Pender's GAC less effective than CFPUA's?

KK: Well it’s a matter of how often you change the carbon out. Here’s Keel.

Keel: “We have four filters, and we change out the carbon one filter every six months.”

KK: And each change out costs $80,000. They could change it more often, but it would be really expensive — and the EPA’s advisory levels aren’t mandatory yet. CFPUA, by contrast, changed their first batch out after 180 days. They’ll eventually extend that out to every 300 days, based on the river’s contamination level.

BS: And if I remember, Pender is joining a lot of other utilities in suing Chemours to pay for the cost.

KK: Yep!

[Editor's note: While Pender County had better filtration than CFPUA pre-2017, there were still elevated levels of PFAS in the finished drinking water due to the significant amount of GenX Chemours was dumping into the water at the time.

Pender has maintained its 6-month filter swap schedule since it built the GAC filter 10 years ago. While CFPUA also had GAC at its plant, it was running the filter in “biological mode” to filter out 1,4 dioxane. That means the filters weren’t swapped out for years at a time, so Pender very likely had lower PFAS levels in the filtered water for years before CFPUA switched out its process in 2018.]

BS: Well since I have you here, I wanted to tack on another question. Now I can be the one asking a journalist! We got a press release from Pender a while back with a water shortage advisory. What’s going on there?

KK: Well Ben, it’s growing pains. Pender has grown way more than it even could plan for, especially along Highway 17. They're running low on water in that area, near Scotts Hill and Hampstead.

Keel: “We potentially may have some struggles this summer, especially if we have a really dry summer, we may have some struggles to meet the demand of the area.”

BS: So how come they couldn’t prepare for this?

KK: Honestly, it’s the pandemic! This is how I know Kenny Keel can’t see into the future. Pender wasn’t able to prepare for that growth because of serious supply chain issues. He told me they put in an order for 500 water meters last spring, and didn’t get them until this February. Normally it would take 5-6 weeks, but it took 9 months.

BS: Jeez. So how are they planning to deal with the shortage?

KK: In the short term, they’re putting in irrigation restrictions. Medium term, they’re putting in three new water wells that should be online in winter. And long-term, they plan to build a new water treatment plant in that area of the county — this will be reverse osmosis, so it’ll be able to handle PFAS too.

BS: Very interesting stuff, Kelly, thanks for explaining it.

KK: No problem! Thank you to Ted Wilgis for asking us the question!

BS: And if you have a question for our newsroom, email us at staffnews@whqr.org.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to 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.
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.