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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Sound Off: To Be Continued

By Kenneth Waldrop, posted Jun 28, 2023
Kenneth Waldrop
On June 2, three major PFAS manufacturers, including our upstream neighbor Chemours, announced they had reached a $1.185 billion settlement with a number of municipal governments and water utilities over PFAS contamination from the company’s discharges and use of their commercial products. 

This proposed settlement would not cover utilities in the Lower Cape Fear River basin, including Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), “unless such utilities decide to participate,” according to a news release from the companies. 

As an organization, CFPUA has been asked why it has not elected to participate. We want our community to understand the problem we face together.

Our community learned of Chemours’ pollution in the Cape Fear River, our primary drinking water source, in 2017 and began a five-year, $46 million odyssey to remove this contamination from our drinking water supply. 

This herculean effort concluded in October 2022 with the startup of our new Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) facility at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. 

These GAC filters are very effective at removing Chemours’ PFAS, but this removal requires ongoing financial expenditures. 

The operational cost of this facility alone is estimated at between $3 million and $5 million per year, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in future financial burdens imposed by our upstream polluting neighbor on all our customers. 

Millions of dollars more will be spent addressing groundwater contamination impacting our Richardson Water Treatment Plant in northern New Hanover County, which is equipped with reverse-osmosis treatment, and the Monterey Heights groundwater system in our southern county service area, which is slated to be supplied by water treated at Sweeney in 2025 at a cost of $11 million. 

Millions of dollars more in costs could be imposed as federal regulations consider wastewater treatment discharges and biosolids contamination from PFAS nationwide. 

CFPUA has not been provided with the terms of the PFAS manufacturers’ agreement, and we do not know what compensation CFPUA could expect if it were to participate. 

Media reports estimate there are more than 4,500 pending cases against PFAS manufacturers from all plaintiffs. 

To comply with proposed national standards for certain PFAS in drinking water, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates costs to address PFAS contamination nationwide may exceed $3.8 billion annually and require an estimated 5,000 water systems to develop new water sources or install and operate advanced treatment like CFPUA’s.

AWWA reports that another 2,500 water systems in states with existing standards would need to adjust existing PFAS treatment systems. 

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) suggests that “(w)hile over a billion dollars is real money, it is a virtual drop in the bucket of potential utility costs to monitor, remove and dispose of these contaminants in accordance with anticipated federal regulations.”   

The information currently available suggests that the proposed settlement, when divided among thousands of other utilities with similar needs, would be insufficient to meet the needs of our community. 

Here is what we do know:

We are certain our utility’s financial losses and future financial commitments to address our upstream neighbor’s pollution are substantial, and any settlement must substantially address these damages. 

We know recent rate increases were required to address our neighbor’s pollution. 

We know the three PFAS manufacturers who have contributed to the Cape Fear River pollution, DuPont and its spinoff companies Corteva and Chemours, have capital reserves outside of this settlement dedicated to resolving claims from PFAS pollution that are sufficient to make our community whole. 

Finally, we know we have a strong case to pursue against these polluters here in the federal Eastern District Court of North Carolina and in the Court of Chancery in Delaware, where we have filed lawsuits. 

So, until our neighbor Chemours chooses to live up to its stated corporate values and steps forward on behalf of the three responsible parties to make things right with their neighbors – our customers – we must continue litigation on our customers’ behalf. 

One may hope this proposed settlement is a bellwether of reconciliation and restitution to come, but the battle continues until our issues are resolved.

Kenneth Waldrop is the executive director of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.
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