Amid growing concerns about contamination in water supplies caused by the presence of GenX chemicals and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), local water authorities are stepping up to test for and address forever chemicals and other emerging contaminants.

Jill Deaney, assistant director of environmental management and sustainability laboratory services; Benjamin Kearns, water resources manager; and Vaughn Hagerty, director of communications at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), answer questions and give insight into CFPUA’s operations and how the agency works to keep the growing list of chemical concerns within accepted parameters.

Water Conditioning & Purification International Magazine (WC&P): How does CFPUA comply with state parameters for the health and safety of public drinking water? How do these state regulations differ from national regulations?

Jill Deaney: The North Carolina Division of Water Quality Public Water Supply (NC DEQ PWS) is a primacy agency, which means our state regulators are responsible for implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act. North Carolina acts under N.C. Administrative Code Title 15A, Subchapter 18C. All public water systems must follow this law, known as the Rules of Governing Public Water Systems.

CFPUA employs a multidepartment approach to ensure compliance with regulations. Our water-treatment and certified laboratory staff conduct routine monitoring of water-quality parameters at our water-treatment facilities. Our laboratory staff collect and analyze samples from our well water and in our distribution system to ensure we produce and distribute the best quality drinking water to our customers. Water-treatment operators monitor operational samples throughout each day, and the laboratory staff analyze over 7,000 samples annually. Information related to water quality and sample data is shared between each group daily. All groups meet regularly to review sampling schedules and data and to ensure all regulatory requirements are met or exceeded.

A copy of CFPUA’s 2022 Consumer Confidence Report, also known as the Drinking Water Quality Report, includes all contaminants detected in our drinking water and can be found at https://www.cfpua.org/657/Water-
Quality-Report.

WC&P: The CFPUA’s two main water sources are Cape Fear itself as well as underground aquifers. Its main facilities include the Richardson Water Treatment Plant, which can treat up to 7 million gallons of water per day, along with the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, which has a capacity of 44 million gallons of water per day. How often are samples of drinking water taken for testing? How are they tested?

Deaney: Drinking-water samples are collected daily by water-treatment operators and our certified laboratory staff. Many of the samples collected by the operators are tested at the plant at the time of collection every two hours. Our laboratory staff also collect samples daily and analyze them using certified EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and standard methods at our central laboratory.

WC&P: According to its website, the CFPUA’s water quality consistently meets or exceeds the safeguards outlined by the EPA, and this is detailed in an annual water-quality report for customers. How are test methods revised as emerging contaminants are discovered?

Deaney: When CFPUA learns about emerging contaminants, our central laboratory staff evaluate the cost and safety of bringing the methods for analysis in-house or sending samples to one of our contract laboratories. If the samples are sent out, our laboratory staff will work closely with the contract laboratory, researchers, and NC DEQ PWS to ensure the best-quality data. Some examples of emerging contaminants we test for are PFAS; 1,4-dioxane; and cyanotoxins.

WC&P: Are you watching for other emerging contaminants besides GenX?

Deaney: Yes, we test for a list of 65 PFAS compounds, which includes GenX. Additionally, we routinely monitor 1,4-dioxane, chlorophyll a—elevated levels in the river could indicate an algal bloom, which could result in cyanotoxins—chlorate, chlorite, perchlorate, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium.

WC&P: The EPA’s Unregulated Chemical Monitoring Rule (UCMR) requires the collection of important data on emerging chemicals, which will inform policy surrounding new chemical compounds and concerns. How does Cape Fear collect this data?

Deaney: Our central laboratory staff coordinate and collect all samples associated with EPA UCMR studies. Sample kits are ordered from a contract lab, and CFPUA lab staff follow all sample-collection instructions to collect the samples from the regulated sites and ship them to the contract lab for analysis and submittal to the EPA database.

WC&P: In March 2023, the EPA proposed a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for a series of six PFAS, which includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) as individual contaminants, along with perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and GenX chemicals as a mixture of contaminants. Until this proposal is finalized, the EPA has issued health advisories for these chemicals set at or below the levels where no known health issues are anticipated. While these advisories are not legally enforceable, they give guidance to water systems to address any chemical concerns until enforceable regulations are passed. Has the EPA’s proposed regulations affected any parts of the water-testing process for your facilities? If so, how?

Benjamin Kearns: CFPUA has been routinely monitoring PFAS compounds since 2017. Our comprehensive sampling program is much more conservative than the EPA’s PFAS action plan. CFPUA is calculating the EPA’s hazard index for GenX, PFBS, PFNA, and PFHxS, and with our current treatment, the levels are well below the proposed calculated hazard index of 1. We also actively monitor levels of PFOA and PFOS to ensure they remain below the proposed maximum contaminant level of 4 parts per trillion for each.

WC&P: Are there any challenges or unique problems Cape Fear’s utilities face while maintaining their high standards of water quality?

Kearns: The challenges include 1) operating multiple water systems with both surface and groundwater sources that include the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, a highly advanced surface water treatment plant; the Richardson Water Treatment Plant, which uses reverse osmosis membranes to treat water from groundwater wells; and the Monterey Heights Water System, which distributes water from more than seven groundwater wells. We also maintain more than 10 active emergency groundwater wells. 2) Responding to the surface water quality dynamics that come from being the final intake on the Cape Fear River, the largest river basin in North Carolina, while ensuring a consistent, high-quality finished water; 3) ensuring finished water compatibility between surface water and membrane plants within the blended distribution system of our largest water service area; and 4) foreseeing and preparing for the challenges of today as well as tomorrow through continuous incorporation of new beneficial treatment technologies; a robust capital improvement plan to address aging infrastructure replacement and rehabilitation requirements; and optimization of operational best practices related to personnel to maintain, retain, and attract the caliber of staff necessary to remain a leading utility within our industry.

WC&P: What is the CFPUA’s PFAS treatment infrastructure, like at the Sweeney plant, that makes it stand out from other water-treatment systems in the area?

Vaughn Hagerty: Construction began in 2019 to add new granular activated carbon (GAC) filters to the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. Even before this, Sweeney was one of North Carolina’s most sophisticated drinking-
water treatment plants, with advanced treatment like ozonation, biologically active filters, and UV disinfection, but it was unable to effectively treat PFAS contamination. The GAC filters came online in October 2022 and have been very effective at treating for PFAS. The eight contactors collectively hold almost three million pounds of GAC, making it one of the largest GAC drinking-water treatment facilities in North Carolina.

WC&P: Due to its facilities operating at high efficiency and quality year-round, the CFPUA has routinely been awarded an Area Wide Optimization Award by North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. What are the Area Wide Optimization Awards, and what is required for water-treatment facilities to receive them?

Kearns: The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources, Public Water Supply Section awards facilities the prestigious N.C. Area Wide Optimization Award, which is part of a state effort to enhance the performance of existing surface water treatment facilities.

Awards are given each year to water systems that demonstrate outstanding turbidity removal, a key test of drinking-water quality. Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness or haziness of water caused by individual particles that can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. Microbes are microscopic particles that occur naturally but can include harmful bacteria and viruses.

While all drinking-water systems must meet strict state and federal drinking-water standards, systems receiving this award have met performance goals that are significantly more stringent than state and federal standards. In 2022, more than three million North Carolina residents were served by award-winning plants such as the Cape Fear Public Utility Sweeney Water Treatment Plant.

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