Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: The Washington Post recently had a report about PFAS being in a lot of the nation’s drinking water. What level of PFAS does Asheville have? How often do they check this?
My answer: On a positive note, my intestines are now completely non-stick.
Real answer: The Washington Post story was indeed sobering, as it noted the pervasive nature of PFAS in our drinking water.
As the Post article explains, “PFAS refers to more than 12,000 chemicals that persist in the environment and can build up in the body. They are widely used in industry and consumer products, ranging from clothing and cosmetics to fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags.”
PFAS stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — chemicals (that) are not only long-lasting but widespread in drinking supplies,” according to the Post article.
The article continues with this cheery quote:
“Millions of people have been drinking a toxic forever chemical linked to cancer all their lives and are only discovering it today,” Scott Faber, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said Thursday about the research.
Multiple studies have been conducted about PFAS, and the Post article, from July 7, notes that “a new study from the United States Geological Survey estimates that these contaminants taint nearly half of the nation’s tap water.”
The city of Asheville has detected some PFAS in its water supplies, but at low levels. Testing started several years ago but has become increasingly comprehensive.
“In 2015 finished (treated) water samples were collected during the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule study and no detections were found for the (city’s) three water treatment plants,” city of Asheville spokesperson Kim Miller said via email. “Sampling occurred during each quarter of 2015.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducts the UCMRule study every five years to monitor for unregulated contaminants in drinking water.
“On June 24, 2019, the city participated in a Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill study where 47 PFAS compounds were tested at all three water treatment plants,” Miller said. “No positive traces were found in the raw water at the North Fork and William DeBruhl facilities. Our Mills River facility showed slight traces of PFHpA (a type of PFAS chemical) at 1.7 parts per trillion. The detection limit for this particular chemical is 1.0 part per trillion.
“The results were so low that the testing facility thought it could be due to cross contamination and should not be an area of concern.”
The city’s Water Resources Department operates three water treatment plants: North Fork, located in Black Mountain; William DeBruhl in Swannanoa; and Mills River, near the Asheville Regional Airport in northern Henderson County.
“The North Fork and DeBruhl watersheds are pristine,” according to the city’s website. “The reservoirs are fed by pure mountain streams, which are protected from industrial and agricultural contaminants.”
A second round of testing took place in November 2019, but the pandemic prevented the city from receiving results until January 2022.
“The analysis showed that none of the 47 PFAS compounds were detected in the raw water from North Fork or William DeBruhl,” Miller said.
The city’s Mills River water plant has two water sources, the Mills River and the French Broad River.
“At the request of the city, two separate samples were collected,” Miller said. “The Mills River source showed no detections, but the French Broad had a 1.5 parts per trillion (level).”
Another round of testing was conducted.
“On Feb. 16, 2022, the city took samples of the water from all three water treatment facilities, including the four water sources and the treated drinking water,” Miller said. “As the ability to test lower and lower becomes available, we had several traces of PFAS compounds detected.”
I reached out to Environmental Chemists Inc., the North Carolina company that conducted the water analysis for the city, for more details, but I didn’t hear back by deadline.
Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper at MountainTrue, the local environmental nonprofit, said the organization is concerned about PFAS contamination.
“We are investigating PFAS contamination in western North Carolina waterways, and our sampling to date unfortunately indicates that PFAS are widespread,” Carson said via email. “While any amount of PFAS can be harmful to human and aquatic health, we have so far not documented high levels of PFAS in most places.”
Carson said the group continues to work with its partners at the Southern Environmental Law Center to investigate sources and levels of PFAS contamination locally.
“Related to this effort, we have been asking (the North Carolina) Department of Environmental Quality to require industrial dischargers to disclose whether PFAS may be present in their effluent when wastewater permits are renewed,” Carson said.
Question: (Answer Man note: My apologies that this question took so long to answer. It got buried in my email. Yes, a lame excuse!) Today, May 9, was a scheduled trash and recycle pickup in Black Mountain. I noticed that both the trash and the blue bags that I had carefully separated were picked up and thrown into the same truck. Strangely, a flat, 2-foot plastic storage container lid was apparently deemed to be neither suitable for trash nor recycling, and was left. We are diligent in trying to distinguish and separate items for recycling, but then seeing that our community appears to not care at all is discouraging, to say the least. What’s going on?
My answer: I’m starting to suspect some sanitation workers are not truly environmentalists.
Real answer: Tausha Millwood, senior administrative assistant with the town’s Public Works & Sanitation Department, said it’s hard to know exactly what happened.
“We do continue to struggle with being short-staffed, as most places are these days,” Millwood said via email. “We are sometimes forced to use employees from other departments in order to provide the collections.”
That’s most likely what happened here, she said.
“It may have been an employee who isn’t a regular sanitation worker who picked up everything by mistake,” Millwood said. “I will speak with everyone and do my best to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
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