Willy Phillips knew it was time to move when the crabs got sick.

After seven years of making a living in the Pamlico River, he’d never seen anything like it. His catches were coming up full of sores and disfigurements.

The river banks were littered with dead animals; crabs crawled out of the water and died as if trying to escape the very place that once sustained them.

Willy’s livelihood was at stake, but what worried him most was that the health of his catches was just a symptom. The waters that had provided for him and generations before him were dying.

It was the mid-1980s, and just upriver in Aurora, North Carolina, the Texasgulf Chemicals Company was nearly 20 years into operation of the largest phosphate mining and chemical plant in the world. The massive mine dug through layers of sand to extract 5.4 million tons of phosphates a year, shipping them by rail to Morehead City’s deep water port—much of it bound for farms as fertilizer.

Beyond the mine, dotting the tributaries of the Tar-Pamlico Basin, were many of those same farms, whose hog and poultry waste and manure seeped relentlessly into the groundwater and, eventually, into Willy’s fishing waters.

“A litmus test of the viability of waters is if people can make a living out of them,” said Phillips. “And the productivity of the [Pamlico] was plummeting.”

A years-long campaign led to the introduction of a closed-loop wastewater management system at the Aurora mine, limiting the nutrient runoff. The victory was significant, but like a decades-long game of whack-a-mole, the single chapter 40 years ago is strikingly familiar today. Someone raises alarm based on personal harm, a long, lonely fight ensues, and a remedy is made that will do little to prevent the next problem from arising.

Today, the viability of North Carolina’s waters remains in question. From hog farms and coal ash to industrial runoff and new forms of “forever chemicals,” the array of threats make North Carolina a uniquely vulnerable state in regards to water quality.

And for folks like Willy, at the front lines of the crisis, it’s nearly impossible to know where to turn for help.

A freshwater fishing boat traverses Jordan Lake on an early Saturday morning // Photo by Travis Dove

A New Form of Pollutant

Roughly 120 miles southwest of Aurora—and nearly 20 years before Willy’s crabs began dying en masse—chemical company DuPont opened a sprawling plant along the Cape Fear River, on the border of Bladen and Cumberland counties. By 1980, the Fayetteville Works plant began producing the most pervasive classification of chemicals yet to be invented.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” are complex substances that don’t degrade over time. They can’t be effectively treated or removed by most water treatment facilities. Reverse osmosis and boiling have little effect. Soluble compounds, they move easily through soil and into groundwater. Exposure, even in low concentrations, has been linked to a wide range of cancers, diseases, and negative health effects. And unlike many pollutants, they build up in the human body.

For well over 60 years, scientists have known that PFAS are toxic and affect humans directly. Researchers began to detect PFAS in human blood in the 1970s, and in the 1990s studies began to emerge about potential health effects. But it wasn’t until the final months of the Obama administration—when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a lifetime health advisory for two of the most widely detected PFAS variants, PFOA and PFOS—that national media outlets started reporting in earnest on the scope of the problem.

Meanwhile, PFAS had been in use since the 1940s as a nonstick coating and water- and stain-resistant treatment. They make up everything from Teflon and Scotchguard to food packaging and fire-fighting foam. Their presence isn’t limited to North Carolina, but DuPont’s presence—now spun off for liability protection into a separate company called Chemours—make the state an exceptional case.

“DuPont and Chemours have dumped PFAS into North Carolina’s drinking water even as they knew these forever chemicals pose threats to human health and our natural resources,” wrote North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein in an October 2020 lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont. “These companies maximized their profits at the expense of the people of North Carolina.”

A family gathers at Jordan Lake’s public beach access // Photo by Travis Dove
The smokestack of a former textile mill is reflected in the Haw River in Burlington, NC. Pinpointing the exact source of PFAS upstream from Jordan Lake is a difficult task // Photo by Travis Dove

Stein’s suit, which succeeds a 2017 lawsuit filed on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, seeks damages for the harm caused to drinking water, fisheries, and other natural resources. It seeks to “void certain corporate transactions among the companies,” described in the suit as “a complex scheme designed to shield billions of dollars in assets from the State and others who the companies knew were damaged by their conduct.”

Residents nearly 100 miles away from the Chemours plant have blood levels with PFAS several times higher than national averages. Tap water samples taken between May and December 2019 from Belville Elementary School in Brunswick County had the highest levels of PFAS among 44 sites tested in 31 states by the Environmental Working Group.

Contamination once thought to be focused on the lower Cape Fear—downstream from the Fayetteville Works plant—is now acknowledged to be far more widespread. Levels as far upstream as Jordan Lake and the Haw River are above national safety levels, and approximately one million North Carolinians, 10 percent of the state’s population, are exposed to PFAS through their drinking water.

But as awareness of the problem grows, little of that knowledge is being put to use on the ground.

Searching for Answers

When Katie Bryant first moved to Pittsboro in the summer of 2011, she kept hearing the same strange warning from neighbors and people she met in town: Don’t drink the water.

A microbiologist at the time, Bryant got curious and requested the water report from the town. There was an issue with a cleaning byproduct, but it seemed the town had taken the proper steps and it had been remedied. The warnings she was hearing, she assumed, were probably just based on outdated information.

Katie Bryant, a co-founder of Clean Haw River, moved her family to a home with well water and a dedicated filtration system after researching the PFAS issue in Pittsboro // Photo by Travis Dove

Then, she and her kids got sick with mysterious digestive issues. Her husband needed his gallbladder removed. Two of their dogs passed away from rare intestinal cancers. Friends developed nongenetic cancers, like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I know as a country these things are on the rise, and these things happen all over to some extent, but when you move to a town of 4,000 and everywhere you turn, people are sick, you can’t ignore that,” Bryant said. “I took my children off the water, and they haven’t had issues since.”

Pittsboro, for now at least, is a small town. It is also the location for the largest-ever planned development built in North Carolina. The 7,100-acre Chatham Park will, once complete, swell the population by 60,000 people. Construction has already begun, and the development is planned to be fully built by 2045.

A water tower stands over the town of Pittsboro // Photo by Travis Dove
The historic town center of Pittsboro will likely experience a bump in foot traffic in the coming years with the planned Chatham Park development adding tens of thousands of residents // Photo by Travis Dove
A bulldozer scales a pile of dirt in Pittsboro’s Chatham Park, a planned development that will add an estimated 60,000 people to the area when completed // Photo by Travis Dove

The town’s drinking water comes from the Haw River, which flows 110 miles from northeast Forsyth County before emptying into the southern end of Jordan Lake. The Haw, according to measurements taken by the Haw River Assembly and NC DEQ, contains one of the highest levels of PFAS in the state. Those compounds have made their way into the northern end of Jordan Lake, a source of drinking water for over 700,000 people.

Because of the health effects stemming from Pittsboro’s water, the Bryant family moved in November 2020 to a home outside the town limits, where they rely on a well and a water-filtration system.

“I couldn’t handle the stress anymore,” Bryant said. “It’s only because we can afford [this filtration system]. What about the people who don’t know? Who can’t afford this solution? No one is disseminating any sort of warning or guidance.”

Bryant, along with Dr. Jessica Merricks, Pittsboro resident and assistant professor of biology at Elon University, founded Clean Haw River in 2020 to inform the people of Pittsboro of PFAS and other contaminants in their water. Pittsboro Mayor James Nass did not respond to email inquiries about this story.

Elon biology professor Dr. Jessica Merricks, who lives in Pittsboro, is a co-founder of Clean Haw River, a local environmental conservation organization // Photo by Travis Dove

Evolving Science

Water is a notoriously difficult body in which to track contaminants. That’s because it’s everywhere—in rivers, streams, oceans, the air, our bodies. Waterways intersect and depart before emptying into the same destinations. Different chemicals can dilute and strengthen over time, when they come into contact with other chemicals or are subjected to temperature changes.

PFAS can enter a waterway directly from a point source, like what happened at Chemours, or find their way into water from landfills, runoff, or several processing plants that are simultaneously dumping smaller quantities of the group of chemicals.

That often makes pinpointing a certain entity or tracking exactly where a specific contaminant came from next to impossible.

“When Jordan Lake was built, it was predicted it would have these issues. It’s relatively shallow and heats up,” said former state House Rep. Chuck McGrady. “We’ve put off dealing with Jordan Lake over and over again because upstream users of the lake don’t want to pay for downstream cleanup. And yet, scientists don’t doubt it’s what’s getting into the water upstream that’s causing these issues.”

In 2018, the state General Assembly released $5 million to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory to undertake a statewide study on the effects of PFAS. Researchers from universities across the state came together to form the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network. Its results, while still preliminary, have found that PFAS are both pervasive and problematic through large portions of the state’s watersheds.

The organization has submitted quarterly reports documenting its discoveries since October 2018—its latest is scheduled for submission next month to the General Assembly. That report, like others before it, are the building blocks for a thorny and difficult question: Just how much PFAS contamination is North Carolina willing to accept?

Currently, the only formal guidance that exists is the EPA’s 2016 health advisory that states the level of two PFAS variants—PFOA and PFOS—should not exceed 70 parts per trillion. Many researchers say that the maximum contaminant level, or MCL, is far too generous.

“A federal MCL of 70 parts per trillion might be worse than no federal MCL at all,” Alissa Cordner said. Cordner, an associate professor of sociology at Whitman College in Washington state, studies environmental sociology and perception of different toxins, including PFAS. “Because then you would have many, many states not going to go through the process of developing their own MCL, and just say, ‘As long as we’re lower than 70 we’re fine.’ When that’s really not what the signs are telling us,” said Cordner.

The water treatment plant for the town of Pittsboro // Photo by Travis Dove
The water treatment plant for the town of Pittsboro has plans for a granular activated carbon treatment facility in reaction to the PFAS levels // Photo by Travis Dove

The Environmental Working Group proposed a standard far below that threshold, at one part per trillion. That number is based on a 2013 environmental toxicity study published by Harvard’s School of Public Health, which concluded that “current exposure limits do not adequately protect children and other vulnerable groups against adverse effects on the human immune system.”

Few people in the country have spent as long examining the health effects of PFAS on the body as Jamie DeWitt. An associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Eastern Carolina University, DeWitt first got “dragged” into studying PFAS over a decade ago, when she was asked to switch her focus from a different chemical compound to PFAS during her postdoctoral research. Now, she examines the effects of PFAS on the immune systems of mice in a lab setting.

In 2019, DeWitt testified in front of Congress about the dangers that PFAS pose to the human body. Those effects include decreased antibody response to vaccines, liver damage, increased risk of asthma, decreased fertility, decreases in birth weight and risks to unborn fetuses, and increases in certain types of cancer.

Currently, DeWitt’s lab is examining the health effects on mice when they ingest certain combinations of PFAS. Results indicate another worry—that specific chemicals, when ingested together, are more potently toxic than they are on their own.

“The mixture was very toxic to the mice—in fact, we had to reduce our doses,” DeWitt said. “And we had to terminate the male animals before the end of the study, because they were suffering from toxicity.”

Removing a Forever Chemical

With other contaminants, time can lead to a reset. E. coli levels drop on their own. Nutrient levels can rebalance. But no such natural rebalancing takes place with PFAS. Removing it from the system is extremely challenging.

For Frank Leibfarth, an assistant professor of chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill, his inspiration came from diapers. Leibfarth began studying PFAS contaminants in 2016 after reading a story about them in New York Magazine. Leibfarth elected to find a way to remove them from water sources using his research specialty, gels, and began studying the chemical structure of diapers, one of the most absorbent materials on the market.

“I started to ask, from a chemical perspective, what kind of groups do I need to put into a material that would absorb a ton of a specific substance?” he asked.

That question led Leibfarth and his collaborator to develop a resin, called an ionic fluorogel, that filters out many types of PFAS. The resin can also be installed over existing filtration systems in water-treatment plants. This is a key design element, because the standard mechanisms currently used in water-treatment facilities are ill-designed for PFAS filtration.

Cities such as Greensboro, whose industries share the same watershed, are potential sources for the PFAS chemicals that land in Jordan Lake // Photo by Travis Dove

The most common filtration system most treatment plants use, Leibfarth said, is called granular activated carbon. The good news is that GAC is effective for a broad spectrum of water contaminants. The bad news is that it’s ineffective against the broad class of PFAS, as well as other “less common” contaminants—like certain compounds produced by pharmaceutical waste.

It can also be costly. The town of Pittsboro plans to build a granular activated carbon treatment facility in the coming years, with the latest cost estimate at $42 million.

“PFAS tends to break through,” Leibfarth said. “So that means you have to replace your granular activated carbon more often than you’d want to.”

And even for the types of PFAS and other less common contaminants that existing technologies manage to trap, the challenge remains on how to dispose of them. “Let’s say in a treatment facility that you absorb all this PFAS onto granular activated carbon—then you need to dispose of it,” Leibfarth said. “What do you do with it? You can’t just bury it back in the ground.”

Disposal remains a challenge with any filtration method, since PFAS are so difficult to break down. Leibfarth and his colleagues are currently washing their resin in a methanol solution, but they are searching for ways to scale up the disposal process for water-treatment facilities.

The question of scaling remains the most vexing. A 2020 study conducted by several researchers with the NC PFAS Testing Network found that some popular residential filtration systems—like the ones built into refrigerators or those that are available for Brita filters, “significantly reduce exposure” to certain types of PFAS, “despite varied performance efficiencies.” But it’s far from practical—or equitable—to rely on household-level filtration, particularly in areas where PFAS levels are soaring.

For residents like Katie Bryant living in highly affected areas, more drastic measures need to be taken to make their water safe enough to drink. In 2019, Chemours reached a deal with the NC DEQ and the Cape Fear River Watch stating that it would install reverse osmosis systems in the wells of residents found to have either combined PFAS levels above 70 parts per trillion or in any individual PFAS compound above 10 parts per trillion. But for residents not included in that deal, or for those who may not know whether their water has been exposed to PFAS contamination, the onus is on them to find out and install a solution.

“It shouldn’t be up to individual consumers.” Cordner said. “If you’re having to fix your public drinking water in your own home, that’s telling you that our system of water safety is broken.”

The best way to remove PFAS, or any contaminant, from people’s drinking water, experts agreed, is to regulate it.

“We need to have significantly more regulation on this class of chemicals,” Cordner said. “And it’s going to put a lot of chemical users in a tough spot.”

Currently, 191 PFAS compounds are regulated by the EPA. There are nearly 5,000 in production.

Willy Phillips now operates Full Circle Crab Company out of the Alligator River, a watershed that remains relatively untouched by industry and agriculture because it is buffeted on either side by protected lands. Even still, Willy has noticed its productivity declining in recent years.

“Especially for those thinking of having kids, it’s hard to imagine a North Carolina where they can’t go in the water because they might get an infection, or they can’t drink their water because it will make them sick,” Willy said. “We have a long way to go to reestablish the quality and viability of these waters.”

A trail runs along the Haw River in Pittsboro // Photo by Travis Dove

For North Carolina, the severity of the state’s PFAS crisis is increasingly matched by the breadth of its research on PFAS impact and removal—even if public action still lags.

“North Carolina kind of took a slightly different approach, and decided to use the university researchers to propose hypotheses that they then test or examine in the environment,” Jason Surratt, program director of the NC PFAS Testing Network, said. “I think what people are realizing is that, maybe, what’s been done in North Carolina is actually a model.”

Carrying that model to Washington is Michael Regan: North Carolina native, former secretary of the NC DEQ, and the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. His record at NC DEQ is mixed. He inherited a demoralized agency and largely remained low-profile until his EPA appointment, but he also built strong statewide relationships, winning plaudits for his outreach and notching some wins, including on coal ash and PFAS cleanup around the Fayetteville Works plant.

“He’s a great person, but I don’t think he’s done enough for us on PFAS,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, to Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg as Regan was being considered for the appointment. “I understand the agency is understaffed and underfunded. But the agency has made decisions unrelated to those things. We’ve fought so hard but received so little.”

Still, Regan steps into a position of vastly greater power at the EPA, and his awareness of the severity of the PFAS crisis is clear. In his confirmation hearings, he stressed the importance of taking action.

“I can commit to you that on day one that this is and will be a priority for this administration to set limits on how much of this chemical compound is entering into our air and our water,” Regan said.

Perhaps Regan’s tenure will be marked by drastic action. Perhaps Stein’s lawsuit will spark systemic change. Or perhaps the cumulative weight of PFAS researchers’ findings next month will galvanize legislative action.

What is abundantly clear, however, is the cruciality of the moment. Without action or, at the very least, information, families like Bryant’s and livelihoods like Willy’s face increasing fear and uncertainty. For now, North Carolinians are waiting to see if their state’s research model can yield a unique result: peace of mind.

Water flows through the Old Bynum Bridge down the Haw River, which is carrying PFAS from upstream toward Jordan Lake // Photo by Travis Dove

Tonya Simpson lives in Raleigh and is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning writer and producer for ESPN. See her other bylines or say hello on Twitter, @tonyamsimpson.

More by this author

Riley Davis is a Raleigh-based freelance science journalist. Her work has appeared in publications including The News & Observer, Southerly, HuffPost, Yale Medicine, and Slate.

More by this author