North Carolina citizens living near the Cape Fear River deserve safer drinking water. Access to clean water is fundamental in protecting citizens’ health and well-being. However, NC factories have severely polluted the Cape Fear River with PFAS contaminants, synthetic chemicals used to make water, heat, and grease resistant items. While the NC government banned PFAS pollution in 2017, businesses annually dumped about 1,256 kilograms of PFAS contaminants into the Cape Fear River for 40 years. As a North Carolinian myself, the careless destruction of an important waterway and lack of responsibility shown by NC businesses enrages me. Fortunately, the NC General Assembly may take action through the proposed House Bill 1095. The bill holds NC businesses accountable for their pollution of NC waterways, forcing businesses to pay the cost of cleaning the water and ensuring safe drinking water for NC citizens.
PFAS contaminated water has created a widespread health emergency for NC citizens living near the Cape Fear River. Of the nearly 1 million people residing in the Cape Fear River Basin, around 68.5% contain unhealthy PFAS levels in their blood, with 29% of the population having “high-risk” contaminant levels. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as the maximum PFAS pollutant level, many Cape Fear residents rely on drinking water with PFAS levels measuring 100,000 ppt. As a result of this dangerous exposure, severe health effects — thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancers, birth defects, etc. — are beginning to plague Cape Fear residents. For example, Tom Kennedy is a 50-year-old man who lives near the Cape Fear River and has endured serious health problems as a direct result of corporate pollution in the river. Kennedy has undergone 85 chemotherapy treatments to fight a cancer that originated in his chest and has spread throughout his body. Beth Markesino, who lives only 11 miles from Kennedy, has also endured PFAS-related health issues, such as thyroid cysts, various tumors, and a miscarriage of her baby son. Kennedy and Markesino are only two examples of the mass harm caused by PFAS contaminated water, as additional cases of disease and pain continue to surface. The NC General Assembly must take action and pass HB 1095 to protect its citizens.
Often, there is an argument that environmental regulation stifles economic innovation and supports an overall anti-business attitude. If HB 1095 becomes law, the companies that polluted NC waterways — such as Chemours — will be held accountable and incur higher costs. Perhaps businesses facing the cost of water cleanup will elect to leave NC altogether. It may be more cost efficient to relocate than pay for the technologically advanced water cleaning process and face civil penalties, like the $12 million fine NC officials charged Chemours in 2018.
Additionally, HB 1095 faces substantial pushback from Republican NC lawmakers. While Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and NC Attorney General Josh Stein are both large proponents of holding NC businesses accountable for their PFAS pollution, Republican policymakers have attempted to limit environmental regulation through budget cuts. Specifically, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has instituted budget cuts for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the NC Attorney General’s Office, and the NC Department of Health and Human Services. All three entities play essential roles in identifying PFAS pollution issues and ensuring that polluting companies are held responsible. Thus, by stripping the groups’ funding and resources, Republican lawmakers are sheltering their business interests from accountability.
Corporate polluters and Republican lawmakers must understand that the cost of water cleanup will be small compared to the long-term benefits the state will receive. Considering the cost-benefit results of a federal environmental initiative, the Clean Air Act, the large upfront costs of the program ($65 billion) were significantly smaller than the benefits ($2 trillion). In the case of HB 1095, the cost of cleaning NC waterways — nearly $350 million — will be much less than the dollar value of benefits, such as saved medical costs for PFAS-related illnesses. The state will benefit from reduced stress on its healthcare system, and a healthier population will be able to contribute more substantially to the state’s economy. For instance, the prevention of chronic illnesses at the national level would boost the economy by more than $1 trillion, suggesting that NC would reap a proportionate share.
HB 1095 is not a business vs. regulation matter. This is a matter of life or death for NC citizens living near the Cape Fear River. The NC General Assembly must take action now to stop the killing of NC citizens.
Davis Beischer is from Durham, NC and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.