Cumberland County Manager Amy Cannon on Aug. 1 asked the county Board of Commissioners to consider creating two new water and sewer districts to combat contamination of private wells due to GenX and other forever PFAS chemicals in portions of the county.
She said creating distinct water and sewer districts with specific boundaries will make those areas more competitive for grants. Grants for total countywide water are not available, she said.
Cannon asked the commissioners to consider creating the Cedar Creek and the East Central water and sewer districts. She also recommended serving the existing Vander Water and Sewer District, which was created in 2002.
The board asked Cannon to have staff members conduct a community education campaign before scheduling a public hearing, which is required prior to the county establishing the new water districts.
Chairman Glenn Adams said holding the public hearings after the education and information campaign will better prepare those who want to speak at the public hearing. The board also voted to give county staff the go-ahead to apply for grants for the Gray’s Creek water extension and for the Vander Water and Sewer District.
The proposed water and sewer districts
Cannon acknowledged that since 2002 the Vander Water and Sewer District had been dormant. She said the focus has been on the Gray’s Creek area, where the chemical contamination of private drinking water wells initially was the highest.
The proposed Cedar Creek Water and Sewer District is bounded by the Cape Fear River on the west, N.C. 210 South on the north, Bladen County on the south, and Turnbull Road on the east. The district contains concentrations of GenX along the Cape Fear River and PFAS greater than 10 parts per trillion throughout, mostly along Johnson and Matt Haire roads, according to maps in Cannon’s presentation.
The proposed East Central Water and Sewer District is bounded by Maxwell Road on the north, Sampson County on the east, Avard Road on the south, and N.C. 210 South and Carder Road on the west. The district contains concentrations of PFAS greater than 10 ppt throughout, according to the presentation to the board.
The Vander Water and Sewer District is bounded by Wilmington Highway on the west, John Carter Road on the east, Murphy Road on the east and north, and by N.C. 24 on the north as well. The district has pockets of PFAS greater than 10 ppt throughout, according to the presentation.
Cannon’s recommendations come after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on June 15 released an updated health advisory level for four PFAS chemicals prevalent in county wells, including GenX, PFOA, PFOS and PFBS. The result of those advisory levels increased the number of private wells eligible for whole house filtration systems or public water connections by 1,300, according to Assistant County Manager Brian Haney.
Initially, the contamination coming from the Chemours chemical plant on the Cumberland/Bladen County line was focused in the Gray’s Creek community, but it since has found its way to other areas of the county. GenX, a chemical compound used in manufacturing by Chemours, was first discovered in the Cape Fear River in 2017.
During an 18-month negotiation period with Chemours, Cannon said the county could not reach a financial agreement with the company to provide the money needed to extend water in the affected areas. In March 2022, the county filed a lawsuit against Chemours over that issue.
The county formed the Gray’s Creek Water and Sewer District as part of its master plan for countywide water in 2009. However, Gray’s Creek residents voted down a $21 million water system referendum in November 2011. Since then, residential development on land contaminated with forever chemicals continues.
The board approved $258,600 in the fiscal 2023 budget to start extending water and sewer service in the Gray’s Creek Water and Sewer District, specifically to serve Gray’s Creek and Alderman Road elementary schools and residential homes along the route to those schools.
The board has made the provision of water and sewer in that area one of its primary goals and allocated $21 million from various sources for water services to the Gray’s Creek community. Of the $21 million, $10 million comes from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act account, $10 million from its capital investment fund, and $1 million from Cumberland County Schools.
“We are very aggressively looking at other sources of funding,” Cannon told commissioners.
Among those sources are state and federal monies such as USDA and EPA grants and from the federal Drinking Water Revolving Fund. Cannon led a team of county administrators to Raleigh last week to meet with the state Department of Environmental Quality to “advocate for funding.”
“Emerging contaminants” was one issue affecting funding for Cumberland County. Emerging contaminants are substances that are not yet regulated but may be of environmental or human health concern. These substances include industrial compounds such as those produced by Chemours. Emerging contaminants were not considered evaluative criteria for state funding, Cannon said.
Cannon said the plan is to extend water lines from the Food Lion on N.C. 87 toward those schools and to sign up as many residential customers along the way. She recommended hiring a water resource engineer who could be paid from the $10 million allocated toward the Gray’s Creek water extension project.
The $258,600 first phase includes getting encroachment agreements, easements, permits, preparing bids and bulk water agreements with PWC. The first phase also includes establishing community meetings to educate the public about the contamination.
Critical in the process is getting residents or customers to sign up early for water services. Early sign-ups for tap fees allow the county to determine the economic feasibility of extending water services. Those signing up early may get a reduced tap fee, according to Cannon.
When asked how much the tap-on fees would be, she clarified that the Board of Commissioners would make that determination. “If you want to do this, we’ll come back with details,” she said.
Currently, the county plans to get water from PWC, with which it has bulk water agreements. She also suggested the county could possibly acquire water from deep well aquifers that are below the level that current wells get their water. Cannon said that wherever the county gets its water, it will make sure to remove all PFAS chemicals from any water it sells to county residents. She said Harnett County and the town of Dunn also could be a source of safe water.
In other business, Richie Hines from the N.C. Department of Transportation briefed the board on upcoming road projects in Cumberland County.
He said the Transportation Department recently awarded the Gillis Hill Road widening project to W.C. English Construction Co. of Lynchburg, Virginia.
A bridge replacement on U.S. 401 on the Harnett/Cumberland County line over the Little River should be completed by October. Also, a round-about on Rockfish Road and Golfview Drive should be finished by June 2023.
Other planned projects include a mini round-about at Whitfield Street and Camden Road, paving Hope Mills Road (N.C. 59) from George Owen Road (N.C. 162) to Camden Road, paving Bragg Boulevard from Skibo Road (U.S. 401) to Glenville Avenue, and a round-about on Chickenfoot Road at John McMillan Road.