PFAS PR Guide: Lessons from Cape Fear's Experience


In 2021, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) reached a settlement with Chemours for the discharge of GenX chemicals into the Cape Fear River. The settlement included $13 million in penalties and investigative costs, directed to NCDEQ. Years of academic research, mysterious illnesses along the Cape Fear watershed, and grassroots efforts were behind this decision.

DuPont and its subsidiary Chemours manufactured Teflon® at its Fayetteville, NC facility using PFAS, specifically GenX chemicals. Wastewater from the Teflon® production process discharged large quantities of GenX chemicals into the Cape Fear River for over four decades. Communities like Fayetteville, Wilmington, and others depend on the river as a water source, exposing thousands to high levels of these “forever chemicals” for over a generation. Health authorities link the legacy contamination to a thyroid cancer cluster in the Wilmington area.

Even as news of PFAS’ health effects became public, NCDEQ was slow to limit PFAS discharge from Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility. Local organizations sued NCDEQ to compel this multinational company to stop discharging forever chemicals.

The Cape Fear region’s experience with PFAS is only one well-publicized example of how this diverse chemical family affects communities and creates distrust of public drinking water. Communities across the country have similar stories of water contamination, each with overlapping themes of sources and health risks that have inspired state and federal PFAS regulations.


  • Industrial Discharge
  • Consumer Products
  • Legacy Contamination  


  • Various Cancers
  • Reduced Response to Vaccines
  • High Cholesterol

Given what we know about PFAS, EPA recently published drinking water limits for six PFAS chemicals, mandating they be removed from our nation’s drinking water to prevent health effects such as those seen in the Cape Fear watershed. Ahead of these stringent water regulations, several states have set PFAS advisory and action limits for water providers and even banned biosolids land application due to the presence of PFAS.

Recent news coverage and public knowledge around PFAS have made ratepayers more aware of these chemicals than ever. In addition to the necessary treatment required to remove PFAS, all utilities benefit greatly from crafting a strong PFAS public relations plan to address public concerns, create a collaborative environment for concerned citizens to work with utilities, and ultimately comply with new and upcoming regulations.

Challenges Faced by Municipalities: Cape Fear

The Cape Fear River supplies drinking water to over 500,000 North Carolinians. Multiple industries sit at its banks, depending on the river for water and receiving their wastewater discharge. In 2012, a research team detected GenX downstream of Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility. Upriver, concentrations were undetectable. In 2013 and 2014, GenX sampling occurred before and after CFPUA’s water treatment process, finding no change in GenX concentrations in the otherwise treated drinking water.

Upon this discovery, little was done. CFPUA did not receive funds from Chemours or the state to address this contamination, forcing them to distribute GenX-contaminated water to their ratepayers until new granular activated carbon filters were installed in 2022 at the cost of $44 million. Cape Fear River Watch, a local environmental organization, sued NCDEQ for not taking swifter action against Chemours, which ultimately led NCDEQ to sue Chemours.

Communication Strategy and Developing Public Trust

The citizens of Cape Fear’s watershed were pioneers in the fight against PFAS contamination and did not have the information that many ratepayers and utilities are equipped with today. The discovery of PFAS in the Cape Fear River caused public outrage and distrust among environmental, racial, and justice groups in the area, leading to negative national attention for CFPUA.

Due to media coverage, Americans are more aware of PFAS and the federal and state drinking water laws. As EPA’s maximum contaminant limits (MCL) roll out and communities across the country prepare to comply with these new MCLs over the next five years, your ratepayers may be quicker to react and organize around PFAS contamination. This access to information means in addition to treatment solutions, water and wastewater utilities must have effective PFAS communication strategies to respond to ratepayers’ concerns, communicate short-term and long-term solutions, and be transparent about the PFAS levels in your community’s drinking water.  

Financial Burden of PFAS Contamination

CFPUA’s new GAC filters put the utility in compliance with the new drinking water regulations. But they cost an additional $4.7 million to operate annually, doubling the plant’s previous annual budget. It took a decade between discovering PFAS in the Cape Fear River and receiving the necessary funds from Chemours to install a GenX removal system at CFPUA’s water treatment facility.  

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates the cost to comply with the drinking water rule could exceed $2.5 billion to $3.2 billion annually, more than double EPA estimates. With national drinking water regulations now in place, water providers face the same hurdle as Cape Fear did: sourcing the funds necessary to purchase and operate expensive treatment equipment.

Outside Support to Combat Contamination

As strict limits and tight budgets squeeze water and wastewater treatment providers, looking to outside resources can be critical to meeting EPA’s PFAS timeline and complying with future regulations. As mentioned above, in addition to State Revolving Funds, federal and state technical assistance, and federal infrastructure incentives, water utilities nationwide increasingly depend on litigation to fund PFAS removal without unnecessarily burdening ratepayers.

Hundreds of water systems have opted to hold PFAS manufacturers responsible for their role in contaminating drinking water. Through the legal process, water providers can seek to protect the rights of their utilities and ratepayers, recovering some of the funds needed to build new water treatment facilities, monitor contaminant levels, and pay for other management needs. The current 3M, DuPont, and Tyco PFAS settlements for public water providers are one potential source of funding. However, the process can be complex and lengthy, and settlement payouts may not address all funding needs. In addition, for utilities that opted out of the settlements, litigation against 3M and DuPont will be the only avenue to recover costs from these manufacturers. It is advisable to seek legal counsel to determine the best path forward for your utility's unique situation.

Additionally, referencing the EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, drinking water is only the first step to reducing human PFAS exposure, with wastewater effluent and biosolids regulation potentially on the roadmap for both EPA and many state health agencies.

If your utility is seeking funding to recover PFAS clean-up costs, a law firm with experience in water contamination litigation can help you explore all available legal options and avoid potentially costly mistakes. It is important to have a trustworthy advocate to help find the best solutions for your system’s challenges. To learn more about the solutions available to your utility, schedule a consultation with SL Environmental Law Group.