Under the Dome

NC agency lacks equipment to find water pollution. Could it just borrow some?

This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested.
This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested. The Environmental Work Group

When Senate leader Phil Berger blasted the House’s GenX funding bill this month, he said it “authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free.”

The equipment is a $500,000 tool called a high-resolution mass spectrometer that the Department of Environmental Quality wants to study GenX and other potential contaminants in drinking water. House Bill 189 includes $2.3 million for DEQ to buy the equipment and hire and train five new scientists to use it; it passed the House unanimously but hasn't gotten support from Senate leadership.

So can DEQ do the testing with equipment the state already has?

Asked to clarify Berger’s statement, spokeswoman Shelly Carver said “we know there is at least one high resolution mass spectrometer at a RTP EPA office, and that they will provide access and testing to the state at no cost (waters are under both state and federal jurisdiction.) We also believe there are at least 65 mass spectrometers within our public university system and are trying to find out more information on their specifications and capabilities.”

But DEQ said that borrowing a spectrometer is easier said than done, and the Research Triangle Park facility can’t accomplish what the state agency could with in-house equipment and staff.

“The EPA Office of Research and Development lab in RTP’s mass spectrometer is already at capacity with other research and has stopped analyzing routine water quality samples for North Carolina,” DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger said in an email. “The EPA Athens, Ga., lab has given us assistance but also faces capacity demands as the lab serves seven other states. When the EPA assistance ends, North Carolina will have to pay private sector labs more than the cost of the high resolution mass spectrometer one-time cost each year.” The EPA confirmed that its lab has assisted DEQ with spectrometer tests in recent months.

As for the universities, multiple UNC system campuses have several mass spectrometers. UNC-Chapel Hill's chemistry department has a mass spectrometry lab that allows other academics and commercial entities to use the equipment by paying an hourly rate.

But Munger said DEQ can’t just use any high-resolution mass spectrometer. The agency needs “at minimum a High Resolution Tandem Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometer (LC/MS) or potentially a more sophisticated technology called an Orbitrap LC/MS.” The latter is only available at the EPA lab and at a Duke University lab; Duke, like UNC, makes its spectrometers available for a fee, according to its website.

“Other universities may have equivalent but not identical High Resolution Tandem LC/MSs that are used for research purposes and there are hindrances with compatibility, capacity and expertise for use on fluorinated compounds and non-targeted analysis,” Munger said.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper – leader of an environmental nonprofit focused on river quality – said asking DEQ to use someone else’s mass spectrometer won’t work. “I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality should have to borrow critical equipment that can help identify dangerous toxic compounds in our drinking water supplies, now or in the future,” he said. “Further, regulators need to be trained to use these devices, the devices need to be calibrated and maintained by the people using them, and it’s unrealistic to expect owners of these machines to drop everything when the state is ready to test samples.”

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