The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, finalized a memorandum of agreement with the City of Burlington in which the city agreed to investigate the sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals and 1,4-Dioxane in the city’s wastewater discharges.
“This agreement and investigation takes us one step closer to making the Haw River cleaner and safer,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents Haw River Assembly. “With the city’s cooperation, we can identify the source of the PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane pollution in Burlington’s treatment systems much more quickly than through litigation. Once the source is identified, the city can and should take steps to stop the pollution.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Burlington will investigate the sources of industrial pollution into its wastewater treatment systems that are causing the city to discharge PFAS chemicals and 1,4-Dioxane into the Haw River. The city will conduct extensive sampling throughout its treatment systems over the next several months under the agreement.
The Haw River is the primary drinking water source for the Town of Pittsboro. Because of upstream discharges from Burlington, Reidsville and Greensboro wastewater treatment plants, levels of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane in Pittsboro’s drinking water are consistently elevated. The City of Greensboro has entered into a preliminary Special Order of Consent with the NC Department of Environmental Quality over its discharges of 1,4-Dioxane; a public hearing is expected to be announced within the next few weeks, according to a DEQ spokeswoman. Reidsville is working to incorporate changes into its discharge permit, according to DEQ.
The discharges have serious consequences for downstream communities. At a virtual public meeting tomorrow at 10 a.m. Duke University scientist Heather Stapleton and the Haw River Assembly are releasing results of a PFAS exposure study, which includes results from the river, drinking water and blood of Pittsboro residents. Results have shown that Pittsboro residents have high levels of PFAS in their blood.
PFAS and 1,4-dioxane, which are produced by industry or are byproducts of manufacturing processes, are both toxic and have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer. Because these compounds persist in the environment, they are known as “forever chemicals.” In addition, traditional water treatment technology can’t remove them from drinking water. In Wilmington, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is spending upward of $45 million to upgrade its water treatment plant to further reduce the levels of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane.
Burlington Director of Water Resources Bob Patterson issued a statement about the agreement:
“The City remains in full compliance with the rules and permit requirements for our wastewater discharge as set by North Carolina and Federal regulatory agencies. There are many unknowns about the environmental and health effects of thousands of chemicals used in our daily lives that are subsequently found in the wastewater stream. However, we recognize that new research can reveal previously unknown concerns.
“When the Haw River Assembly came to us with their concerns, we immediately initiated accelerated, voluntary sampling at our wastewater treatment plants, from our relatively few significant industrial users, and from the landfill leachate brought to one plant for treatment. This agreement formalizes nearly a year of working with the Haw River Assembly to develop a cutting edge PFAS sampling plan and source tracking initiative that can serve as a national model for utilities around the country.”
The city will maintain results of the monitoring at its website BurlingtonNC.gov/Water .
Nearly a year ago SELC informed Burlington officials that it intended to sue over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. Even though the EPA doesn’t regulated PFAS and 1,4-dioxane in drinking water, the compounds are subject to provisions of the CWA, which covers rivers, streams and lakes. Policy Watch reported at the time that Burlington’s wastewater discharge permits didn’t include either 1,4-Dioxane or PFAS in its list of chemicals and compounds that the city can flush into surface waters. The two wastewater treatment plants — East and South — each process up to 12 million gallons of discharge per day.
“Haw River Assembly has been studying and working to stop PFAS pollution in the Haw River since 2015,” explained Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper. “Burlington’s treatment plant is a main source of the PFAS in the river, and we are glad this important investigation is moving forward. We are committed to eliminating these toxic chemicals from the river to protect the communities who depend on it.”