Pittsboro announces drinking water results after 1,4-Dioxane spill in Greensboro

The Haw River, as viewed from the Bynum bridge (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Levels of 1,4-Dioxane in finished, or treated, drinking water in Pittsboro are below the EPA and North Carolina’s drinking water health advisory level, but much higher than stricter advisory goals for surface water.

The Town of Pittsboro released the results today, based on sampling from July 1 through July 6, shortly after Greensboro illegally discharged the toxic compound from its TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant on June 30. The source of the 1,4-Dioxane has not been publicly disclosed, but state documents show that the City of Greensboro has required additional sampling from one of its industrial customers, Shamrock Environmental.

Treated drinking water levels in Pittsboro ranged from 1.06 parts per billion to 5.56 ppb. The highest level was detected on July 6 at the Chatham Forest tank.

The EPA health advisory goal for 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water is 35 ppb, which represents a 1 in 10,000 lifetime excess cancer risk.

The drinking water goal is controversial because the EPA recommendation for 1,4-Dioxane in surface water is more stringent — 0.35 parts per billion. That represents a
1 in 1 million lifetime excess cancer risk for humans, which the scientific community considers “acceptable.”

If the EPA and North Carolina’s drinking water recommendation for 1,4-Dioxane were as rigorous as that of the surface water, Pittsboro’s levels would be three to 15 times above the guidelines.

Six states have enacted stricter guidelines for 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water than North Carolina, all of them below 1 ppb: Colorado, California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Washington.

The raw water taken from the intake along the Haw River showed that on July 1, levels of 1,4-Dioxane were not detected. But on July 2, two days after the Greensboro release, concentrations in the Haw River hit 76.5 parts per billion. Levels decreased to 2.46 ppb on July 3, possibly because it had rained, before rebounding to 43.7 ppb by July 5.

These concentrations are seven to 200 times the EPA guidelines for surface water.

Pittsboro town staff will continue sampling until the results show non-detections “for an extended period,” according to a press release from Town Manager Chris Kennedy.

1,4-dioxane is toxic to people, causing liver and kidney damage, and increases the risk of cancer. It is used, and created as a byproduct, when manufacturing chemicals, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products, dyes, textiles, paper, and other products.

Below is a screenshot of the press release with the results and sampling points.

Mystery foam in Cumberland County contains high levels of PFAS, investigation ongoing

Source: EPA

This article has been corrected to say that neither Chemours nor DuPont produced PFOS at the Fayetteville Works plant.

High levels of toxic PFAS – perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds – have been detected in a stream, as well as in foam that had accumulated in small pond in Cumberland County, about seven miles from the Chemours plant.

Prompted by a citizen complaint, the NC Department of Environmental Quality tested the water and the foam for 28 types of PFAS in March and April of this year.

The state and the EPA have issued a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion; DEQ has also stated that no one should drink water containing any single compound above 10 ppt. However, other states, like Michigan and New Jersey, have enacted enforceable standards that are more stringent.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disorders, reproductive issues, low birth weight, high cholesterol, immune system problems, and other serious health issues.


Here are the foam results, all in parts per trillion:

PFOS     614.5
PFDA      90.1
PFNA      28.39
PFHXS    12.2

DEQ spokeswoman Anna Gurney said the agency is “investigating the composition and potential sources of the foam.” Since the investigation is ongoing, DEQ has not identified Chemours as the source. There is not an EPA-approved testing method for PFAS in foam, so the results should be interpreted in that context, Gurney said. There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, but neither North Carolina nor the EPA regulates them in drinking water or foam.

Lisa Randall, spokeswoman for Chemours, said DEQ has not been in contact with the company regarding these results. “Based on results you have shared with us, many of the compounds listed are not associated with Chemours’ manufacturing operations. The highest PFAS levels were for PFOS, which is not associated with Chemours’s chemistry.

It’s true that Chemours does not use or produce PFOS. The chemical industry phased it out in the U.S. in the early 2000s.

However, PFOS is known as a “legacy” compound because it persists in the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years.

  • PFDA and PFNA are found in stain- and grease-proof coatings on food packaging, couches and carpet.
  • PFHxS is also found in stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams and food packaging. Production of this compound has been phased out in the U.S., but products containing PFHxS can still be legally imported.

Surface water in the unnamed stream, which flows into Rockfish Creek, also contained 18 types of these compounds, including GenX. Chemours routinely discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River Basin until state regulators prohibited it from doing so.

Concentrations of all the compounds in surface water totaled 53 ppt for the first sample and 78 ppt for the second.

Individual concentrations ranged from below 1 part per trillion to 24 ppt.

Based on the test results, Gurney said, PFAS appear “to concentrate in foam at levels higher than the underlying surface water.”

Gurney said the agency is urging the people to avoid contact with any unusual foam, as a safety precaution. Pets should not be allowed to touch it, either.

Pittsboro officials have activated emergency response over 1,4-Dioxane release that could threaten drinking water

The Haw River, as viewed from the Bynum bridge (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

High levels of 1,4-Dioxane could contaminate the drinking water for Pittsboro as early as today, prompting town officials to activate its emergency response, which includes extensive sampling and testing of the drinking water.

As Policy Watch reported Thursday evening, the contaminated discharge originated upstream, at Greensboro’s TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant.

The plant sent effluent containing levels of the likely carcinogen — 20 times higher than the EPA health advisory goal — into South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River.

The Haw River is the drinking water supply for the Town of Pittsboro, then drains into Jordan Lake and southeast into the Cape Fear River. Both the lake and the Cape Fear provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people, including residents of Cary, Apex, Fayetteville and Wilmington.

Preliminary sampling results show that levels of the likely carcinogen ranged from 543 parts per billion to 687 parts per billion in the wastewater. The EPA’s drinking water health advisory level is 35 parts per billion; in surface water the level is 0.35 parts per billion.

There is no EPA drinking water standard for 1,4-Dioxane; however, discharging these contaminants into waterways violates the Clean Water Act, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Kent Jackson, engineering director for the town of Pittsboro, told Policy Watch via email that the public utilities office is “very aware of this unfortunate occurrence,” adding that town staff has been in “steady contact” with multiple agencies including City of Greensboro, the NC Public Water Supply Section, and Haw River Assembly. “Our staff will continue to monitor and manage this incident until the threat is mitigated.”

Because of past problems with 1,4-Dioxane leaving the TZ Osborne plant, Greensboro officials regularly sample for 1,4-Dioxane. The city notified the NC Department of Environmental Quality of the exceedances yesterday afternoon. This discharge does not affect Greensboro’s drinking water quality.

1,4-Dioxane is a human-made chemical used in industry.

Byproducts are found in many goods, according to the EPA, including paint strippers, dyes, greases, antifreeze and aircraft deicing fluids, and in some consumer products, such as deodorants, shampoos and cosmetics.

Elijah Williams, water reclamation manager for the City of Greensboro, told Policy Watch via email that it is investigating potential sources of the contamination. Sampling results are due at the end of next week; based on those findings, if the city can confirm the origin of the contamination it will release the that information, Williams said. After a similar incident involving 1,4-Dioxane two years ago, the city disclosed the source — Shamrock Environmental — weeks later and only under pressure from the public and state environmental issues.

While DEQ regulates wastewater treatment plants through stipulations in their discharge permits, the individual utilities regulate their industrial and residential customers.

Yesterday’s discharge violates a Special Order by Consent between DEQ and the City of Greensboro, which set a maximum daily level of 45 parts per billion for 1,4-Dioxane. The consent agreement requires Greensboro to notify DEQ within 24 hours if for concentrations above that figure. The city was also fined $5,000 related to the 2019 discharge.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is contesting the consent order on behalf of the Haw River Assembly. The SELC argues that the order  fails to comply with the applicable state water quality laws and regulations, and, “allows Greensboro to significantly increase discharges of the toxic chemical into a river that is a drinking water supply for thousands of North Carolinians, which contributes to a violation of water quality standards.”

Rain moved in to the area overnight, but it’s unclear whether it will sufficiently dilute the amount of 1,4-Dioxane in the drinking water supply. Heavy rain also increases the velocity of the river flow, which means any contamination could reach Pittsboro more quickly.

Greensboro violates consent order, discharges high levels of 1,4-Dioxane, heading toward Pittsboro, Fayetteville

South Buffalo Creek receives wastewater from Greensboro’s TZ Osborne treatment plant. The creek flows into the Haw River, a drinking water supply for the Town of Pittsboro. In turn, the Haw empties into Jordan Lake, which feeds the Cape Fear River. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This is a developing story and will be updated.

The City of Greensboro has discharged levels of of 1,4-Dioxane 20 times higher than EPA recommended levels into the South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River, according to a NC Department of Environmental Quality press release. The contaminated discharge came from the city’s TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant; the source of the contamination has not been disclosed.

Preliminary sampling results show that levels of the likely carcinogen ranged from 543 parts per billion to 687 parts per billion in the wastewater. The EPA’s drinking water health advisory level is 35 parts per billion; in surface water the level is 0.35 parts per billion.

DEQ has notified Pittsboro and Fayetteville, both downstream from Greensboro, that their drinking water could become contaminated. Pittsboro could be affected as early as tomorrow, and based on the levels in the discharge, DEQ said the town’s drinking water could exceed the health advisory level.

Greensboro reported sampling results to the North Carolina Division of Water Resources this afternoon. Additional sampling is underway at the Pittsboro raw water intake.

EPA has identified 1,4 dioxane as a likely human carcinogen. 1,4 dioxane is a clear liquid that is highly miscible in water. It has historically been used as a solvent stabilizer and is currently used for a wide variety of industrial purposes. It is difficult, if not impossible to completely remove from drinking water using traditional treatment methods.

These concentrations violate a Special Order by Consent between DEQ and the City of Greensboro, which set a maximum daily level of 45 parts per billion. In a notice on the city’s website, Greensboro said it is actively investigating possible sources of the substance. This discharge does not affect Greensboro’s drinking water quality.

The Special Order by Consent was triggered by an event nearly two years ago, when discharge from the city’s TZ Osborne plant contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane ranging from 705 ppb to 1,210 ppb. The source of the contamination was Shamrock Environmental, an industrial customer that discharges its wastewater to the Osborne plant.

Shamrock is headquartered in Browns Summit; it has several facilities in North Carolina and one in Virginia. The Patton Avenue plant, responsible for the discharge, is a tanker cleaning facility. It also treats and manages wastewater, recycles and disposes of drilling mud, and hauls waste.

At the time, Greensboro did not notify state environmental regulators for nearly a month, when the city’s next report was due. The consent agreement requires Greensboro to notify DEQ within 24 hours if there are detections greater than 45 ppb.

Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton told Policy Watch that “this new release of 1,4-Dioxane in the Haw is a result of weak enforcement of the water quality standards. The EPA has stated that levels of 0.35 ppb over a lifetime is harmful to human health. The proposed special order by consent is a result of previous violations, but is proposed to allow 33-45 ppb to be discharged into the Haw watershed and transported to downstream communities. This is unacceptable. We have to stop these discharges at the source.”



Former DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart’s new job: Chief Administrative Law Judge

Donald van der Vaart (File photo: NCDEQ)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby has appointed Donald van der Vaart as the new Chief Administrative Law Judge and director of the Office of Administrative Hearings, according to a press statement released today.

“Dr. van der Vaart is a multi-disciplined expert who has accumulated a vast amount of experience in regulatory, legal, and administrative operations,” said Chief Justice Newby. “His skill set is a great fit for directing OAH.”

Van der Vaart resigned from the Environmental Management Commission last week; he had been on the EMC since July 2019, an appointee of State Senate Pro Temp Phil Berger. The 15-member board makes environmental rules that DEQ must follow.

The Office of Administrative Hearings is a quasi-judicial agency that provides administrative law judges to preside over contested cases of administrative law. In addition, OAH deals with the procedure which governs rulemaking for North Carolina state agencies, including Van der Vaart’s alma mater, the Department of Environmental Quality.

Van der Vaart’s annual salary as Chief Administrative Law Judge is roughly $127,000.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Van der Vaart as Secretary of the Environment in January 2015, a post Van der Vaart held until December 2016, when McCrory lost the gubernatorial election.

A lawyer and a chemical engineer, with a specialty in air quality, Van der Vaart often supported weakening or even eliminating environmental rules. His anti-regulatory stance had put him on the short list for the top job at the EPA in the Trump administration, a post that went to Scott Truitt instead.

As Van der Vaart’s tenure as DEQ Secretary wound down, he helped ensure he would remain on the public payroll while awaiting a possible federal appointment: While still secretary, Van der Vaart demoted himself and his chief deputy, John Evans, to mid-level management positions in their previous branch of the agency, the Division of Air Quality.

Within a year, though, van der Vaart and Evans were placed on investigatory leave after publishing an anti-regulatory opinion piece on air quality in a widely read national environmental law journal that contradicted Gov. Cooper administration’s stance.

Both men resigned. After that, van der Vaart joined the staff of the conservative John Locke Foundation, where he was employed as a Senior Fellow focusing on energy and environment issues. Evans went to work at the EPA office in Research Triangle Park writing air quality rules.