1,4-Dioxane again released by Greensboro into Pittsboro's drinking water supply

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PITTSBORO — For the second time this year, the Haw River may have been contaminated with unsafe levels of 1,4-Dioxane after another discharge in Greensboro — this time 21 times the maximum threshold recommended by the EPA — resulting in potentially unclean drinking water for  Pittsboro’s residents. 

The town experienced a similar incident in late July after the City of Greensboro violated a Special Order by Consent, forcing Pittsboro to shut off its water intake. 

Town Manager Chris Kennedy announced the discharge at Monday’s Pittsboro Board of Commissioners meeting, held via the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Kennedy said the latest discharge of the toxic chemical occurred on Nov. 3; Pittsboro was only notified on Monday. 

“This is brand new information to us as of this afternoon,” Kennedy told commissioners Monday. “We found out this afternoon that Greensboro had another 1,4-Dioxane contamination of the Haw River, this time with 767 micrograms per liter.”

The July discharge of 1,4-Dioxane from Greensboro was estimated to be 543 micrograms per liter to 687 micrograms per liter, making this slug discharge even more potent than the last incident. 

Kennedy said the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality’s investigation of the July discharge failed to provide a conclusive answer about how the harmful toxins got into the Haw, threatening Pittsboro’s water supply.

“That was a frustrating answer for our town, but here we are again, some five or six months later, with 20 times over the limit of discharge of 1,4-Dioxane into the Haw River,” Kennedy said. 

With the original discharge of the 1,4-Dioxane occurring five days before the town was alerted, it’s likely the chemical has already made its way downstream to the town’s water plants and drinking supply. But the town won’t know for certain until samples are tested.

“Depending on rainfall, it takes two to four maybe five days to come downhill, so it’s probably at us already,” Kennedy said.

If true, he said, the 1,4-Dioxane has already made it to Pittsboro’s water supply before water intake could be shut off. Commissioner John Bonitz said he was concerned the town didn’t find out until five days after it occurred. 

“I think citizens are asking why this has not gotten out, and why is this board learning about it so late,” he said. “There is no fault to staff, it’s just a really bad situation that Greensboro is able and allowed to do this and not notify us so we could turn off our intake and shut off water withdrawals from the river for the time when the slug is passing our town.”

Kennedy said the delay may be related to the way Greensboro tests its water. The city gathers samples for testing daily, but tests five days at once.

“When you’re not testing every day, but you are taking a grab sample over a five-day period and then testing that sample, it does create a lag in responsiveness to know that particular slug is coming down,” he said. 

Commissioner Kyle Shipp voiced a need for accountability from the state and Greensboro. 

“I would support sending letters out to anybody, honestly, formally from the town asking for assistance for this — answers from the state, assistance from the federal government and state government, whatever we need to do,” he said. “We are clearly past good faith at this point with the City of Greensboro and the state in terms of how they are dealing with this. They’re not taking it seriously because it does not affect their water, it only affects our water.”

Mayor Jim Nass said he was also in favor of contacting state and federal representatives for help in preventing another discharge.

“I think we need to contact our representatives because it appears to me the discussions we had since the last one, and now this one, is that the state has not been very forthcoming at all,” he said. “It seems to me to be all acting behind a curtain, and that is not serving this community well.”

Mayor-elect Cindy Perry, who defeated Nass in the Nov. 2 election, spoke during the citizen’s concerns section of the agenda about the water crisis. She pointed out recommendations that were given to the board from the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force in October of last year — recommendations she said have yet to be implemented. 

“I think we really need to accelerate our reaction to what it is that happened five days ago,” Perry said. “[The Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force] came with a great final report in October of 2020 with great recommendations. Unfortunately, none of those have been implemented, but this just reminds us again, as the first drinkers downstream, that we don’t even know if we have already drunk the 767 units.”

While the first incident this year seemed like it may have been a mistake, Perry said this time feels more intentional. 

“I’m really quite furious about it, not at anybody who is listening to my voice tonight, but because the first time it happened, it seemed to be an accident,” she said. “But this was no accident.”

Perry said commissioners need to take a stand against what is happening to the town’s water supply, as well as tell citizens what it means for them. 

“A whole lot of things concern me; not just the pollution that has resulted, not just the harm that it could do to young children and vulnerable people in our community, but also the fact that nobody let us know until today, five days later, that this had happened,” she said. “I don’t think Pittsboro residents really understand how bad the situation really is, and certainly the ones upstream don’t know what they are doing to us.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com.

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