From pollution to potential solution: What Pittsboro has done to address water quality

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Editor’s note: Second of a two-part series.

PITTSBORO — Back in 2011, Katie Bryant found her dream home near downtown Pittsboro after falling in love with the community’s unique small-town vibe.

By 2020, though, she’d moved outside the town limits. The fear of negative impacts that contaminants in Pittsboro’s water were having on her children and her husband’s health had reached a tipping point.

“I just had my final straw, and we had to move,” Bryant said. “I just couldn’t sleep at night.”

Bryant is one of many Pittsboro residents calling for legislative action against the release of unregulated industrial chemicals into the Haw River — Pittsboro’s only source of drinking water. Increased amounts of per-fluorinated chemicals, also known as PFAS, and 1,4-Dioxane have been found in the Haw River and in Pittsboro’s treated drinking water. PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane have been deemed as likely human carcinogens and are linked to various health problems, including liver disease, kidney disease and even cancer.

Staff graphic by Taylor Heeden

Bryant’s husband, Wes J. Bryant, retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2018 after serving as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller. He started drinking the water in Pittsboro on regular basis for the first time since moving into their downtown home. A year after his retirement, he suffered from complete gallbladder failure.

“PFAS prevents you from processing fats properly, so you’ll see a buildup of bile in the gallbladder and stones developing,” Bryant said.

With her previous work as a microbiologist, Bryant felt she could help find a solution to the water pollution and be a voice for her fellow community members. She started becoming more involved in water advocacy and co-founded the Clean Haw River initiative with Dr. Jessica Merricks, a biology professor at Elon University.

“I still meet people every day who don’t know about the water,” Bryant said. “It’s irritating for me, and I try to stay level-headed, but it’s hard at times because I still have friends and family who are still drinking it.”

The establishment of the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force

In December 2019, Pittsboro town officials acted to address pollutants and contaminants by establishing the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force — a 17-person group entrusted with developing recommendations for what steps town staff and commissioners should take to address PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane.

Bryant was one of the members selected by then-Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry on the task force, along with Pittsboro resident Dr. Jennifer Platt. Platt’s area of expertise is in health policy and environmental management, and she’s spent her career traveling to developing countries such as India and Kenya to help them advocate for legislative policies to address water quality. Platt also worked to develop a water efficiency program in Cary, which received several national awards.

Platt never imagined she would have to advocate for clean water in her home country, let alone serve on a board in Pittsboro to create recommendations to solve the water quality issues.

“Developing countries are dealing with bacteria and viruses that are easily treatable,” Platt said. “We’re not so lucky.”

The group’s first meeting was in February 2020. They met in-person meeting before COVID-19 forced them to go online. The task force continued to meet on Zoom through the pandemic and created a final report of recommendations for town staff and commissioners, which was presented in October 2020 and consisted of short-term and long-term options to address the PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane contamination.

It concluded the most efficient way to knuckle down on these contaminants was to stop them at the source.

“There are multiple known sources of contamination stemming from within the municipalities of Reidsville, Burlington and Greensboro,” the report said.

The report said it was unlikely those municipalities would prevent industries releasing the chemicals, so the group suggested a more attainable long-term solution — to continue to work with four neighboring communities to build a regional water treatment plan.

The four partners in this endeavor are Pittsboro, Durham, Chatham County and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA). They’re collaborating on plans for a water treatment facility on Jordan Lake’s western front. But the plant, if built, wouldn’t be in operation until 2031.

The task force acknowledged the water treatment facility wouldn’t be an immediate solution, so it also provided a short-term option until the plant can be completed: install reverse osmosis (RO) filtration systems across the town for all residents to access treated water.

That didn’t happen until Dec. 1, when Pittsboro announced its partnership with the local co-op grocer Chatham Marketplace. The partnership allowed for Pittsboro water customers — including renters in Chapel Ridge — to access the grocer’s RO water filling station at no cost to them. Platt said that while it was frustrating to have to wait over a year to have this first step enacted, she’s thankful the town took action.

“At their December 2020 meeting, I really implored them to do something now,” Platt said. “One of the key recommendations we made to the board was to offer an interim water source, and so I’m certainly thrilled that they’re doing it.”

What’s the next step for Pittsboro?

The town is working to expand its water treatment capabilities by installing granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration systems. These GAC systems would allow for treatment plants to remove PFAS and PFOS from contaminated water.

Town Manager Chris Kennedy said the project was supposed to be completed by December, but was delayed due to supply chain shortages.

“We were shooting for the end of this calendar year — we were pushing hard for that,” Kennedy previously told the News + Record. “We knew that was ambitious, but we really wanted to try to kind of make that more to settle the minds and the hearts of our citizens and residents and customers, but we weren’t able to meet that target.”

Until the water treatment facility can get the GAC filtration system installed, Pittsboro water customers can access the RO water filling station at Chatham Marketplace at no cost to them. However, pollution events have continued to threaten the water quality in town.

Multiple releases of 1.4-Dioxane from industries upstream have continued to jeopardize Pittsboro’s drinking water. The most recent 1,4-Dioxane release of over 21 times the EPA recommended amount came from the City of Greensboro’s water treatment facility on Nov. 3, and the effects of the spill were felt for weeks.

A month after the spill, then-Pittsboro Mayor-elect Perry and Bryant attended a Greensboro City Commissioner meeting to confront Greensboro city officials about Pittsboro’s water crisis. Platt also spoke virtually at the same meeting.

Bryant believed Perry’s act of confronting Greensboro officials was a necessary step in moving forward in addressing the water contamination in Pittsboro.

“Overall if anything’s gonna change from the water, this is a promising move to have Cindy back on, encouraging change and encouraging involvement,” Bryant said. “The fact that she just went and spoke in Greensboro — it’s huge.”

Pittsboro Commissioner John Bonitz said challenging those responsible for contaminating the river will force change and prevent further damage.

“I think we need to pursue compensation for our costs and damages by suing the polluters or manufacturers,” he told the News + Record. “Simultaneously, we can work with others to pass stronger laws to protect our water.”

For Bryant, potential solutions are too late. She and her family now reside about 10 minutes outside of Pittsboro’s town limits. Her new home is equipped with an at-home GAC filter and an RO filtration system for her sink, and her water now comes from a well instead of the Haw River.

Bryant — who also lives outside of Pittsboro’s town limits — wants to continue to work with other activists to encourage Pittsboro and state officials to take more steps to address the water contamination.

“It’s important for people to understand this is not somebody rolling up to our river with a bucket and dumping waste into the river — this is waste flowing out of industries into our wastewater treatment facilities upstream, who are ill equipped to handle organic solvents,” Bryant said. “It should be on the industries to treat their wastewater, remove it safely and then send their water to our plants to process and send downstream.”

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