CH@T: On upcoming 'How safe is Pittsboro’s drinking water?' forum

Haw River Assembly to host forum on town’s water contamination

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PITTSBORO — The Haw River Assembly — a 501(c)(3) non-profit citizens’ group founded in 1982 to restore and protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake — will host a public forum next Thursday with the theme, ‘How safe is Pittsboro’s drinking water?’

The program will feature several distinguished speakers, including N.C. State Professor Detlef Knappe, who first discovered 1,4-Dioxane in the town’s water about six years ago, and Duke University Professor Heather Stapleton, whose team is leading the investigation into Pittsboro’s PFAS contamination. Representatives from the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality and the Town of Pittsboro will also speak.

To learn more about the program and what attendees can expect to hear, the News + Record spoke with Emily Sutton, the Haw River Assembly’s Haw riverkeeper. Sutton joined the non-profit’s staff in 2016 to manage citizen science projects and monitor the river’s health. As riverkeeper, Sutton leads the organization’s fight against pollution.

The free forum will in-person be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Chatham County Agriculture and Conference Center. Masks are required for all attendees.

What’s the goal/objective of your Aug. 26 event?

EMILY SUTTON: Industrial pollution from upstream sources has been the cause of contaminated drinking water in Pittsboro for years. Though Haw River Assembly and many academic researchers and scientists have been reporting on this for years, so many Pittsboro residents are still unaware of the health risks of drinking Pittsboro’s water. The town has taken steps to install treatment, but this is not a short term solution. Haw River Assembly hopes to inform the impacted community about PFAS pollution and potential solutions.

From your viewpoint, what do people need to know about PFAS, and why is it such a concern for Pittsboro and Chatham residents?

PFAS compounds can result in long term health issues, including developmental effects in infants, lower infant birth weights, fertility issues, hypertension, increased cholesterol levels, weakened immune systems and increased risk of cancer. The levels of PFAS detected in the Town of Pittsboro’s drinking water are among the highest levels in the state. The community of Pittsboro also has the added risk of long-term exposure.

And same question for 1,4-Dioxane?

1,4-Dioxane is a known carcinogen, and similar to PFAS, it does not break down or get removed in traditional drinking water treatment. Low level exposure to 1,4-Dioxane over a person’s lifetime can increase the risk of cancer. Higher exposures over a shorter amount of time can damage cells in the liver, kidney and respiratory system. Though 1,4-dioxane is not always detected in the drinking water system, there have been significant levels released upstream that pass through Pittsboro’s system. The N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality has set a standard of 0.35 micrograms per liter (ug/L) for surface water, however, levels discharged from Greensboro and Reidsville have been as high as 957ug/L and 1400ug/L, respectively.

What’s the Haw River Assembly’s take on what the Town of Pittsboro is doing to address Pittsboro’s water issues?

The Town of Pittsboro has taken steps in the right direction to install water treatment in the town’s drinking water plant, but this comes only after four years of warnings and requests for action. This plant will not be in service until the end of 2021 at the earliest. In 2018, Mayor Cindy Perry began a Water Quality Task Force, which was charged with identifying short term and long term solutions for the drinking water contamination. The recommendations made by that group were not materialized. The recommendations included Reverse Osmosis water tanks for the most vulnerable populations in our town at health care centers and schools, and providing a stipend or drastically discounted in-home water treatment for Pittsboro’s drinking water customers. The drinking water customers have not been provided with a full report of the total PFAS or 1,4-dioxane in their water supply, or the health risks associated with that exposure.

And…same question for NCDEQ and the state of N.C. Has their response been sufficient?

The Clean Water Act requires all dischargers to disclose all contaminants being discharged into a waterbody. However, these PFAS compounds are not being tested for or disclosed on permits. NCDEQ has the authority to require disclosure, and to set a regulatory standard on these compounds as a class.

Based on the best available science, we have recommended a standard on the class of PFAS compounds set at no higher than 20 parts per trillion. NCDEQ has yet to set a standard for PFAS compounds in surface water, though North Carolina has been the focus of PFAS contamination across the country. Last month, NCDEQ held an open comment period as a part of a triennial review process to propose new water quality standards, but the proposed standards made no mention of PFAS compounds. The lack of meaningful standards to regulate PFAS compounds in surface waters after years of data collection and public outcry is further contributing to the public’s general distrust of our agencies to prioritize the health of our communities over the interest of industrial polluters.

We have seen common sense PFAS legislation proposed by a few state legislators in the Haw River watershed each session, including Rep. Pricey Harrison, Rep. Robert Reives II and Rep. Graig Meyer. However, these pieces of legislation rarely move through the chambers to reach the floor for a vote. These bills have included regulating discharges, eliminating its use in manufacturing and funding for impacted communities downstream of the polluters. We have to continue holding our state legislators accountable; our representatives must put the health of their communities above the conveniences for upstream polluters.

Any thoughts about the sources of the PFAS and 1,4-dioxane (and what Greensboro and others are or aren’t doing to protect downstream users)?

Haw River Assembly filed a Notice of Intent to sue the City of Burlington for PFAS dischargers in November of 2019. Since then, we have continued to work with Burlington to sample and identify all sources of PFAS within their wastestream system. Burlington has been open with us in these discussions and continues to act in good faith to identify all sources.

In Greensboro, we have challenged a proposed Special Order by Consent (SOC) that would allow Greensboro to continue to discharge high levels of 1,4-Dioxane with no consequences for two years. The levels proposed in the SOC would result in levels much higher than the standard of 0.35ug/L miles downstream in Pittsboro. Greensboro has not agreed to meet the 0.35ug/L standard, citing concerns of costs and feasibility.

Water is something many of us take for granted. What should we as consumers be thinking about in regards to our water supply? And how should we think about our sources here in Chatham County?

Much of the county gets their drinking water from groundwater wells. Though these sources do have potential to be contaminated from land-applied biosolids containing PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, the levels in the Haw at Pittsboro’s drinking water intake are a much higher concern. Until the town of Pittsboro can install treatment to supply all of its customers with safe drinking water, we recommend under-the-sink water treatment in homes.

What can attendees expect to learn from the speakers?

The speakers will present on the health risks of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane exposure, levels detected in Pittsboro’s drinking water supply, potential solutions for community members and policy and legal solutions Haw River Assembly and state representatives are working on.

What do people need to know about the work of the Haw River Assembly and the work you’re doing to safeguard us?

Haw River Assembly is a member based non-profit whose mission is to protect the Haw, its tributaries and Jordan Lake and the communities in this watershed who deserve fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.

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