Mayor confronts Burlington board on PFAS discharges


PITTSBORO — When Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry walked up to the podium during the Burlington City Council meeting last week, she hoped the council would listen to — or, better yet, have a taste of — the issues she brought to the table. 

With her water bottle and several cups in hand, Perry offered council members a sip of Pittsboro’s drinking water. 

No one took her up on her offer. 

It’s from the same source, the Haw River, which has been subject to several discharges of PFAS from industries in upstream communities like Burlington. 

“We have high levels of PFAS in our bloodstream — higher than the folks in Fayetteville, below the Chemours plant where PFAS chemicals are made,” Perry told Burlington council members last Tuesday. “We have some of the highest levels of PFAS in the country.”

PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are “widely used, long lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA also states these chemicals are likely human carcinogens, and they’ve been linked to increased risks of cancer and more. 

Perry’s appearance at Burlington’s board meeting wasn’t the first of its kind. She, along with other local water quality activists, went to Greensboro in December of 2021 to talk to its city council about similar issues. Last week, Perry was joined by Clean Haw River co-founder Katie Bryant, and Perry gave a summary of what Pittsboro residents have endured for years. 

“We have been suffering for years, drinking polluted water from your waste,” Perry told to the board. “Several years ago we begged our upstream neighbors to clean up their discharges … and still Burlington and its industries continue to discharge and endanger our lives with toxic chemicals.” 

Perry discussed several points in her allotted three minute comments, including citing three companies for their reported PFAS discharges. 

“I understand that Elevate Textiles, Unichem and Shawmut have been identified as the three main sources of PFAS, yet what have you done over the last years?” Perry asked. “You have not announced further actions, and we have no communications from you.”

Perry said Burlington should acting swiftly to address pollution from its industries. 

“Burlington should be acting with urgency,” she said. “It should mandate Elevate and others to stop polluting my community. Industries such as Elevate should not profit off its use of PFAS when we downstream and our families’ health suffer.”

When Perry spoke at the Greensboro City Council meeting a year and a half ago, she and activists were invited to speak with council members during a brief recess. In Burlington’s meeting last week, Perry was stonewalled. After her remarks, Perry hoped to get a chance to speak with council members and the town attorney about further communications. Instead, she said she was brushed to the side as the board went into closed session shortly after her comments.

She said the mayor did address her comments by telling the public the town attorney has been working with Pittsboro, but Perry said that wasn’t the case. 

“The mayor said their attorney had been handling all of this,” Perry told the News + Record after Tuesday’s meeting. “I told him [the mayor], ‘I hope you’ll communicate more directly with Pittsboro in the future.’”

Perry said while Greensboro has been more willing to work with Pittsboro, other upstream communities like Burlington and Reidsville have been less communicative with Pittsboro elected officials and staff. Pittsboro is currently in the process of litigating PFAS manufacturers, and the Haw River Assembly is litigating the city of Burlington for its role in discharging PFAS from its water and wastewater facilities.

Burlington and Reidsville have both been the source of PFAS discharges, particularly from industries in those municipalities. Perry said while Burlington has had limited communication with the town, Reidsville has gone silent. 

“Reidsville could essentially hold the key to understanding what’s coming in,” she said. “They have been very quick to protect their industries … We’ve never even got Reidsville to return a phone call.”

With some upstream communities like Burlington and Reidsville not communicating with Pittsboro and other towns, Perry said she wonders if residents in those towns even understand what their cities are doing to people living along the Haw River. 

“Did the people of Greensboro or Burlington have a clue about what’s happening here, what their municipality is doing to our municipality?” Perry asekd. “I think if you start talking about water quality issues downstream, I think the ordinary person on the street is going to be responsive if they know what’s going on.”

Raising awareness is something activists in Pittsboro and surrounding areas are focusing on to help bring more policy changes regarding PFAS contamination. Perry said groups like Clean Haw River and the Haw River Assembly are working to take legal action against municipalities like Burlington to stop PFAS discharges. 

Perry also said Bryant and other activists are planning to attend various city council meetings in upstream communities to keep the conversation alive. 

“I think people are going to start keying in and going up every other week or every month or whatever,” Perry said. “I mean, what speaks any louder than somebody asking to not be poisoned?”

Communication is crucial for a solution, Perry said, and despite the original response from Burlington elected officials, she hopes to work with them to move forward from the decades-long crisis. 

“There’s no sense in denying that we have to work together,” she said. “Those three particular industries, if they have been cited as being major sources, we need them at the table too … Burlington should be just as responsive as Greensboro has been. It’s not a blame game — it’s a question of how can we all protect our citizens.”

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