BREAKING: Pittsboro commissioners vote to investigate and pursue litigation against PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane polluters

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PITTSBORO — The town’s board of commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a motion to investigate and pursue litigation against industries or others responsible for repeated discharges of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane — two families of compounds which have been deemed likely human carcinogens — into the Haw River, Pittsboro’s source of drinking water.

The board met at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center, where they approved two legal service agreements with Sher Edling LLP  to pursue two litigation cases — one for PFAS polluters and one for 1,4-Dioxane polluters. The town will seek compensation to cover necessary expenses — past, present and future — to treat drinking water it provides for its utility customers for so-called “forever chemicals,” which are nearly impossible to remove from water.

According to the background information provided in the legal agreement documents in the agenda packet, commissioners started seeking litigation options last fall, when the town put out a request seeking a legal team willing to take on the two cases against the as yet unnamed industries.

Commissioners chose to work with Sher Edling LLP, a San Francisco-based firm which specializes in environmental-related lawsuits, after a series of interviews and closed sessions. Sher Edling has tackled numerous cases regarding climate change, drinking water quality and pollutants in general.

“Certainly, the public is largely aware of our water quality concerns and us seeking to recoup the expenses and future expenses we are likely to occur with continued advanced treatment measures,” Town Manager Chris Kennedy said during Monday’s meeting. “The board recently interviewed Sher Edling ... and the board felt comfort in working with them.”

The legal service agreements would allow for an investigation to be conducted by Sher Edling, which would reveal who is responsible for the releasing of the chemicals into the Haw upstream from Chatham County. From there, commissioners will look at what options to pursue to attempt to get compensation for the dumps into the source of Pittsboro’s drinking water.

“These won’t be quick efforts — they will likely take years to pursue,” Kennedy said.

Pittsboro has spent around $3.5 million to add infrastructure to accommodate for additional treatment to its water supply and will need at least an additional $23 to $25 million to afford the rest of the changes needed to ensure the water is free of PFAS and 1.4-Dioxane, according to Kennedy. He said those fees don’t include the incurring costs necessary to maintain the facilities at the treatment plant once they are installed.

“The town is certainly incurring a significant amount of costs as we move forward to provide our customers with good, reliable water,” he said. “I don’t want to over-illustrate what we’ve been working on, and I know the public has been very patient ... we hope that the public is in support of this.”

Commissioner Kyle Shipp said it was important for residents to know the legal proceedings that will follow would most likely have to take place behind closed doors.

“A lot of this that has happened, happened in closed session, and a lot of it moving forward will happen in closed session,” he said. “We won’t be able to give all the updates you may want to hear, as we haven’t been able to do so far, but we will be working on it and keep you updated as much as we can.”

Commissioner John Bonitz — who has been a strong advocate for pursuing litigation against polluters — also said updates on the litigation process would most likely be limited to help protect the legal process.

“For legal, strategic reasons, we’re constrained,” he said. “We’ve been constrained from having conversations about this, but rest assured, the vote I think this board is going to take indicates our concern for this matter and determination to make our residents and taxpayers whole.”

Pittsboro was the downstream recipient of three 1,4-Dioxane discharges in the last year, with the most recent one happening in early April. Bonitz said the decision to pursue litigation is something the board has considered for many months, and he’s pleased to finally hold polluters accountable for the discharges into the town’s water.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I am very eager for this to commence.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.

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  • Goaglen

    While pointing fingers is a grief relieving exercise, pollution and human health consequences are a murky area of the law and lacking in sound, pathological evidence. Intent to do wrong and usual and customary practices of industrial production are on two sides of a legal spectrum. The case will be interesting. Finger pointing relieves guilt and anger, for a while.

    If consumers, the people who create the market for a product, use or demand by use a product which causes pollution, exposes them to pollution, and there are provable pubic health consequences from that exposure, then, principles in the discharging unit should bear provable consequences. If, on the other hand, epidemiological correlation of exposure and an atypical incidence of sickness, disease, death are sufficient evidence to prosecute, then the law opens the door to penalty by suspicion, inference, and statistics, rather then a causal chain of events.

    As in all statistical arguments, assumptions are the basis.

    1. A person drinks a lethal dose of a poison. Death ensues. Cause of death: poison

    2. A person consumes a named carcinogen for a period suspected to lead to the types of cancer associated with that chemical, develops cancer. However, no epidemiological physiological pathway has ever been established in medicine. The cause can only be assumed, not proven. This example is the extent of my knowledge on the matter after years of study and the publication of the Haw River Drinking Water Survey, a publication by the Haw River Assembly in 1985. Commonly called the Bynum cancer study.

    If statistical correlation is strong enough to bring prosecution, then we could avoid war based on the known result that war causes death. Death is undesirable and unacceptable (assumption.)

    Lawyers, please correct me if I am wrong.

    Wednesday, June 15 Report this