Pittsboro commissioners vote to litigate PFAS manufacturers


PITTSBORO — The town’s board of commissioners voted unanimously on Monday evening to pursue litigation against manufacturers of PFAS chemicals and aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a formal step in holding polluters accountable for damages to the town’s water supply.

“When we file our lawsuit in the coming days, we will be one step closer to holding the companies responsible for PFAS contamination in our community accountable for the enormous costs of cleaning it up,” Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry told the News + Record after the vote. “Everyone knows when you make a mess, you’re supposed to clean it up ... They (the manufacturers) should pay for it, not our taxpayers.”

The vote during Monday’s regular meeting, held at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center, came after years of discharges of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS by industries and manufacturers upstream from Pittsboro along the Haw River. 

PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, are considered likely human carcinogens and have been found consistently in raw water samples from the Haw, which is Pittsboro’s main source of drinking water. 

PFAS may also be linked to increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women, decreases in infant birth weights, and an increased risk for kidney and testicular cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

Pittsboro commissioners approved a motion last July to engage Sher Edling LLP, an organization based out of California which has extensive work in environmental-related legal processes, to investigate potential sources of PFAS discharges upstream. The findings of that investigation couldn’t locate a single specific source of the compounds, according to a memo dated last Friday to commissioners from Pittsboro Town Attorney Paul Messick Jr.

“Upstream of the Town’s intake on the Haw River are many cities, towns, industrial dischargers, and nonpoint (i.e., diffuse) sources that are known or suspected to discharge PFAS into the Haw River,” Messick wrote. “Given these factors, Sher Edling has recommended bringing a PFAS suit against major manufacturers of both PFAS chemicals in general and aqueous film forming foam (‘AFFF’) more specifically.”

The goal of litigation is to help cover past and future costs for treating Pittsboro’s water, including maintaining the town’s granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration system. 

The unanimous vote by the board gives Sher Edling the green light to file a lawsuit against “major manufacturers of both PFAS chemicals in general and AFFF.” 

The suit will be filed in the coming days, according to Messick, but it could be months before anything comes from the case.

Commissioner John Bonitz, who has called for litigation throughout his tenure, said he was relieved the town was finally at the point to bring forth a lawsuit. With litigation on the horizon, Bonitz also said it could’ve been prevented if these chemicals were treated as potentially dangerous from the beginning. 

“None of this suffering would have happened if we as a nation had a different regulatory philosophy,” he said “We can change it — we need to regulate chemicals as hazardous until proven innocent ... I’m glad we are moving forward with litigation, grateful to have skilled and experienced legal counsel, and mindful that this is but one small step in a process that may be protracted.”

Other business:

• Commissioners heard a presentation from Sharpe Patel, an accounting firm, regarding the town’s annual audit into its finances for the fiscal year. 

The audit showed the town had no suspicious financial activity, with the firm giving an “unmodified opinion,” which is the best opinion a financial institution can give to a municipality, according to Jay Sharpe of Sharpe Patel. 

The town also reported higher revenues than expenses every year over the last 10 years, as well as an increase in revenues from property tax without having to raise the property tax rate in the last eight years. 

• The town also received information about creating a social district downtown, which would allow patrons to purchase alcohol from a business and walk to other business with the drink in hand. A vote wasn’t taken on the item.

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at