Some solutions are on the horizon, but Pittsboro’s water woes may have long-term ramifications

Posted 9/1/21

Expensive solutions will improve Pittsboro’s drinking water soon, but contamination troubles are expected to persist, according to Chatham leaders, scientists and activists who convened last Thursday to discuss the town’s multifaceted water woes at a public forum at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center.

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Some solutions are on the horizon, but Pittsboro’s water woes may have long-term ramifications

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PITTSBORO — Expensive solutions will improve Pittsboro’s drinking water soon, but contamination troubles are expected to persist, according to Chatham leaders, scientists and activists who convened last Thursday to discuss the town’s multifaceted water woes at a public forum at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center.

About 75 people attended the meeting (in person and via Zoom), hosted by the Haw River Assembly — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit citizens’ group — to hear seven panelists share their expertise on the state of Pittsboro’s water, which the town draws from the Haw River. PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, dangerous chemicals derived from upstream factory runoff, have appeared in Pittsboro’s drinking water for decades. The panelists’ primary message: immediate solutions are impending, but little progress has been made toward stymieing contamination at its source.

“We wanted to get something in as quick as we can,” Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy told the audience about new filter technology currently being installed at the town’s water plant. “For the first million and a half (gallons of water per day), we’ll have something in by the end of this calendar year. We are well under way.”

The project — installation of a granular activated carbon system — will remove at least 90% of all PFAS from the filtered supply. One and a half million gallons a day is more than enough to serve the town’s current population on all but the hottest days of the year.

The GAC system’s imminent completion will come as welcome news to Pittsboro residents who have lived with PFAS-laden water for many years, panelists said. PFAS, a family of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, yield several negative health effects, including elevated risks of thyroid disease and testicular and kidney cancer; increased blood cholesterol levels; and birth defects. Many studies, including a national investigation by Consumer Reports, have identified PFAS concentrations in Pittsboro’s water as among the highest in the country.

While filtration will improve water quality moving forward, future health implications of long-term PFAS ingestion are still unknown. What’s clear, though, is Pittsboro residents have had longer exposure to high PFAS levels than most people in the country.

“PFAS have very long half lives in our bodies,” said Duke Environmental Science Professor Heather Stapleton, a speaker at the event who has studied Pittsboro’s water since 2018 and measured concentrations in Pittsboro residents’ blood samples.

“And what we’re finding is that the levels of exposure here are higher than what we typically see in the general population,” she said.

Among the tens of thousands of chemicals within the PFAS family, some appeared in Pittsboro residents at concentrations four times higher than average.

The data makes sense, according to N.C. State Environmental Engineering Professor Detlef Knappe, considering how long Pittsboro water has contained alarming PFAS levels.

“PFAS levels they found back in 2006 samples, if you sum them all up, they sum up to about 1,000 nanograms per liter,” he told attendees. “So that’s quite a high concentration.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has a health advisory recommending no more than 70 nanograms per liter in drinking water, though some experts contend healthy levels should not exceed one nanogram per liter. In a Q&A session after the forum, Knappe confirmed for the News + Record that it’s likely some Pittsboro residents have regularly ingested dangerous levels of PFAS for at least 15 years.

“So it appears that PFAS are in the water pretty consistently,” he said. “Likely the concentrations do change, as Dr. Stapleton said, because of changes in the river flow. But they’ve been around at least since that time. Unfortunately, nobody measured them before 2006, so we don’t know when it started.”

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1,4-Dioxane, on the other hand, was identified much earlier.

“With 1,4-Dioxane, it’s actually a little bit of a different story,” Knappe said. “There’s a 1982 study, and I think it was commissioned by the Haw River Assembly at the time, and a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time — when these analytical instruments first were really implemented in environmental analysis — showed that 1,4-Dioxane was in the Haw River in 1982. So that one we know has been around for more like four decades.”

About a year and a half ago, near the pandemic’s start, 1,4-Dioxane entirely disappeared from Pittsboro’s water for unknown reasons. Two months ago, however, the chemical resurfaced following an illegal discharge at Greensboro’s TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant. As of early August, 1,4-Dioxane levels are again non-detectable and the town has stopped daily sampling, but Kennedy and the town’s board of commissioners are eager to preempt future surprises. Town finances limit their options, though. GAC does not filter 1,4-Dioxane; to install additional filtration methods will cost an extra $4-6 million.

“And we frankly do not have that money,” Kennedy said.

A better solution would be to halt pollution at its source, panelists said. But individual sources have not been isolated.

“The ubiquity, or the presumed ubiquity, of these contaminants,” Kennedy said, “from the multiple, potential sources makes it more difficult to say, ‘OK, we’ve attributed this to a source.’ And so the more it becomes ubiquitous, the more difficult it is to try to litigate that, because then they say, ‘Well, it’s just present everywhere.’”

Town leadership and residents hope the state involvement will mitigate Pittsboro’s financial burden, but efforts to attract the General Assembly’s attention have gained little traction.

“We’re just not able to get any of this legislation moved,” said Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54) who represents Chatham in the N.C. House and joined last Thursday’s panel. But he encouraged Pittsboro residents and other interested parties to persist in lobbying state legislators.

“For me, this is a public emergency,” Reives said. “If we don’t fix the water, it won’t be something that just affects us today — it’ll be affecting us 30, 40 years down the road, and affecting our children and our grandchildren. So we’ll definitely continue to push forward on that.”

For more information on Haw River contamination, visit the Haw River Assembly’s website at www.hawriver.org. The seven panelists at last Thursday’s forum included Stapleton, Knappe, Kennedy, Reives, N.C. State Associate Professor Jane Hoppin and Clean Haw River founders Katie Bryant and Dr. Jessica Merricks. Haw River Assembly has not announced plans for any subsequent meetings.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

 

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