Pittsboro’s fight for clean water has taken a turn for the better — commissioners voted unanimously on Jan. 23 to sue PFAS manufacturers, including large corporations like 3M, Dupont and others for alleged negligence and failure to warn when it came to the danger of PFAS to downstream communities.
You can read more in this week’s edition (and our prior coverage, found at www.chathamnewsrecord.com), but here’s the crux of what’s new: The lawsuit comes after decades of discharges of so-called “forever” chemicals — including PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane — from industries upstream along the Haw River (Pittsboro’s primary water source), which has led to the contamination of the town’s drinking water.
The board of commissioners has been looking to hold these manufacturers accountable over the last couple of years, but it wouldn’t have been possible without environmental stewards and activists from around the county sounding the alarm on the pollution in the Haw River.
The Haw River Assembly activists have spent the last 40 years working to educate residents along the Haw and the Jordan Lake watershed about environmental awareness and pollution prevention.
Executive Director Elaine Chiosso has been in her role since 1997 and served as a member of the N.C. Sedimentation Control Commission and the N.C. Water Infrastructure Council.
I spoke to her during my early days at the News + Record; she told me stories of the decades of pollution she and others had witnessed and investigated. Chiosso said the Haw has been subject to pollution dating back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, with some accounts saying the river would change colors based on what color dye from textile mills upstream was using.
Haw River Riverkeeper Emily Sutton joined the Haw River Assembly in 2016, where she monitored pollution in the Haw River by testing water samples. As the Haw’s riverkeeper, Sutton is one of the main faces in the fight for clean water in Pittsboro and along the Haw River. She does interviews to raise awareness, and her work was instrumental in bringing forth a lawsuit on behalf of the Haw River Assembly against the city of Greensboro after the city discharged large quantities of 1,4-Dioxane.
Other organizations have also rallied to fight for clean water for Pittsboro.
Clean Haw River — founded by Pittsboro residents Katie Bryant and Dr. Jessica Merricks — was created in 2020, with the mission to “bring awareness, understanding and action to Pittsboro’s drinking water crisis.”
Bryant accompanied then Mayor-elect Cindy Perry in 2021 to a city council meeting in Greensboro, where they confronted council members about the discharges of forever chemicals into the Haw. Bryant has also attended several national conferences on PFAS, 1,4-Dioxane and other potentially harmful contaminants.
Merricks, a biology and research professor at Elon University, spent the last few years of her career educating others about the water quality issues Pittsboro faces. She and Bryant also used their role as activists to advocate for policy changes at the local, state and federal level to regulate PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, which played a crucial role in Pittsboro’s decision to investigate polluters in the first place.
Others also dedicated time to the cause, including members of the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force, who spent countless days coming up with recommendations on how to handle the water crisis. Members of that board include Bryant, Sutton, Bill Holman, Jennifer Platt, Becky Smith and Hunter Freeman.
Not all of those who advocated for clean water lived in Pittsboro or Chatham County, for the matter.
Professor Detlef Knappe at N.C. State met with commissioners in 2014 after his research discovered the presence of 1,4-Dioxane and, later, PFAS. He continued to meet with commissioners over the last few years to tell them the dangers of these chemicals, and what it could mean for residents who drink the water. He deserves some credit, too, for his contributions to the fight for clean water.
Commissioners deserve credit for taking action against polluters. But if it weren’t for the decades of advocacy work from local activists, residents, and experts, I would argue Pittsboro wouldn’t be in the position it’s in to hold these industries accountable.
Thank you, to all those in the past and present, who’ve been on the front lines in the fight for clean water for all in Chatham County. Without your work, none of this would be possible.