Water quality activists react to Pittsboro’s decision to investigate polluters

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PITTSBORO — Pittsboro resident and Clean Haw River co-founder Katie Bryant was preparing to celebrate her birthday on June 17 in a unique way — attending a national conference in Wilmington about PFAS pollutants with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and N.C.’s Dept. of Environmental Quality.

What Bryant didn’t expect was a breaking announcement from back home on the eve of her birthday — Pittsboro’s board of commissioners announcing its intent to investigate and possibly pursue litigation against upstream polluters, some of which have dumped PFAS and other health-threatening chemicals into the town’s drinking water supply.

“I felt like it was just the biggest birthday gift the town could have given,” Bryant said. “It’s been a struggle for me to give trust in them, and they regained my trust and possibly the trust of their community by making this step forward.”

Activists like Bryant have worked and advocated that Pittsboro pursue legal action against those responsible for the many discharges of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane — chemical compounds which have been deemed likely carcinogens — into the Haw River, Pittsboro’s only source of drinking water.

The Haw River Assembly has been one of the main organizations in Chatham County advocating for cleaner water for residents.

Haw River Riverkeeper Emily Sutton has spent years being a proponent for the end of chemical discharges and pursuing legal action against dischargers on the Haw River Assembly’s behalf.

“This is something that we’ve been pushing Pittsboro to take action towards since we found out about this issue and since we started litigation against the city of Burlington in 2019,” Sutton said. “We’re really happy to see this step being taken by the town of Pittsboro — it’s been long-awaited.”

Sutton and others from the Haw River Assembly have, on multiple occasions, given presentations to the town board about pollutants in drinking water and suggested steps to help remedy the problem, including urging previous administrations to pursue legal action and install infrastructure to make the water clean enough to drink safely.

Sutton participated in the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force, established by Mayor Cindy Perry. While serving on that group, she said the Haw River Assembly pursued litigation against the city of Greensboro, as well as Burlington. Those two municipalities have been responsible for discharging potentially carcinogenic materials out of their municipal water treatment facilities into the Haw River.

“But because that (litigation) takes time, we needed Pittsboro to take urgent action to protect the community members that were getting their drinking water from the town,” she said. “Fast forward four years later — we still are kind of in the same situation.”

The town has spent more than $3 million on improving its water treatment plant, including acquiring a granular activated carbon treatment system for PFAS, set to “go live” in early July according to town officials.

According to the town’s legal agreements, any money awarded from legal action would go toward necessary infrastructure to treat water for these compounds or toward a new and improved water treatment plant for Pittsboro.

Sutton said she hoped this decision sparks change in other communities like Pittsboro which have experienced similar problems with pollutants.

“With cases like this where downstream communities are going into litigation to help finance water treatment systems to keep their communities and their customers safe,” Sutton said, “I hope that this sets a precedent for other communities to know that this is a legal tool in their toolbox — and that we need to identify the sources and eliminate the sources of pollution at the discharge.”

Other communities are also looking into legal solutions, according to Clean Haw River’s Bryant.

At that annual National PFAS Conference in Wilmington, she spoke to attendees about how PFAS afflicted her family and her neighbors.

“We were able to stand in front of the researchers and basically validate that they know we exist,” Bryant said. “I’ve never been to a science conference where community members are allowed to speak, so it’s very emotional and precious to me and I’ll never miss a meeting — this was my first and this won’t be my last.”

That was not the only good news Bryant and Sutton received: the EPA has also announced it would be implementing new health advisories to PFOA, PFOS, GenX and PFBS chemicals, something Bryant and Sutton have advocated for over the years.

Bryant found out about the new advisories while preparing for her speech at the PFAS conference. The news was proclaimed at the convention by Radhika Fox, the assistant administrator at the EPA for water, and when Bryant heard it, she said she couldn’t believe her ears.

“I did not think I was going to see that for a very, very, very long time,” she said. “I felt like I was not in the same reality … I was in shock.”

New health advisories were placed on two kinds of PFAS, GenX and PFBS, and new water quality standards were placed on PFAS legacy compounds, PFOA and PFOS.

Sutton said while those announcements are a step in the right direction, she feels the EPA’s standards and advisories will not be as effective in Pittsboro’s situation.

“Our problem is not just with PFOA and PFOS, it’s all these shorter chain compounds like 1,4-Dioxane and others,” she said. “We’re looking at these compounds and taking this issue very seriously at the federal level, which is encouraging. That needs to be expanded to be a class standard so we’re not just continuing to shuffle around what PFAS compounds are being manufactured.”

With the news from the EPA and the town of Pittsboro, Bryant said she feels optimistic about the direction the federal government and local leaders are taking to address the issues Pittsboro has faced for generations.

“I can’t even explain to you how overjoyed and how happy I am and proud of them,” Bryant said. “I know it’s just the beginning and may not fix everything, but I realized that in this kind of work, every step forward is what gets us to our bigger picture.”

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

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