Editor’s note: First of two parts.
PITTSBORO — The town of Pittsboro draws directly from the Haw River to provide its thousands of residents with drinking water.
In recent years, though, unknown upstream sources have polluted the water with likely human carcinogens — causing outrage among residents and leading to an outcry for action. “Forever chemicals” such as perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) and 1,4-Dioxane — which have been attributed to liver disease, kidney failure and cancer — linger in the Haw River and have occasionally been measured in dangerous levels.
Pittsboro’s water woes aren’t a recent development. The Haw River Assembly — established in 1982 — has been working to address the issues surrounding the contamination of the Haw River since that time.
Elaine Chiosso has served as the Haw River Assembly’s Executive Director since 1997. According to Chiosso, the contamination of the river can likely be traced back long before PFAS discharges in the river — to the Industrial Revolution in the mid to late 19th century.
“A lot of those dams started as grinding mills for just grinding grain and dams that could power equipment for textile mills, cotton mills, that were built in mostly the mid 1800s,” Chiosso said. “Those mills started putting out a lot of pollution.”
During the mid-1900s, textile companies started making clothing items out of synthetic materials; the process to do so required using more chemicals. According to Chiosso, several historical accounts depict the Haw River “changing colors” due to dyes and chemicals being dumped into the water.
“There’s oral histories that were passed down saying people knew what color they were using up in Burlington that day because just downstream you could see blue dye, red dye,” she said. “whatever was put in the river.”
As more people and industries moved into the Piedmont region of North Carolina, wastewater treatment facilities could not keep up with the constant pollutants in the Haw River, according to Chiosso.
The Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 helped set regulations on various industrial chemicals, including setting standards for wastewater pretreatment programs, addressing stormwater pollution and more.
In 1985, the Haw River Assembly decided to conduct a drinking water study of the river’s water. The water samples were sent off to labs across the country for testing, and results came back identifying 38 named chemicals and 15 unnamed chemicals.
The report — called the Haw River Drinking Water Study — also included a list of industries that had pretreatment programs in place, allowing the organization to sort of narrow down the potential sources of the pullutants.
“It was clear that the chemicals that were in the river were the same that were coming through the finished drinking water, and that was obviously a big problem,” Chiosso said. “It just kind of confirmed what people knew — that these industrial chemicals were in the water and conventional treatment plants couldn’t really remove them.”
Today, Chiosso says many of the industries upstream from Pittsboro send their wastewater to municipal treatment facilities to be processed for pollutants, but don’t usually have a strict pretreatment program.
“All of this, unfortunately, is self-monitoring kind of stuff,” Chiosso said. “We’re talking about a system that relies a lot on somebody to do the right thing.”
Pittsboro is the only municipality in modern times that continues to draw its drinking water directly from the Haw River rather than from a reservoir, such as Jordan Lake. For residents, according to Chiosso, that means the town’s residents are more vulnerable to the contaminants being released into the river than other cities and townships downstream.
Following the 1985 drinking water report, the findings were presented to officials at the local and state level to try to address the chemicals in the water at that time.
“Information was presented to Pittsboro, to the county, to the state,” Chiosso said. “It certainly was spread widely that there was this information, and we tried to get some legislative action about what could be done.”
Not much action was taken after the 1985 report, Chiosso said. In 2007, an article published in “Environmental Science Technology,” an academic journal produced by the National Exposure Research Laboratory at the EPA’s campus in the Research Triangle Park, led to increased research on the matter.
The 2007 report revealed PFAS chemicals were found in the Cape Fear river basin, which the Haw River feeds into. The report also showed a high concentration in PFASs in the area directly below Burlington — where Pittsboro is located.
This finding led to an increase in research and studies done around the Jordan Lake area where the Haw River meets the lake. Scientists from institutions such as N.C. State and Duke were monitoring and studying the chemicals in the Haw River and discovered sludges of PFAS from Burlington along Chatham’s banks.
“There were some major sludge fields along some creeks in Chatham and Alamance, particularly, but also in Orange County,” Chiosso said. “Burlington sludge was applied to these areas and these chemicals were coming out of the sludge when it rained really hard.”
This was around the time when it was discovered in the Haw River also had 1,4-Dioxane — often used as an industrial solvent — flowing downstream from the Greensboro area. In 2015, then-Pittsboro Mayor Bill Terry asked for one of the scientists studying the contamination — Dr. Detlef Knappe — to present on 1,4-Dioxane and the dangers it could bring to the residents of Pittsboro.
Between 2015 and 2019, Pittsboro’s Board of Commissioners continued to discuss 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS in Pittsboro’s water. Ranging from presentations to the board to various meetings with experts, the board was looking for expert opinions on what needed to be done next.
This happened at the same time Commissioner John Bonitz joined the board. Part of the reason he sought local government office was because of his concerns regarding the quality of Pittsboro’s drinking water.
“I was always aware of it as a citizen,” Bonitz said. “We were using a Brita filter to help clean up our drinking water.”
Since Bonitz became a Pittsboro commissioner, several releases of 1,4-Dioxane have affected the town’s water supply, compromising the drinking water. PFAS had also become a regular contaminant in Pittsboro’s water supply by 2018, which was revealed in a report by the Wilmington Star-News stating PFAS contamination from Fayetteville’s treatment plant was making its way into the Cape Fear River and into the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people in southeastern N.C.
The N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality and the City of Greensboro revised the Special Order of Consent passed earlier this year after a 1,4-Dioxane discharge in November of over 21 times the amount recommended by the EPA.
For Bonitz, that action wasn’t enough. He said there needs to be more legislative action for there to be substantial change in the quality of Pittsboro’s water.
“The problem of unregulated pollutants will keep popping up again and again until Congress updates our nation’s chemical regulations and clean water laws,” he said. “We might be able to improve things locally if the N.C. General Assembly repeals the state law keeping our laws weaker than EPA rules.”
For Bonitz, the water issues Pittsboro has faced for years is not just an issue in Pittsboro, but also on the national stage. Pittsboro residents are not the only people impacted by the water quality of the Haw River —it’s an issue for anyone who comes to Pittsboro.
“It’s not just townspeople, but people who live elsewhere and work in town — therefore they drink the water during the workday,” Bonitz said. “It impacts people in nearby neighborhoods who drink town water, but don’t live inside town limits, like Chapel Ridge. So in a way, it is truly a problem shared across this whole side of the county.”
In Part 2 next week, we’ll examine the work of Pittsboro’s Water Quality Task Force and the recommendations for solutions given to Pittsboro’s Board of Commissioners.
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at email@example.com.