PITTSBORO — The town of Pittsboro has dealt with water quality issues for decades. The town’s main water source — the Haw River — has experienced discharges of unregulated contaminants, including PFAS, PFOA and 1-4-Dioxane, which has routinely compromised Pittsboro’s water supply.
Back in June, Pittsboro commissioners voted unanimously to investigate and potentially pursue litigation against industries or others responsible for repeated discharges of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane — two families of compounds which have been deemed likely human carcinogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — into the Haw River, Pittsboro’s source of drinking water.
In an effort to document what’s transpired, here’s a chronological timeline detailing what the town has done in response to address the water quality problems since the June vote:
Activists and various organizations advocated for Pittsboro to pursue legal action against those responsible for discharges of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane into the Haw River.
Pittsboro resident and Clean Haw River co-founder Katie Bryant found out about the town’s decision to pursue litigation on the eve of her birthday, which she called “the biggest birthday gift the town could have given” her.
“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.”
Haw River Assembly’s Riverkeeper Emily Sutton has also been on the front lines in advocating for clean water in Pittsboro. She expressed the same sentiment as Bryant, saying she hoped this decision set an example for other downstream towns.
“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.”
The town’s board of commissioners voted unanimously to become a part of North Carolina’s Viable Utility program, which provided Pittsboro with grant money — the program’s total fund was $9 million — to help address issues with its water and wastewater infrastructure challenges.
The Viable Utility program “provides funding to build a path toward viable utility systems using long-term solutions for distressed water and wastewater units in North Carolina,” according to the NCDEQ website.
A distressed unit is defined to be “a public water system or wastewater system operated by a local government unit exhibiting signs of failure to identify or address those financial or operating needs necessary to enable that system to become or to remain a local government unit generating sufficient revenues to adequately fund management and operations, personnel, appropriate levels of maintenance, and reinvestment that facilitate the provision of reliable water or wastewater services.”
Officials from Pittsboro and Greensboro came together for the first time in person to discuss water quality issues and seek ways to safeguard the Haw River from pollutant discharges, as well as to hear a formal apology from Greensboro.
The meeting, held in Chatham Park’s offices, didn’t result in any action taken. But the focus was to find collaborative ways to prevent discharges of 1,4-Dioxane in the Haw River after three such discharge incidents within the last year, and to ensure Greensboro met the terms of a state-mandated consent order to keep 1,4-Dioxane levels at or below 35 micrograms per liter.
“You have my full commitment and staff’s full commitment to do everything we can to make sure that we abide by the Special Order by Consent,” Greensboro Water Resources Director Michael Borgers said. “Even when it finally gets resolved, whatever we agree to do to keep the community safe, we’re committed to it.”
The city of Greensboro published a Special Order by Consent Year One report last June, in the wake of yet another accidental discharge of 1,4-Dioxane — the third since June 2021 — into the Haw River. The 34-page document, spanning May 1, 2021, to April 30, 2022, contained summaries of the city’s investigation results, oversight activities and a public education outreach plan.
The project was in progress for nearly a year and a half and served as an essential first step in addressing the town’s issues with emerging contaminants and unregulated chemicals in its drinking water.
The new GAC system can process 1 million gallons of water daily, which is the town’s average daily use throughout the year. At $3.5 million, the investment is one of the largest single infrastructure projects undertaken within Pittsboro’s utility program, with funding coming from both the town’s revenue and grant funding.
A GAC filtration system removes contaminants from the water supply by flowing water through the GAC material, which pulls the contaminants like PFAS out of the water and forces them to stick to the carbon.
Wastewater woes have troubled Pittsboro for years, but some town officials hope solutions are within reach.
Commissioner Kyle Shipp, along with Interim Town Manager Hazen Blodgett and Engineering Director Kent Jackson, led a two-hour discussion on how the town’s sewer and water capacities reached their current states — with demand currently threatening to outpace space — during Monday’s board meeting.
Shipp, who focused most of the presentation on ways for Pittsboro to move forward, said the past can help inform future agreements as the town addresses capacity issues.
“What I really want to focus on is where we’re at today and where we can go in the future,” he said.
The presentation served as an update for the board; Pittsboro is a part of the interlocal agreement for the expansion project.
“Pre-2018, the city of Sanford knew that they needed to consider a water plant expansion,” Sanford Public Works Director Victor Czar told Pittsboro commissioners. “Growth is coming for us, growth is coming for you — it’s recognized it’s not going to stop.”
The regional water plant expansion is a part of an interlocal agreement, created by Sanford in 2021, involving multiple local government agencies, including Chatham County, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs and Pittsboro.
The expansion would allow the entities in the interlocal agreement to utilize millions of gallons of treated water for their own residents, which former Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy previously said would address “the lesser known evil” of water capacity issues.
The town’s board of commissioners voted unanimously 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.
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.”
It could be months, however, before anything comes from the case.
“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 Public Information Officer Colby Sawyer 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.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden and Reporter Maydha Deverajan contributed to this story.