At last, 1,4-Dioxane levels in Pittsboro’s water are non-detectable. Now what?

Town leaders struggling to enforce accountability from upstream polluters

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PITTSBORO — Town leaders announced Friday that Pittsboro’s drinking water is again devoid of 1,4-Dioxane more than a month after considerable levels of the carcinogenic chemical were discharged into the Haw River by a yet unknown Greensboro source.

“It’s the first we’ve had non-detect levels across the board since this all started,” Town Manager Chris Kennedy told the News + Record. “We’ve had non-detect in the raw water and the finished water for a couple of weeks, which is good, but the tanks took a while because it’s just trying to work its way through the system. So now the tanks are at that point and it’s really kind of back to normal.”

Daily water sampling began more than a month ago after the City of Greensboro and the North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality reported a discharge of 1,4-Dioxane on June 30 into South Buffalo Creek — a Haw River tributary — in effluent from Greensboro’s TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant. Water samples taken in Greensboro indicated initial levels between 543 parts per billion and 687 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends no more than 35 ppb in healthy drinking water.

The month-long campaign to purge Pittsboro’s water of 1,4-Dioxane — which had not appeared in the town’s water previously for more than a year — has ignited a renewed effort from town leaders to assume a proactive stance against upstream polluters such as Greensboro.

In a specially convened meeting last month, Kennedy and the town board of commissioners publicly demanded the City of Greensboro or the State of North Carolina pay recompense for water contamination issues in Pittsboro’s drinking supply. Besides the most recent spat of 1,4-Dioxane contamination, Greensboro factories are regular dischargers of PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances), another carcinogenic family of chemicals. PFAS concentrations in Pittsboro’s water are the highest of any water source in the country, according to a nationwide Consumer Reports study and local research from teams at Duke University and N.C. State, as previously reported by the News + Record.

Calls for Greensboro’s and the state’s accountability have gone unacknowledged, however, much to Kennedy’s dismay.

“Greensboro and the state have basically not had any proactive communication with us,” he said. “We were hoping that we would have a little more of that. So my goal this week is to try to get something set up with the state. I figured that they would kind of talk with the players-that-be downstream and tell us, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do,’ but they’ve done none of that. So that’s been rather disappointing to say the least.”

Since dangerous PFAS levels were first discovered in Pittsboro’s drinking water about three years ago — and 1,4-Dioxane earlier than that — town staff and the board of commissioners have worked diligently to address the problem despite apparent indifference from upstream polluters. Under consultation from CDM Smith, an engineering and construction company, which provides water solutions for government and private clients, the board of commissioners adopted a plan in February for tiered installation of various treatment methods starting with a “fast-track” option that should be operational in less than a year.

The filtration method, known as granular activated coal (GAC), would filter approximately 90% of all PFAS from a drinking supply of at least one million gallons per day (mgd) — more than enough for the town’s water demands on all but the hottest days of the year.

The project will cost $2.5 million to $3 million, but GAC cannot remove 1,4-Dioxane. With the chemical having resurfaced and threatening to appear again, the town must accelerate its plan to add a second filtration system, which will cost several million dollars more.

That’s a financial burden heavier than Pittsboro can reasonably bear.

“What we’re looking at right now is called UVAOP and that’s what the town had contemplated before anyhow,” Kennedy said. “The reason that it wasn’t included the first time was because we frankly just can’t afford it. We can’t afford it now. So if we go with UV at the plant, I don’t know where those dollars are coming from.”

If state authorities will not intervene to regulate Greensboro’s discharge, Kennedy said, and if the city itself will not better manage its effluent, the least each can do is fund Pittsboro’s requisite countermeasures.

“And so that’s going to be part of the conversations we’re going to have,” he said. “If the state of North Carolina thinks this is no big deal, then they need to provide Pittsboro, in my opinion, with the dollars and cents to go put in our system. Because if they’re not going to regulate Greensboro and control this upstream, we’re forced to handle this downstream, and we flat out cannot afford it. If I spent every dollar I had and fired every staff person on the enterprise fund, we still couldn’t afford it, and, of course, that’s ridiculous.”

Town commissioners have expressed similar ire and waning patience with the state’s inaction. Several have floated the idea of litigation, but such measures take careful forethought and can be expensive in themselves. To discuss legal options and alternative solutions, the board will host another special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 18 dedicated to public discussion of the town’s ongoing water contamination. The meeting will be conducted via Zoom. A link will be available on the town’s website, pittsboronc.gov.

The town is also now collecting public comments from residents on water quality concerns and questions. Written comments may be directed to Town Clerk Cassandra Bullock via email at cbullock@pittsboronc.gov.

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

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