Pittsboro staff, organizers demands accountability for water contamination

Letter would ask polluters ‘to be held responsible’ and cover town’s costs


PITTSBORO — Town of Pittsboro staff, the board of commissioners and Clean Haw River — a Pittsboro-based environmental conservation organization — are partnering to draft a letter requesting upstream municipalities and cities cover design and installation costs for the town’s new water filtration systems.

Clean Haw River’s founders — Dr. Jessica Merricks, an assistant biology professor at Elon University, and Katie Bryant, a microbiologist and biomedical researcher — proposed the collaboration at the board of commissioners’ regular meeting on Monday. The two suggested Pittsboro leaders lend their support to an awareness campaign pressuring Greensboro, Burlington and Reidsville governments to identify and suppress industry polluters introducing dangerous chemicals into the Haw River.

“We’re basically asking for them to be held responsible,” Bryant said.

For more than a year, environmental activists and residents alike have lamented Pittsboro’s water quality since it was discovered to contain alarming concentrations of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — chemicals known as potential carcinogens. A 2018 study by Duke University researchers first alerted the public to abnormally high PFAS levels in the Haw River, from whence the town draws its drinking water.

Since then, the News + Record has frequently reported on developing research into the contaminant’s enduring presence, as have national news outlets. A recent study by Consumer Reports and Guardian newspaper identified Pittsboro as having some of the country’s worst water. Its PFAS concentration was considerably higher than anywhere else nationwide.

In late 2019, the board of commissioners assembled a water quality task force on which Bryant served as one of 17 members. The group completed an investigation report last October identifying upstream factories as the likely sources of PFAS runoff, and submitted a recommended action plan to protect Pittsboro residents. Since then, the board of commissioners has authorized considerable measures to stifle PFAS proliferation, including a $2.6 million project to install granular activated coal filters at the town’s water treatment plant. Once completed, the advanced filtration system is designed to remove more than 90% of all PFAS from the water supply.

But such sizable expenditures threaten the town’s fiscal stability, and town residents ultimately shoulder the burden. To finance installation of the GAC filtration system and other infrastructure needs, the town is likely to raise water and sewer utility rates by 43% and 18% respectively, according to the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022.

As Clean Haw River and Pittsboro leaders see it, that’s unfair.

“We in Pittsboro aren’t putting anything into the water, that is, this kind of pollution,” Mayor Jim Nass said at the Monday meeting. “We’re not doing that, but what we are being forced to do is try to take the steps to clean it up when it shows up in our water. So, not only do we bear the expense and responsibility for taking this out of our water, which we have to do in order to protect our citizens, then we have to figure out what in the world to do with it so we don’t send it on downstream where other people have to do the same thing.”

In the letter, Clean Haw River and town officials plan to disclose likely polluters and demand financial reparation for the damages imposed on resident health and town resources. At the suggestion of Town Manager Chris Kennedy — who will collaborate with Bryant and Merricks to draft their message — the group will forward a completed letter to upstream governments, state representatives in the General Assembly and downstream neighbors who might also suffer from inordinate PFAS levels.

“It’s going to be a big battle,” Bryant said.

With the coordinated backing of several municipal governments and private organizations, though, the group hopes their letter will achieve its intended result.

“This letter coming from the Town of Pittsboro, or jointly with you,” Nass said, addressing Bryant and Merricks, “will be more effective ... Kind of putting myself in a position of receiving this letter in, let’s say, Greensboro, it could be that if it is a joint letter, it might well garner number one, more attention, and number two, be taken more seriously.”

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