Pittsboro, Greensboro officials hold first in-person meeting to discuss water quality

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PITTSBORO — Officials from Pittsboro and Greensboro came together for the first time in person last Thursday to discuss water quality issues and seek ways to safeguard the Haw River — the source of Pittsboro’s drinking water — 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 decision-making. But the clear 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 two boards discussed various issues, saw a presentation on the status of Pittsboro’s Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) project, talked about grants and more.

Communication is key

The meeting began with updates from each of the municipalities on solutions for water quality issues and plans to implement them.

Pittsboro Commissioner Kyle Shipp, who led most of Thursday’s discussions, provided Greensboro’s commissioners with updates about Pittsboro’s water system, including the plans to merge wastewater systems with Sanford. He said the announcement of VinFast’s arrival to Chatham has accelerated the need to find solutions to the town’s water woes.

“VinFast is going to have a lot of water and wastewater needs,” Shipp said. “We (Sanford and Pittsboro) are going to be able to help with that.”

The Sanford-Pittsboro partnership would allow the two municipalities to “regionalize the public water and wastewater utility systems of the town of Pittsboro,” including water treatment plants, distribution, wastewater treatment and public wastewater collection infrastructure, he said.

Shipp also shared that Pittsboro is now labeled as a ‘“distressed utility” by the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, which would allow Pittsboro to accept additional funding from the state to improve its water infrastructure.

Shipp said the “distressed” label is based on data the state collected in 2020, but the town has made changes to its water infrastructure since then. However, he feels it’s “strategic” to accept the designation as a way to increase funds for Pittsboro’s water treatment plant.

“In another town, it would not be a welcome designation, necessarily,” Shipp told those gathered. “But we think where we’re at with the regionalization process and with utility projects in progress, this is set to be the opportunity to qualify for funding and receive help for what we’re already working on.”

Borgers talked about Greensboro’s efforts to improve dialogue with Pittsboro and other municipalities when chemical discharges occur, including the implementation of a new communications protocol.

“It is used to maintain lines of communication and opens them up even further to share important information as it relates to our operations,” Borgers said.

The communication protocol added Pittsboro officials and Town Manager Chris Kennedy and water utilities staff as first contacts if Greensboro’s water treatment plants discharge chemicals such as 1,4-Dioxane.

In addition to creating the protocol, Borgers also offered an apology to Pittsboro for the multiple discharges from Greensboro’s water treatment facility.

“I mean it when I say your customers are just as important as ours because it’s our community,” he said. “I want to express my concern and apologize for the impact this has had on your customers.”

GAC progress and grant funding

Pittsboro brought in construction company CDM Smith Engineer Bill Dowbiggin to present on the town’s new granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment to filter out PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, other likely human carcinogens.

“The brand-new system is almost online and is on track to be online by the end of the month,” he said.

Dowboggin explained to the two boards how the carbon works — water flows through the GAC, removing the PFAS as the water trickles through.

He also said the GAC system is just the first phase of modifications planned for Pittsboro’s water plant. Dowbiggin said some infrastructure to treat 1,4-Dioxane could be in the works in the future if funds were made available.

Pittsboro Engineer Kent Jackson commented on the funding, saying the town is working on applying for some grants and loans to help fund future water infrastructure projects.

The town applied for a $11.6 million grant to help make more improvements to the town’s water treatment plant, but was only approved for $550,000.

“They had initially communicated to us that we were approved for the $11.6 million in their preliminary recommendations,” Jackson said. “However, that changed when we were funded $4.45 million for our sewer system, so with that particular grant, there’s a $5 million cap, so that’s why we got the $550,000.”

Jackson suggested the two towns should apply for grants jointly in hopes they can both receive more funding to better the two municipal treatment plants. Greensboro’s Borgers voiced his support to work with Pittsboro to try to receive more funds.

“You have really piqued my interest, especially with this joint application,” Borgers said. “It helps us as far as compliance (with the SOC) and getting on the path where we help those communities. I am definitely interested to explore further.”

Post-meeting reaction

Emily Sutton, the Haw River Assembly’s riverkeeper, attended the meeting. She said she was cautiously optimistic about the discussion.

“I’m encouraged that Pittsboro has finally taken this step after years of community outpouring and pushing them to do this work to protect communities,” Sutton said. “Greensboro came to the table today to discuss whether it was a viable option for them to partner, too, and invest in 1,4-Dioxane treatment as well.”

While she was encouraged by the joint meeting, Sutton felt the proposed changes weren’t enough to combat the damage pollutants caused to Pittsboro. She said she wants the state to do more to crack down on the industries that continue to discharge pollutants into the Haw.

“The state needs to hold those wastewater treatment plants accountable in their discharge permits to therefore put the responsibility back on the individual dischargers at the industrial user level,” Sutton said. “So Greensboro, included, needs to be holding all of those industrial users accountable.”

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

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