Pittsboro leaders call for national attention to town’s PFAS troubles

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PITTSBORO — In a specially convened Pittsboro board meeting last week — the second since large “slugs” of 1,4-Dioxane were recently discharged into the Haw River, from where Pittsboro draws its drinking water — commissioners and town staff doubled down on previous demands for upstream water users to stop polluting the Haw, and called for national media to heighten social pressure.

On July 1, the City of Greensboro and the North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality reported a discharge of 1,4-Dioxane — a suspected carcinogen — into South Buffalo Creek, a Haw River tributary, in effluent from Greensboro’s TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant a day earlier. Preliminary samples in Greensboro indicated levels between 543 parts per billion and 687 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane were discharged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends no more than 35 ppb in healthy drinking water.

In following weeks, 1,4-Dioxane levels in Pittsboro’s drinking water oscillated, finally dissipating to non-detectable levels earlier this month. But the unexpected surge in water contamination has ignited a fervor among town leaders to resolve the town’s drinking water woes for good. Several commissioners floated the idea of litigation against Greensboro, the state and other upstream parties, but detailed discussions of legal strategy have not been conducted in the public eye.

“But just so the public knows,” Town Manager Chris Kennedy said, “anytime we’re openly discussing features or facets of litigation, generally that’s done in closed session by the board to not really show our hand, and that’s allowed by state statute.”

Town leaders did discuss a second strategy at length, however: attracting national attention to the town’s plight.

“I think we need to continue to work with state and federal levels to see if we can’t get the national leaders interested in holding some feet to the fire,” Mayor Jim Nass said. “I’m going to continue to try to push that angle as well.”

Besides 1,4-Dioxane, which was first discovered in the Haw River several years ago, PFAS has been a regular contaminant in Pittsboro’s drinking water since at least 2018. Both 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) pose severe health risks if regularly ingested over long periods of time, but PFAS especially comes with a slew of side effects. High exposure is associated with thyroid disease, increased blood cholesterol levels and birth defects. PFAS is also known to inhibit the body’s immune system and limit its response to vaccination.

“Let me remind everybody, it disrupts your ability to produce antibodies,” said Katie Bryant, a microbiologist and biomedical researcher who also serves on Pittsboro’s water quality task force. “So when you get your vaccine, your body is given an immune response and based on that you produce the antibodies to something. And what they’re seeing in communities with high levels of PFAS exposure is those people aren’t making antibodies for very long or they’re not even really getting to protective levels.”

Neither 1,4-Dioxane nor PFAS is unique to Pittsboro; both can be found in common household goods and factory discharge. But Pittsboro’s PFAS contamination levels have already earned the town some nationwide attention. A recent study by Consumer Reports found higher PFAS levels in Pittsboro’s drinking water than anywhere else in the country.

Kennedy hopes more attention from national outlets might emphasize the work Pittsboro’s leaders are doing to address the problem despite ongoing water contamination from nearby cities.

“We’re really proud of what this board and this community did to really create statewide, maybe even nationwide change with regard to advanced treatment,” he said. “... I hope people go, ‘Hey, forget the articles where we’re talking about bad water, those newspapers talked about what Pittsboro did against that and how they’re a success story, and how others can be like that.’”

To combat upstream contamination, the board of commissioners authorized a modification project for the town’s water plant earlier this year. Installation of special filters is under way and should eliminate about 90% of all PFAS from the town’s water supply within a year. But the project will cost several million dollars — an expense that will severely limit the town’s capacity for other projects and add strain to the rate-payer base if responsible parties don’t cover at least some of the expense.

“So maybe we’re the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Kennedy said, “and gets this thing kick-started and gets everyone in here to make some real action.”


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