Pittsboro's Chris Kennedy: Greensboro’s lack of accountability after water contamination ‘is just obnoxious’

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/21/21

In a specially convened meeting Tuesday, Town Manager Chris Kennedy and the board of commissioners publicly demanded the City of Greensboro or the State of North Carolina pay recompense for water contamination issues in the Pittsboro’s drinking supply. 

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Pittsboro's Chris Kennedy: Greensboro’s lack of accountability after water contamination ‘is just obnoxious’

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PITTSBORO — In a specially convened meeting Tuesday, Town Manager Chris Kennedy and the 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. 

In the last three weeks, Pittsboro staff have daily monitored the town’s water since Greensboro announced an illegal discharge of 1,4-Dioxane — a suspected carcinogen derived from industrial runoff — from its TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant last month. The city’s effluent feeds South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River, from which Pittsboro draws its drinking water. 

Preliminary water samples in Greensboro indicated 1,4-Dioxane levels between 543 parts per billion and 687 parts per billion had been released. The chemical “slug” was almost 20 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s guideline, which recommends no more than 35 ppb of 1,4-Dioxane in healthy drinking water. The chemical had not previously appeared in Pittsboro’s water at any detectable level for more than a year. 

The contamination violated a Special Order of Consent between the City of Greensboro and the North Carolina Dept. of Environmental Quality signed in February. The SOC stipulates no more than 45 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane may be released into the Haw per day. 

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The agreement was triggered in 2019 after the discovery that Shamrock Environmental — an environmental and industrial waste management services company — was dumping 705 ppb to 1,210 ppb of 1,4-Dioxane at the TZ Osborne plant. The Shamrock location in Greensboro is a tanker cleaning facility that also manages wastewater and recycles drilling mud.

Water samples of Shamrock’s effluent showed 98.8 ppb of 1,4-Dioxane on July 6 and July 7 and 466 ppb on July 7 in a “flume grab” — water which had not been mixed with other sources at the wastewater treatment pant. But Greensboro representatives have denied any connection between the company and last month’s spill. 

Alternative potential sources have not been suggested.

Regardless of who the guilty party is, Greensboro may be liable for a penalty fee of $5,000 according to the SOC stipulations. But to Kennedy, the sum is laughable.

“One of the things I want to bring up, because it’s just obnoxious, is the penalty Greensboro received before was $5,000,” he said, referring to when Greensboro was first penalized following Shamrock Environmental’s pollution. “That covered everything from December of 2017 until February of 2021.” 

Per state requirements, Greensboro fulfilled its responsibility to Pittsboro with that money. But the payment contributed little toward the millions of dollars in ongoing expenses Pittsboro must spend to treat its drinking water — both to dilute 1,4-Dioxane and remove PFAS, another carcinogenic family of chemicals introduced into the town’s water by upstream factories.

“I did the math on that,” Kennedy said. “Their budget in fiscal year 2021 was $139 million. Our budget is $3.9 million. It would be in effect like the state of North Carolina penalizing us $143. Every dollar and cent counts to us, but $143 doesn’t make me sweat. And so I think we’ve got to impress upon the state that $5,000 to $140 million doesn’t do anything.”

Several commissioners expressed similar frustration. 

“Each exceedance of these levels is minuscule in the cost to Greensboro,” Commissioner Michael Fiocco said. “There is no motivation ... If they can’t stop this pollution from getting in there, they should really get whacked.”

Commissioner John Bonitz asked if litigation might be brought against the City of Greensboro.

“I think it begs the question, when will we have that conversation?” he said. “I’m reluctant to even voice this because I don’t want to distract staff from the urgent work of attending to the pollutants and the monitoring that’s necessary to ensure that our citizens are continuing to receive safe water. But I do think it’s a compelling question.”

It’s unlikely, though, Pittsboro could gain any real legal leverage against Greensboro. The SOC, designed to enforce Greensboro’s responsible behavior, could work to the opposite effect, Kennedy said. The city has legal recourse explicitly identifying $5,000 as penalty for breach of contract.

“I would say litigating against Greensboro would probably be fruitless,” Kennedy said. “They have a document that says they can adhere to this.”

A better course of action, he said, would be to seek restitution from North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission, the state’s Division of Water Resources or “the contaminators themselves” once they’ve been identified.

“As a ‘Boro going against another ‘Boro,” Kennedy said, “our ‘Boro is smaller. And so we need to be very precise and calculated about how we do that.”

Pittsboro’s board of commissioners will host more special meetings in coming weeks dedicated to the resolution of the town’s 1,4-Dioxane contamination. They will likely be held at 5:30 via Zoom, Kennedy said. A date for the next had not been set by the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, but Kennedy suggested it would likely fall in mid-August.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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

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