Why a Sanford wastewater permit renewal matters

Haw’s Riverkeeper explains harmful impact of lax requirements, testing


The city of Sanford’s Big Buffalo Wastewater Treatment Facility, located adjacent to the Deep River, was the subject of a recent public hearing held by the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources.

Sanford is requesting a renewal of its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Wastewater Discharge Permit, which allows it discharge treated municipal and industrial wastewater to the Deep River in the Cape Fear River Basin.

With the town of Pittsboro and the city of Sanford collaborating on an agreement that would ultimately provide Pittsboro with water from the Deep River, the hearing was important to Chatham residents. The Haw River Assembly’s Emily Sutton, who attended and spoke at the hearing, spoke to the News + Record about its importance.

Sutton joined the staff of Haw River Assembly in 2016, managing citizen science projects to watchdog against sediment pollution and monitor the tributaries and main stem of the Haw River. As Riverkeeper, she is now leading the fight against pollution in the Haw River on many fronts, including emerging contaminants, Jordan Lake nutrients, and sediment pollution.

The N.C. Division of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources recently held a public hearing regarding the renewal of the City of Sanford’s Big Buffalo Wastewater Treatment Facility, which treats wastewater from the Deep River. Why was that hearing important, and what’s the relevancy for people in Chatham County?

Sanford’s drinking water facility is unique in that the discharge for the wastewater treatment plant, which has historically discharged extremely high levels of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane, is actually upstream. Sanford is poised to become a regional drinking water supplier. They will be selling drinking water to their own communities in Sanford, along with much of Chatham County, including Pittsboro, Fuquay-Varina, and Holly Springs. 

This discharge permit has no numeric limits for PFAS or 1,4 dioxane. Left unregulated, these toxins will flow the 15 miles downstream into the drinking water intake, threatening the health of these impacted communities. 


Some of the discussion and concerns raised at that March 7 public hearing revolved around the legal responsibility of the state — and of the City of Sanford — in terms of holding polluters accountable. What’s your perspective on that?

The Clean Water Act mandates that any discharge into public waterways must be disclosed. This is the responsibility of the polluting industry. Small communities downstream of these industrial corporations should not be left with the responsibility to treat and pay for that treatment while upstream polluters face no consequences. 


What in-place protocols need to change?

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for setting limits and enforcing those limits on discharge permits in order to protect the health of our environment. Currently, the discharge permits contain no numeric limits for PFAS, and no numeric limits for 1,4-dioxane. 1,4-dioxane has a legal standard of 0.35ug/L in water supply watersheds, and yet, this limit has not been set or enforced on a discharge permit for fear of litigation from polluting industries. The only mention of PFAS in these permits is a requirement for quarterly monitoring, with no action required if those monitoring results exceed EPA’s new limits. 

Another critical change needed is the precautionary principle. Currently, chemicals and toxins can be discharged into the air, water, soil until it is proven to be harmful, which can take over a decade of research and human health monitoring to prove. 


Other discussion at the hearing revolved around monitoring, specifically monitoring and reporting frequency. What’s happening now when it comes to monitoring and reporting by the state and by local wastewater facilities, and what needs to change?

Most local wastewater facilities are not monitoring for PFAS compounds. As these permits come up for review, monitoring requirements can be added. However, we can’t test only for the legacy PFOA and PFOS compounds. The shorter chain PFAS that have replaced those compounds in manufacturing processes are equally as harmful. We need to look at these toxins as a class, rather than monitoring and regulating one at a time. 

Quarterly monitoring is currently what is being required for these new permits. However, we have historically seen spikes in PFAS, and especially 1,4-dioxane, that would not be captured in quarterly monitoring. Additionally, monitoring alone does not incentivize polluters to reduce their PFAS discharges. For PFAS levels at a level of concern, weekly monitoring should be required until levels are reduced. We understand the costs of monitoring frequently is a burden, but this cost will act as an incentive to protect community health downstream. 


Can you talk about that wastewater plant’s filtration methods, and share what you know about different methods and why they’re important for all of us to be aware of?

The wastewater plant currently has no filtration methods for PFAS or 1,4-dioxane. Without the state requiring those toxins to be limited, Sanford has no motivation to install proper treatment. However, they have received $35 million from state funds to expand their drinking water facility which is located downstream. This facility will have Granular Activated Carbon treatment, which has shown some success at removing PFAS, but no effectiveness for 1,4-dioxane. 

Treating wastewater at the end of the effluent pipe is not the most effective method for treatment. Wastewater plants receive industrial waste from dozens of industrial users. Those users need to treat their wastewater streams before it ever reaches the wastewater plant. This can be mandated through a pretreatment permit, authorized by the wastewater treatment plant. Treatment at the industry level will target the treatment on less volume of discharge, and eliminate the source of toxins contaminated the biosolids, or sludge, that is later land applied on fields. 


The Bharat Forge facility in Sanford, and the coming industrial facilities in Chatham — VinFast and Wolfspeed — are in various stages of permitting for the waste they’ll produce. What has the Haw River Assembly determined so far, in terms of impact, that these facilities might have?

We are very concerned about PFAS and 1,4-dioxane discharges that would originate from VinFast and Wolfspeed. These industries have been fast tracked in the spirit of economic growth, and therefore, have had little oversight. We have already seen drastic sedimentation impacts resulting from the VinFast development, and no permits have been obtained for this project yet. These industries must be required to minimize any loads of toxins in their manufacturing processes, and the only way to do that is for the state to set, and enforce, limits on their discharge permits. 


Can you speak to the EPA’s own health advisories about PFAS and 1,4-dioxane and other contaminants, and any updates and changes in acceptable levels and limits?

EPA has set new health guidelines of 0.004 ppt for PFOA, and 0.02ppt for PFOS. The previous guidance was 70ppt for the two combined. This is a clear example of why these toxins need to be regulated as a class. The more we know about these toxins, the more restricted they will become. The health impacts of these contaminants are lifelong, if not fatal, through cancers and renal failures, etc. 

We’ve seen the same trend with lead, for example. The limit has gone from 100 to 3.5 ug/L, though the EPA and CDC agree that no level of lead is safe in a child’s bloodstream. We need to set protective limits proactively to protect our communities. 


Despite the rapid growth that’s happened in Lee County and that’s coming in Lee and Chatham, we still have lots of farmland and agriculture. What should farmers — and those of us who consume what they produce — be concerned about these levels we’ve been discussing?

Biosolids are a major concern for soil and groundwater contamination. Sludge has been touted as “free fertilizer” from wastewater treatment plants, but until those wastewater treatment plants require their industrial users to eliminate the toxic levels of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane, the sludge will also be contaminated. We’ve had documented cases of contaminated hay, dairies, organic produce, and other agricultural products with extremely high levels of these toxins. Sludge is the source of that contamination. Farmers should not be using land applied biosolids in their fields. 


What role is the Southern Environmental Law Center playing?

SELC has led our litigation and settlement negotiations with polluters upstream. Haw River Assembly worked for years to trace the sources of pollution, document the harm, and propose solutions, but without the legal tools of SELC, we would not have made this level of progress. Together, we work to uphold the Clean Water Act and hold polluters accountable. 


Why aren’t polluters taking more responsibility?


In the case of wastewater treatment plants, they are protecting the interests of their customers, who are dumping industrial toxins into their wastestream without consequences. Their industrial users would pay a higher cost for PFAS alternatives, or pay to invest in treatment to prevent the toxins from reaching the wastewater plant. Without state standards to enforce these changes, the polluters will continue to prioritize profits over the health of our communities.  


There was discussion at the hearing about those living downstream from Sanford’s plant. We might not think too much about that population — we’re naturally more concerned about our own backyard. Why should those living downstream from this particular wastewater facility be important to us?

In all cases, there is always someone downstream. We should always be concerned about their health as well. But if we are only focusing on our own individual health, we can think of it this way: we travel to the beach, we visit the restaurants, we buy products sourced from downstream. We eat seafood. We are all harmed by this toxic pollution. 

Sanford’s impact however, is directly personal. Sanford discharges upstream from its own drinking water intake, which will supply drinking water to communities all over the region — including Chatham County.

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