By Greg Barnes
Roughly 200 people turned out Wednesday evening for a forum in Pittsboro to learn more about contaminants in the town’s drinking water.
Those who spoke asked state regulators and university researchers about the water coming out of their taps. Whether they needed filtration systems in their homes. Whether it’s safe to eat vegetables from their gardens.
Some wanted to know more about a temporary spike of a likely carcinogen called 1,4 dioxane in the town’s drinking water. The spike happened in August, causing the concentration of 1,4 dioxane to soar to more than 300 times the state’s surface water standard for the contaminant.
Shamrock Environmental Corp., a Greensboro company that handles and treats nonhazardous wastewater for other industries, was responsible for the spike, the state Department of Environmental Quality revealed Tuesday.
Linda Culpepper, director of the DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, said after the forum that the DEQ is investigating the spike and is considering taking enforcement action against the city of Greensboro, a designated authority of the state’s industrial pretreatment program. The city issued a wastewater permit to Shamrock Environmental, which has been in business for 25 years.
Greensboro learned about the release of 1,4 dioxane in mid-August but didn’t notify downstream utilities that provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. Greensboro did notify the state, but not until a month or more after learning about the discharge.
Fayetteville and Wilmington detected elevated levels of 1,4 dioxane weeks after the discharge happened.
Shamrock Environmental released a statement Wednesday saying it notified Greensboro about the discharge immediately after learning about it. Monty Hagler, a spokesman for the company, said he did not know the exact date of notification but would try to find out.
In its statement, Shamrock said it handled about 15,825 gallons of wastewater for a company that did not reveal the water contained 1,4 dioxane. Shamrock stopped accepting the waste immediately after learning of the contamination, according to the statement.
Mike Borchers, an assistant director of Greensboro’s Divisions of Water Resources, said Tuesday that the city followed state protocol for notification of a release of contamination.
Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman, said in an email before the forum that Greensboro notified the state of the release of 1,4 dioxane in its monthly discharge report required under the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The city filed the report on Sept. 27. It was due by the end of September.
Culpepper, who served as a forum panelist, said the DEQ is looking into the notification process, whether changes need to be made and whether Greensboro may have violated it. As part of its investigation, the DEQ is now collecting water samples from Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant each week.
Martin said the DEQ is also looking into whether Shamrock has been involved in previous pollution problems.
The 1,4 dioxane made its way into the Haw River and from there into Pittsboro’s drinking water, where it measured 107 parts per billion on Aug. 23. The average level of the contaminant in the Haw River near Pittsboro’s water intake is typically about 5 to 10 parts per billion, said another panelist, N.C. State University researcher Detlef Knappe.
Knappe told Pittsboro residents that the contamination probably stayed in their homes for about six days, perhaps a couple more. Knappe has been studying 1,4 dioxane in the Haw River since 2012.
The forum, in the Chatham County Agricultural and Conference Center, was the first of its kind for the area. It was sponsored by the Haw River Assembly, which for years has been dogging state regulators and industries to stop the pollution.
Reverse osmosis works best
Asked during the forum if they would drink Pittsboro’s tap water, Knappe and other panelists said they would not without an adequate in-home filtration system.
Dr. Zack Moore, the state epidemiologist for North Carolina, and other panelists said drinking Pittsboro’s water without filtration might depend on the circumstances. Moore said a person who knew he would only be drinking the water for a couple of years could have a different perspective than others.
Heather Stapleton, an environmental toxicologist with Duke University, told the gathering that whole-home filtration units are not recommended because of the bacteria they could breed. Knappe said under-the-sink reverse osmosis systems work best at removing 1,4 dioxane
Knappe said 1,4 dioxane is not the only concern for Pittsboro residents. Other contaminants, including perfluorinated compounds known as PFAS and bromide, are also in their water supply at high levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets a health advisory for 1,4 dioxane at 35 parts per billion in drinking water. A person who drinks that concentration over a lifetime stands a 1 in 10,000 chance of getting cancer.
While the average level of 1,4 dioxane in Pittsboro’s drinking water is far below the EPA’s health advisory, Knappe urged caution because the health effects of all of the contaminants combined is not known.
Through a Duke University grant, Stapleton and other researchers are now sampling Pittsboro residents’ blood in an effort to determine the potential health effects.
Make industries stop polluting
One person at the forum asked if Pittsboro should pay the cost of in-home filtration systems or a filtration system at the town’s water treatment plant.
“No,” Knappe responded, noting that the EPA is unlikely to set a health standard for 1,4 dioxane or any of the estimated 5,000 PFAS anytime soon. He said the EPA only regulates about 100 of the roughly 100,000 chemicals known to exist. The EPA hasn’t set a maximum contaminant level for a chemical in decades, he said.
“If there were standards, they would be enforced and (the levels) would be lower,” Knappe said.
The best solution, he said, is to stop industries from dumping contaminants into rivers and streams.
“I like to say, ‘Why are we discharging this into our drinking water supplies in the first place,’ ” Knappe said.