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By Greg Barnes
Five years ago, N.C. State researcher Detlef Knappe and his graduate students set out to measure the probable carcinogen 1,4 dioxane in the Cape Fear River basin as part of a study for the state Department of Environmental Quality.
For two years, Knappe and his students took samples in the Haw and Cape Fear rivers, as well as from creeks and streams in the state’s largest basin.
At one spot along the Haw River, at Troxler Mill Road near Reidsville, Knappe’s group measured 1,4 dioxane at what seemed at the time to be an astonishingly high level: 1,030 parts per billion.
High levels of 1,4 dioxane reported in additional communities
The state Department of Environmental Quality provided a list of 15 governing bodies or their water utilities that it said it notified Tuesday of high levels of 1,4 dioxane detected at Reidsville’s wastewater treatment plant. A source of the contamination is not yet known. The levels detected in samples taken Oct. 11 are 4,000 times higher than the state’s health advisory for surface waters used for public consumption.
- Fayetteville Public Works Commission
- Cape Fear Public Utility Authority
- Brunswick County
- Harnett County
- Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority
- Chatham County
- Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority
That’s more than 2,900 times higher than North Carolina’s lifetime health advisory for surface waters used for drinking water. High levels were also detected in many other parts of the watershed, which Knappe says probably has the highest levels of 1,4 dioxane in the country.
The study concluded that there were four primary areas of elevated 1,4 dioxane in the basin, three of which are immediately downstream of wastewater treatment plants in Greensboro, Asheboro and Reidsville. The study also concluded that the likely sources of the contamination are industries in those three cities.
Flash forward to August of this year, when a sample taken at Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant measured 1,4 dioxane at a concentration of 957 parts per billion. Scroll forward again to this month, when another sample, taken at Reidsville’s wastewater treatment plant, detected 1,4 dioxane at 1,400 parts per billion. That’s 4,000 times higher than the state’s health guideline.
The fight continues
Environmental advocates and leaders of water utilities downstream of those three wastewater treatment plants have been fighting for years for tougher enforcement actions against the responsible industries.
“It’s troubling that the DEQ and the municipalities involved have not been able to remove 1,4 dioxane down to a level that’s unquestionably safe for downstream water users even though they have been aware of the problem for years,” Mick Noland wrote in an email to NC Health News on Wednesday. Noland is the chief operations officer for the Fayetteville Public Works Commission’s Water Resources Division.
Kemp Burdette, head of the advocacy group Cape Fear River Watch in Wilmington, had an even stronger response.
“It’s time to move past studies and on to action,” Burdette said in an email. “Our legislative leaders need to empower DEQ to stop these discharges at the source — now.”
The DEQ taking action
Lately, the DEQ has been responding to the problem.
In May, it began requiring 25 municipalities in the basin with industrial pretreatment programs to begin sampling for 1,4 dioxane and perfluorinated compounds — known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — as a way for cities to determine which industries are responsible for the pollution and to make them stop.
The sampling began in July and ended in September. Although the DEQ said the test results aren’t yet available — the municipalities have until Oct. 31 to turn them in — it credits the monitoring program with revealing the latest discharges.
But that raises a question: How often were these discharges occurring before the monitoring program began?
If the discharge in Reidsville reaches Wilmington, it will be the fifth time this year that the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority has detected a spike in 1,4 dioxane. It is not known whether other discharges may have gone undetected.
No easy fix
Officials with Greensboro, Asheboro and Reidsville all say they have been working hard with the industries to stop the releases of 1,4 dioxane and PFAS. But they also say there is no easy fix.
The contaminant is not federally regulated, so there is no law to get industries to stop the discharges. The way it stands now, the only real enforcement action the state can take is against the cities, which issue industrial pretreatment program permits to the industries.
It’s up to the cities to control the polluters and downstream utilities. Environmental advocates say the cities, and the DEQ, are not doing enough.
“North Carolina needs to stop putting financial success of the manufacturing industry ahead of human and environmental health,” Burdette said. “They need to require, by law, that industries prove their discharge is safe before it enters the environment. We have waited long enough.”
Cities not cooperating
Noland and others say cities where the discharges have happened are being less than cooperative.
Until now, there has been no initiative on the part of the state or cities to contact downstream utilities immediately after learning of a discharge.
Emily Sutton, the Haw River riverkeeper, believes the DEQ began notifying downstream utilities immediately after the Reidsville discharge because of the pressure it felt after the Greensboro discharge, which presumably occurred in early August.
But in fairness to the DEQ, Greensboro did not notify state regulators until more than a month after it had learned of the discharge and may have done so then only because it was required to under federal permitting regulations. The DEQ says the discharge had dissipated by the time state regulators learned of it on Sept. 27.
Refusal to reveal company
After notifying the state, Greensboro refused a request from N.C. Health News to identify the company responsible for the discharge, saying city policy pertaining to billing of water customers prevented it from doing so.
The DEQ revealed the responsible industry — Shamrock Environmental Corp. — a day after N.C. Health News published a story saying the company’s identity remained a secret.
Documents provided by the DEQ show that Shamrock was cited numerous times last year for exceeding discharge allowances for zinc, copper, pH, cyanide and cobalt. Despite those infractions, Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman, said Greensboro does not list the company as being in “significant noncompliance.”
The documents do not show whether the company had been monitored for releases of 1,4 dioxane, possibly because that may not have been a requirement at the time, Martin said.
The DEQ continues to investigate and is considering enforcement action against Greensboro.
The situation in Reidsville
The DEQ said it does not know who might be responsible for the release of 1,4 dioxane detected at Reidsville’s wastewater treatment plant. It said Reidsville provided the names of two possible candidates, Unifi Inc. and DyStar. Representatives from those companies did not return phone messages Wednesday.
Besides not being notified of contamination, downstream water utility leaders have also been rankled by the DEQ’s enforcement efforts.
Last year, the DEQ prepared a draft permit for the city of Asheboro that included a stipulation that it could release a concentration of no more than 149 parts per billion of 1,4 dioxane from its wastewater treatment plant.
Noland and other downstream utility leaders strongly objected to the 149 parts per billion provision, saying it was way too high to adequately protect their water customers. Sutton, the Haw River riverkeeper, said she was told that the figure is based on a dilution factor of the effluent coming from the Asheboro treatment plant.
A year later, the draft permit is still pending as the DEQ staff reviews the 1,4 dioxane limit and the best available technology for removing the chemical, according to Martin, the DEQ spokeswoman. Greensboro, Asheboro and Reidsville are all operating under expired pollution discharge permits.
Hold industry accountable
Sutton said industry — not households or water utilities — should be responsible for removing 1,4 dioxane and PFAS from their plants before it gets into drinking water supplies and sewer treatment facilities. Utilities cannot remove the chemical without spending millions of dollars on special filtration systems. Instead, homeowners are now paying hundreds of dollars of their own money for in-home systems. Sutton called that an environmental injustice, especially because not every customer can afford the often pricey filtration systems.
A lesser-known issue, Sutton said, is the sludge collected from the sewer plants that is spread on farm fields or used as compost. Erosion and heavy rainfall often cause 1,4 dioxane in the sludge to run off the fields into the rivers, creeks and streams, she said.
“The Cape Fear River basin should not be treated as a dumping ground for industrial chemicals,” Erin Carey of the Sierra Club said in an email. “It’s a source of drinking water for thousands as well as an important recreational resource for fishing and boating.
“First GenX, now 1-4 dioxane, what next? After years of cuts, it’s past time to adequately fund DEQ’s environmental enforcement capability and hold polluters accountable. The age of protecting/prioritizing industry interests over human health and natural resources needs to end.”