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By Greg Barnes

The Pittsboro Drinking Water Task Force wants the town to provide deeply discounted reverse osmosis filtration systems to low-income residents while it continues to explore permanent solutions for a community rocked by contaminated drinking water.

The task force, which formed in November 2019, issued its final report in October on the avenues it recommends the town take to resolve problems with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — and another potential carcinogen called 1,4 dioxane.

Earlier this year, the PFAS Testing Network, a consortium of researchers from seven North Carolina universities, released data showing total PFAS at Pittsboro’s drinking water intake measuring 844 parts per trillion. That was the highest level discovered by the network after an initial sampling of 320 municipal water treatment plants throughout the state.

Meanwhile, a new Duke University study found that the concentrations of PFAS in Pittsboro residents’ blood are two to four times higher than the U.S. population as a whole.

PFAS are used by industry to make a multitude of products, including nonstick cookware, food packaging, stain-resistant carpet, rain gear and firefighting foam. But the study says most of the PFAS found in the blood of 49 residents tested came from drinking water. Potential adverse health effects from PFAS include liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

Sources of contamination

Researchers say the sources for much of the contamination are industries in Greensboro, Reidsville and Burlington. Those Industries are upstream of Pittsboro and discharge their waste into the Haw River. Pittsboro is the only municipality that draws its drinking water from the Haw.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has been working with the three cities to get them to substantially reduce the levels of the unregulated contaminants. The DEQ has drafted a special order by consent against Greensboro, and last month Burlington entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Haw River Assembly that forces the city to investigate the sources of the contamination.

At the same time, the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force has been working on its report to the Town Board of Commissioners. Among its recommendations:

  • Develop an Emerging Contaminants Mitigation and Response Plan in coordination with upstream and downstream municipalities.
  • Assess the town’s long-term water resources management options.
  • Educate town water users about emerging contaminants through a public awareness program, and provide short-term options to reduce exposure.

Notifying cities upstream

The task force recommends that town officials “immediately contact” their upstream peers in Greensboro, Reidsville and Burlington about Pittsboro’s concerns with their wastewater discharges. Industries send their waste to municipal sewer plants, which are incapable of filtering out PFAS and 1,4 dioxane. The waste passes straight through the sewer plants and heads downstream.

“To stop contamination at the source, these three municipalities must get involved with local industrial discharge customers,” the task force report says.

The task force also recommends building a coalition with local governments downstream of Pittsboro that are also affected. The Haw flows into Jordan Lake and then into the Cape Fear River, the source of drinking water for an estimated 250,000 people.

“Forming a strong coalition will also serve to build a much larger voice for state government to hear the demands of the people — toward the end goal of establishing regulatory guidelines for PFAS and 1,4-dioxane, which do not currently exist,” the report says.

The federal government does not regulate PFAS or 1,4 dioxane, a substance commonly used by industry as a solvent stabilizer. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and a leader in environmental issues, said Tuesday during a Zoom conference with the Environmental Working Group that Congress will push President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to make the regulations a top priority.

Michigan is also grappling with widespread PFAS contamination. Unlike North Carolina, that state recently set regulatory standards on certain types of PFAS found in its drinking water.

A regional treatment plant

The task force recommends that Pittsboro forge ahead with long-term plans to draw its water from the western side of Jordan Lake. Pittsboro is one of four partners, along with Durham, Chatham County and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, that formed the Triangle Water Partnership, according to the report. The plan is to build a regional water intake on the lake to serve the four entities.

“While it should be pursued, it will not adequately and urgently address the immediate emerging contamination problem,” according to the report, which says the goal for operating a regional water system is 2031.

In the short term, the task force points to an as yet unfinished engineering report that appears to support reverse osmosis filtration at the town’s water treatment plant. Researchers say reverse osmosis is effective at filtering out PFAS and 1,4 dioxane. The town now uses powder granular activated carbon, which N.C. State researcher Detlef Knappe has called “somewhat effective” at removing PFAS.

But a reverse osmosis filtration system at Pittsboro’s water treatment plant poses its own problems. While such a system would filter PFAS and 1,4 dioxane out of Pittsboro’s water, it doesn’t eliminate the contaminants from heading downstream as waste from the filtration process.

“In the near future, we could be sending reverse osmosis waste downstream, via the surface water, and our downstream users have a right to know,” the report says. “Regular communication and meetings should be established between the Pittsboro Town government and the Cape Fear governments.”

Releasing the waste downstream doesn’t sit well with Mick Noland, a chief water officer with Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission. Fayetteville draws its water from the Cape Fear River, downstream of Pittsboro.

“Just about anywhere they would discharge would be upstream of someone’s intake unless they were at the coast where there is no one downstream,” Noland said in an email. “Discharging to the sewer is an indirect discharge to surface waters so it’s really no different than a straight discharge to a stream.”

Sanford, Wilmington, Harnett County and other communities also draw their water from the Cape Fear. Sanford has recorded high levels of PFAS — as much as 1,000 parts per trillion in September 2019 — at its wastewater treatment plant. Subsequent sampling found much lower concentrations.

Short-term remedies

Until more permanent solutions are made, the task force recommends that the town provide reverse osmosis stations at such locations as Food Lion and the Chatham Marketplace. The stations would allow people to fill one- or five-gallon jugs with filtered water. The jugs could be provided to low-income residents for free.

The task force also recommends establishing rebate programs for low-income residents who want to install in-home reverse osmosis systems. According to the report, the systems could be bought in bulk, saving the town and all of its residents substantially.

Transparency 

The task force says the town government should be transparent about the contamination and its potential health effects. It recommends that town officials send educational notices to residences and businesses and offer assistance with installations of reverse osmosis systems.

“The Town government should act in haste in alerting local vulnerable populations by providing highly visible educational information in healthcare facilities, nursing homes, public and private schools, daycares, and kidney dialysis centers,” the report says.

In the past, some of the town’s government officials had been hesitant to alert people of contamination, saying they did not want to create undue panic.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com