Unregulated contaminants threaten Pittsboro’s water supply 🚰


Unregulated contaminants threaten Pittsboro’s water supply 🚰Pittsboro is trying to figure out the best way to cleanse its water of unregulated, potentially dangerous contaminants.

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“Connecting the curious across the county”
May 10, 2019

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Hello, Chathamites. Happy Friday!

Unregulated contaminants threaten Pittsboro’s water supply

In addition to expanding its water supply, the town of Pittsboro is also trying to figure out the best way to cleanse it of unregulated, potentially dangerous contaminants.
Last fall, Pittsboro hired engineering and construction firm CDM Smith to complete a public water supply and treatment expansion study. In an October memo, town engineer Elizabeth Goodson wrote that Pittsboro’s current public water demand “is approximately 700,000 gallons per day” but is estimated to grow to approximately 3 million gallons by 2020, 7 million by 2030 and 10 million by 2040.
Quantity aside, Pittsboro is also interested in improving the quality of its water supply. While Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck said the Pittsboro Water Treatment Plant meets state and federal standards, there are high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the Haw River, from where the town’s water comes.
PFAs are not regulated at the state or federal level, but the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners is concerned about their presence in the town’s drinking water and is seeking the best way to dilute the contaminants moving forward.
“I get a very strong feeling from this board that people are interested and concerned about the effects,” Commissioner John Bonitz said in a phone interview. “We’re not interested in just complying with federal law; we’re not interested in just looking like we’re doing the right thing. This board really does want to make sure we are doing the right thing, and that’s a big deal.”

What are PFAs?

  • According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, PFAs are “a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s.”
  • The most common non-worker exposures to PFAs take place through “drinking contaminated water or eating food that contains PFAs,” the DHHS reported.
  • Once absorbed, PFAs remain in the body for a long time. Human epidemiology studies have linked exposure with increased cholesterol levels, while the EPA says “more limited findings” have associations with: infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
  • “In fact, we didn’t even know these were in the water until a couple of years ago,” CDM Smith client service leader Reed Barton said during a presentation at a Pittsboro Board of Commissioners meeting on April 22.

How can they be treated?

  • According to CDM Smith’s Bill Dowbiggin, the most effective option is low pressure reverse osmosis, which received an “excellent” rating from CDM Smith for its ability to treat PFAs and 1,4 Dioxane, another emerging contaminant found in the Haw River.
  • Barton referred to reverse osmosis as being “kind of like the Cadillac” of treatment options. However, its benefits come at a cost. In terms of capital costs, reverse osmosis is the most expensive at $11 million for treatment at a facility handling 2 million gallons of water per day.
  • A combination of other technologies, including ion exchange, granular activated carbon and UV-advanced oxidation process, can be used at a similarly effective level at a cheaper cost. But there is a drawback: As shown in a pilot test at Cary and Apex’s water plant in Jordan Lake, the life cycles for granular activated carbon and ion exchange span just three and four months, respectively.
  • Beyond price, there are a few additional obstacles involved with reverse osmosis. For one, Pittsboro would need to amend its existing NPDES permit to be able to get rid of additional concentrate, which could take nine to 15 months, Barton said.
  • Additionally, Mayor Cindy Perry expressed concerns about the idea of pulling pollutants out of the town’s drinking water, only to put it back in the river for other communities to deal with.
  • “That’s what makes it seem so unfair … that we’ve gone to the millions of dollars to remove the chemicals, and now we’re taking the high concentrate and putting it back and saying, ‘Oh, Cary can deal with that,’” Perry said.

What’s the timeline moving forward?

  • The information presented to the board by CDM Smith “should be considered draft format and not an accepted statement of formal policy or information,” according to Gruesbeck.
  • Bonitz said the board has no timeline established for when it will make a decision on treatment options, which will depend on when CDM Smith’s final report is completed. Bonitz said the topic will be discussed at a joint meeting between the Pittsboro and Chatham County boards of commissioners on May 9.
  • Because PFA levels are lower in Jordan Lake than the Haw River and because the long-term plan calls for Pittsboro using Jordan Lake for its water supply, Bonitz is interested in a collaborative solution between Pittsboro and Chatham County.

“If you’re going to clean pollutants out of water, you’re going to want to have the pollutants as diluted as possible already, and that’s what Jordan Lake has,” Bonitz said. “So to the question of the trial, I think that it makes more sense for us to spend money … if we’re going to do a trial, we should spend money on the water that we would actually be treating in future rather than trying to treat the water that’s in the Haw right now.”

Read Brennan’s full story on ourchatham.com

Have more questions about water quality in Chatham County? We base our journalism on reader questions, so send them our way if you would like to inspire further reporting!

What’s on our radar…

One Chatham: a community forum hosted by us! Join us for a lively discussion about the economic disparity between east and west Chatham County. Let’s identify the problems and brainstorm solutions together. 

  • May 15, 6-8 p.m. @ Chatham Community Library
  • Free and open to the public
  • Light refreshments will be offered!

Featured panelists include: 
Alyssa Byrd, president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation
Tami Schwerin, executive director for Abundance NC
Paul Cuadros, investigative reporter and author
Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, policy analyst for Chatham County
Susan Levy, member of the Chatham County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee

Come prepared with questions and curiosity! 

Debate over Pittsboro’s Confederate monument continues

Monday’s Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting brought further public comment about the proposed removal of the Confederate statue outside of Pittsboro’s historic courthouse. After two and a half hours of discussion, there was still no clear solution. Read our meeting notes for the full run-down of what was said. 

A snapshot of Chatham’s new budget

  • The proposed county budget for fiscal year 2019-20 is out. It includes…
    • A proposed tax rate of 67 cents (or $0.67) per $100 valuation
    • A 3 percent increase for employee health insurance
    • An increase in school expense funding by 13% to $44.8 million, which will…
      • Provide funds to prepare to open Chatham Grove Elementary at a cost of $1.4 million next year
      • Use $825,000 to further transition salary supplement increases for teachers and licensed personnel from a flat-rate to percentage of salary 
      • Open the new Health Sciences Building at Central Carolina Community College in August 2019, requiring $245,450 in operating expense
      • Fully fund Chatham Promise, which provides two years of free tuition and fees for all eligible Chatham residents who graduate from high school between 2019 and 2022, at a cost of $200,000 in 2020
    • Debt service for three major projects added to the county’s 2020-26 Capital Improvement Plan in December:
      • Replacement of the county’s 30-year-old public safety radio system used by emergency responders
      • Expansion of the over-capacity Emergency Operations Center, which also houses 9-1-1 communications
      • Construction of a new Central Services Building for Chatham County Schools, allowing consolidation of all administrative staff in one facility
    • Residents are invited to provide comments on the proposed budget during public hearings scheduled for:
      • May 20, 6 PM: Historic Chatham Courthouse, Pittsboro 
      • May 21, 6 PM Siler City Courtroom, Town Hall

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