You Asked, We Answered: Following public meeting, Pittsboro’s water safety is still insecure

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The contaminants in the Haw River are a serious issue. The Town of Pittsboro is the only municipality in the Haw River watershed to draw its drinking water from the river. 

By the nature of the river’s proximity to other cities like Greensboro and Burlington, industrial pollutants are a major red flag for environmental groups and regulatory agencies. 

On Wednesday, state officials and researchers from several universities in the Triangle hosted a public meeting sponsored by the Haw River Assembly to discuss the safety of Pittsboro’s drinking water. 

Researchers found contaminants, called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River, among other water sources. PFAS are a type of unregulated chemical that slip by in water treatment processes and can cause health problems. 

The industrial-based chemical, 1,4-dioxane, has been found in Pittsboro’s water and is a likely carcinogen. In Pittsboro, the East Burlington treatment plant seems to be the main source of PFAS, according to a tweet from an N.C. Policy Watch source. 

“Why are we discharging any of these chemicals into the drinking water in the first place?” asked Dr. Detlef Knappe, a professor at North Carolina State University and scientist, at the Wednesday meeting. 

Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly, said that through Duke University and Dr. Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist, volunteers from Pittsboro can opt to take blood tests to assess levels of PFAs in their body. 

This testing is part of a larger study examining sources of these chemicals and their health effects. 

Additionally, according to the News + Record, the town will pay $261,268 for six to seven months of water testing.Typical water treatment systems don’t effectively remove the chemicals in Pittsboro because they dissolve in water, according to North Carolina Health News. Advanced water treatment systems are required for that kind of filtration.

Just this week, the Department of Environmental Quality announced Shamrock Environmental Corporation is responsible for the 1,4 dioxane discharge into its Greensboro treatment plant.

The company mainly provides wastewater treatment and management. It remains uncertain what ramifications the company could face.

“The City of Greensboro handles the permit for Shamrock Environmental as a Significant Industrial user, so it is the city’s responsibility to issue violations and enforcement actions against the company,” said Sharon Martin, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Environmental Quality.  

She added that “DEQ is investigating the release and will pursue all appropriate enforcement actions for identified violations under the City of Greensboro’s NPDES permit with the state.”

Compounding the problem is that these chemicals remained in the water unreported for about a month in Greensboro. The spill is believed to have occurred in August.

Pittsboro saw its spike in 1,4-dioxane not long after the spill. Fayetteville and Wilmington also saw increases in contamination. 

The web of contact in this case is large, and that makes tracking the issue difficult. Greensboro, Reidsville, Burlington, Chapel Hill, Durham and Pittsboro empty treated wastewater into the Haw River or its offshoots. 

And industrial contaminants don’t just threaten municipal drinking water. They can empty into sewage sludge or bio-solids on agricultural land and can re-enter waterways as runoff or through the ground. 

Chiosso said that despite the recent attention, this issue is not new, and one that the Haw River Assembly has been working on for years. 

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