For the next few weeks, we are going to be sharing some videos that explain threats to the Haw and what we do at Haw River Assembly to protect our watershed from those pollution threats.
One issue that has been a major focus of my work for the past few years is monitoring for Industrial Contaminants in the Haw River watershed.
So some of you all know a lot of this already, but in case this is brand new to you, I’ll go over a quick description of what these compounds are and why we’re so concerned.
PFAS, or polyflouroalkyl substances is a class of 10k+ compounds. I generally refer to the entire class, rather than the individual compounds, but just so you know the alphabet soup of acronyms when you see it, the two that are most studied and referenced at PFOA and PFOS. Those two are generally legacy compounds. They were voluntarily removed from production processes in the US after the Dupont lawsuit in Parkersburg West Virginia. If you haven’t seen The Devil We Know, or Dark Waters yet, I HIGHLY recommend it. That helps to explain how we got here in the first place.
When those two compounds were sort of limited and had health guidances on them, chemical companies just changed the make up of them and we’re in the clear. This is often referred to as a game of whackamole. One is regulated, and another is created in its place. That’s how we ended up with things like GenX at the Chemours Facility near Fayetteville. In the Haw, we don’t have GenX, but we have so many other PFAS compounds.
PFAS compounds have been linked to serious health impacts like high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Those studies were a result of the Dupont lawsuit, which was the largest epidemiological study to ever be conducted. The C8 panel study took seven years to complete.
So now back to our work,
We’ve been lucky to have great partners at our EPA regional offices here in Research Triangle Park, partners like Dr. Detlef Knappe at NC State, and Dr. Heather Stapleton and Dr. Lee Ferguson at Duke University.
We started monitoring at several locations throughout the Haw River basin to identify hotspots and narrow down our locations. We had our suspects but after sampling above and below those suspects, we quickly realized that the main contributor for PFAS compounds in the Haw was coming from one of the city of Burlington’s Wastewater treatment plants. Unlike the Chemours example, the city of Burlington has several industrial users that send their waste through that system.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sent the City of Burlington a “Notice of Intent” (NOI) letter in November, on HRA’s behalf, telling them we intend to sue if they do not stop discharging PFAS (and 1,4-dioxane) into the Haw River and its tributaries, through their wastewater treatment plant and land application of sludge. In that letter, we described the City of Burlington’s violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act for these illegal discharges of harmful
industrial chemicals, known to be harmful to human health. The City recognizes that it is discharging PFAS into the Haw River from the wastewater effluent. We are continuing discussions with Burlington as they take steps to identify and address the sources of this industrial pollution into the Haw River. Our goal is to stop this pollution, and we remain prepared to sue the City of Burlington if necessary.
More recently, an article about our case was featured in the National Law Review with this quote: “The Burlington NOI should give any participant in an industrial pretreatment program pause. To date, government regulators have not often brought enforcement actions against wastewater handlers for PFAS discharges, despite the likelihood that many have discharged the contaminants for years. The
Burlington NOI provides a road map for regulators who are inclined to do so, whether or not their states have passed legislation that that specifically targets PFAS compounds.”
Haw River Assembly continues to work with scientists at North Carolina State University, Duke University, East Carolina University,
and Region 4 EPA staff to understand all sources of PFAS into the Haw and find solutions for downstream drinking water users, including Pittsboro.