Groundbreaking PFAS Settlement: Our Thoughts

The Haw River watershed has seen decades of industrial pollutants from its legacy of textile production. Before the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, the Haw was a dumping ground for industrial wastes. The river notoriously flowed in whatever color the textile factories were producing for the day. The fish were sick and unsafe to eat. After the Clean Water Act, the federal and state government put limits on what could and could not be discharged into surface waters and put regulatory limits on the amounts of discharge pollutants. However, the process for including new pollutants in that regulatory framework is inadequate. Those permits contain pollutants that have been identified as a contaminant through years of academic and health studies, stakeholder processes, and bureaucratic negotiations to establish limits. That process can take upwards of a decade to get new contaminants into regulation. 

PFAS or per- and poly-florylalkyl substances and 1,4-dioxane are considered emerging contaminants. Though every contaminant discharged is regulated by the Clean Water Act, that regulation only requires a disclosure of contaminants. Federal and state laws set narrative or numerical limits on those contaminants. North Carolina does not yet have numeric limits on discharges for surface water for PFAS.

In the Haw River watershed, PFAS pollution has been a major concern for decades. In 2015, we worked with researchers at EPA and NC State to identify sources of PFAS in rural areas, which led us to land applied sludge fields. Sludge is the solid waste produced in the treatment process for wastewater systems. This sludge contains mainly organic material, and is often used as free fertilizer for surrounding agricultural fields. However, when this sludge is sourced from wastewater plants that also receive industrial waste, the toxins cling to the sludge and contaminate the soil, groundwater, and adjacent streams. 

In 2016, we expanded that research to test surface water levels throughout the Haw River basin for PFAS levels. We tested locations in Glencoe, Altamahaw, Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, and Jordan Lake. We found incredibly high levels in Saxapahaw and Pittsboro. Pittsboro is the only municipality that pulls drinking water directly from the Haw, and serves over 6,000 customers through the utility. This became an urgent concern and we began working with laboratories to identify suspected sources between Altamahaw and Saxapahaw. What we found was that the City of Burlington’s East wastewater plant was discharging levels of over 30,000 ppt directly into the Haw. We worked with Southern Environmental Law Center to file a notice of intent to sue the City of Burlington regarding these PFAS discharges. That lawsuit, settled earlier this month, allowed us to identify the three major sources within the system, and eliminate two of them. UniChem no longer has production facilities in North Carolina, and Shawmut Fabrics has transitioned to an entirely closed loop system. Elevate Textiles will transition to a closed loop system for the products that require PFAS in their medical and military productions lines, and will phase out PFAS production in other production lines by 2025 with a minimization plan for the next year. Levels leaving Burlington’s wastewater plant are now around 500 ppt, which is a 600% decrease in just over three years. 

This settlement is the first of its kind and enormously different, and therefore more challenging, than some of the other cases we’ve seen on PFAS contamination. Because the City of Burlington is not responsible for creating this problem, we had to work with the City to isolate every industrial user within the system. Those pretreatment permits held by the industrial users within the system had to be reviewed and analyzed. Once we found the sources, there were many other challenges. In order to quantify PFAS toxins, laboratories must have a standard by which to measure that compound. Those compounds that do have standards are referred to as “measureable PFAS.” Some of these compounds simply do not have standards yet. In our sampling, measurable PFAS levels were low, but using more advanced analysis procedures, we found that the “precursors”, or the building blocks of the more well known and measurable PFAS, were at levels in the millions of parts per trillion. These precursors can be just as toxic, and can recombine in the treatment facility or in the river to form the measurable PFAS. 

This level of advanced analysis was groundbreaking, and will be the subject of research papers and academic grant funding streams for years to come. This analysis also showed us that, with the proper science and sampling methods, we can identify sources and confidently eliminate them, knowing that we are truly capturing the entire picture.  

Because of the legal work that we were able to do with the Southern Environmental Law Center to hold polluters accountable and enforce the Clean Water Act, the Haw and the communities that depend on it are much healthier and safer. Unfortunately, with ever weakening environmental protections and a state environmental regulatory agency that is crippled by the threat of further budget guts from the conservative led general assembly, it is on the backs of small environmental nonprofits like ours and the pro bono work of our amazing team at the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center to protect our communities and the places we love. 

North Carolina must act now to identify industrial polluters within municipal wastewater systems. Those wastewater systems should begin identifying their PFAS polluters immediately. Through this work, the groundwork for how to do this investigation has been laid out. Municipal wastewater systems, and the taxpayers that foot the bills, should not be responsible for the costs associated with handling these toxins. The industrial users within the systems, who are often national industrial corporations, must be held accountable. Pollution must be addressed at the source. 

Burlington is not the only source of PFAS however, and we have continued to conduct monitoring throughout the watershed to investigate sources. In a study conducted earlier this year, we sample six locations throughout the watershed for total PFAS. We found levels of 1746.3 ppt total PFAS in South Buffalo Creek, directly below the City of Greensboro’s wastewater discharge. Also in Greensboro, we detected levels of 94.3 ppt total PFAS  from a stream draining the White Street Landfill in Greensboro. This stream flows into South Buffalo Creek. Other sources include Reidsville’s wastewater plant at 43.7 ppt, and Triangle RTP wastewater plant at 67.8 ppt.

We continue to advocate for regulatory action and legislative policy to control these discharges. Until that is accomplished, we continue to investigate suspected sources, monitor known sources, and work with the legal team at Southern Environmental Law Center to uphold the Clean Water Act.

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