Industrial Contaminants

What is the Issue?

PFAS  chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds) get into our water from direct discharges from industrial facilities.  PFAS is a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals used for coatings, fire suppression, water proofing and more that includes PFOA, PFOS, and GenX and is associated with serious health impacts. These contaminants are known as forever chemicals—they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade but stay in water, soil and our bodies.

Another industrial compound impacting the Haw River watershed is 1,4- dioxane. 1,4-dioxane is a commonly used industrial solventm and is  an emerging contaminant of concern that was monitored in drinking water throughout the United States as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. In October 2016, the state Division of Water Resources completed the second year of a study designed to examine concentrations and identify potential sources of 1,4-dioxane in surface waters of the Cape Fear River basin. The EPA’s current health guidance is 35 ug/L, but North Carolina has set a standard of 0.35ug/L to reflect the 1 in 1 million cancer risk. 

Both of these compounds have been dumped into the Haw from wastewater effluent from Greensboro, Reidsville, and Burlington. These are not removed in traditional drinking water process. Communities downstream in Pittsboro, Apex, Cary, Fayetteville, and Wilmington pull drinking water from the Haw, Jordan Lake, and the Cape Fear. 

Many industrial facilities in the Haw River basin send their industrial waste to a municipal wastewater treatment plant. Pretreatment is required for these situations, but it only removes heavy metals and very few regulated toxins. These PFAS compounds can not be removed in traditional wastewater or drinking water treatment, so much of these chemicals are entering surface waters through wastewater treatment plants. Additionally, the sludge that is land applied near streams is often sourced from these same wastewater treatment plants. This pathway carries it into streams in rain or during application, and could potentially be contaminating shallow wells.

After a lawsuit in West Virginia, a panel of scientists researched the health impacts of a few specific PFAS compounds and determined that they lead to many significant health issues, like diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and low-birth weight in infants.

 The Haw River Assembly has long been concerned about the presence of these chemicals in Pittsboro’s drinking water, the only town that uses the Haw River as it’s raw source.

How is HRA Staying Involved?


The Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force is a team of volunteers that were selected by Pittsboro leadership to recommend next steps for the town in addressing the PFAS contamination in the water supply, the Haw River. The Taskforce included Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper. Recommendations were submitted and on July 6, 2020, they sent this letter to Pittsboro’s elected officials. Read the list of recommendations here.

Additionally, we are partnering with Duke University and NC State to do public health forums and studies in Pittsboro. Dr. Heather Stapleton has been collecting samples from Pittsboro drinking water users to test PFAS levels in their home drinking water taps and in their blood.

Pittsboro has now committed to advanced treatment methods to remove PFAS and other industrial contaminants from it’s drinking water. This is an expensive burden on the Town and they hope to obtain some federal funding to offset the costs. The projected date for the new advanced treatment system is July 2022.

In the meantime, a new partnership between the Town and Chatham Marketplace is providing safe FREE water through Chatham Marketplace to all Pittsboro water customers, including residents of Chapel Ridge. Town water customers can receive free water at Chatham Marketplace’s treated water dispenser in their grocery store. The store uses reverse osmosis to purify the water. Present a coupon code to the store’s cashier (found on your water bill, or call the Town of Pittsboro 919- 542-4621) to receive it. Customers should provide their own container to fill with the treated water ( store has a limited supply of containers to purchase). Chatham Marketplace is located at 480 Hillsboro St. Pittsboro (in Chatham Mills) and are open 8 am to 8 pm (open 10 am on Sundays).


HRA takes legal action to stop industrial contaminants from Burlington: In November 2019, Southern Environmental Law Center filed a Notice of Intent to City of Burlington regarding their PFAS and 1,4 Dioxane discharges from several locations, including their wastewater treatment plant and land applied sludge fields. This is a violation of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. See the full press release here.

See our Memorandum of Agreement with the City of Burlington here.

We are continuing to review NCDEQ’s sampling data and work with academic labs to collect and process samples to pinpoint other sources.

Check out City of Burlington Sampling Results here.


HRA’s Successful Legal Action Over Greensboro’s 1,4-Dioxane: Settlement sets better process, public reporting, and reduction of Greensboro pollution

On June 30, 2021, Greensboro notified the state DEQ and downstream that it had found high levels of 1,4-dioxane in treated wastewater from its TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant. The discharge was into South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw, at levels 20 times higher than EPA’s health guideline. 

On behalf of the Haw River Assembly, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) reached a settlement on December 18 with the City of Greensboro and North Carolina regulators that further limits Greensboro’s 1,4-dioxane discharges from it’s wastewater treatment plant, where industries are sending this chemical in their waste stream. HRA was joined by City of Fayetteville in this challenge, who draws their raw drinking water further downstream on the Cape Fear River. The settlement also requires the Department of Environmental Quality to investigate sources of toxic 1,4-dioxane pollution in the Cape Fear River basin, including the Haw River, and report actions it takes to reduce those amounts, including permit limits.

Read more about 1,4-dioxane issues in Greensboro here

Ongoing Research for PFAS contamination and impacts

We are currently partnering with several ongoing research projects to identify all sources of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River watershed.

Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University has concluded her study of PFAS in blood levels of Pittsboro residents. See that study here. One thing to note is that the median levels of PFOS and PFOA were higher than participants in Wilmington. PFHxA levels were also elevated and this compound is consistently high in the Haw below Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant.

We are also partnering with Dr. Jane Hoppin of NC State University to add more participants to a blood and urine analysis study in Pittsboro, which will include participants on town water sourced from the Haw, and well users. This project will begin in January.

Dr. Detlef Knappe of NC State University is also working with us to prioritize sample locations to test for contaminated groundwater near fields where biosolids (sludge) from Burlington’s wastewater treatment plants have been applied. In a similar project, Dr. Mei Sun of UNC Charlotte is working with us to prioritize sample locations where sludge application may be impacting surface waters.

Dr. Scott Belcher of UNC Wilmington is conducting a fish tissue study to understand PFAS exposure through fish consumption in the Haw. This research has two main components: a survey of fishermen to understand consumption rates, and collecting fish tissue samples to quantify PFAS levels.

Additional Links on Industrial Contaminants

Industrial Contaminants Fact Sheet

Abandoned Western Electric Plant: What We Know, Unanswered Questions, and Next Steps

Planta eléctrica occidental (Western Electric) abandonada: Lo que sabemos, preguntas y próximos pasos

Sludge in our Waters – An investigation of industrial contaminants in sewage sludge and the impacts on surface waters in North Carolina.  2015, authors, Elaine Chiosso, Haw Riverkeeper, and Sam Perkins, Catawba Riverkeeper

City of Burlington Sampling Results

Litigation with Burlington

Our Ongoing Research on PFAS

What’s happening in Pittsboro?

1,4-dioxane in Greensboro

Get involved on PFAS advocacy!

Additional Resources

PFAS in the News