Pittsboro sues 20 PFAS companies- Now What?

In January, the Town of Pittsboro filed a long awaited lawsuit in response to decades of contaminated drinking water from PFAS discharges upstream. Pittsboro is the only town in the Haw River watershed that pulls their drinking water directly from the Haw River. This lawsuit has the potential to make progress towards PFAS reduction if other municipalities and impacted communities also join in this effort. As a stand alone lawsuit, this outcome of this litigation will only be recouping costs incurred for the Town of Pittsboro to investigate, monitor, and treat for the PFAS contamination.

Industrial Toxins Addressed in Lawsuit

This lawsuit focuses not on 1,4-dioxane, but solely on PFAS (per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances) including AFFF fire-fighting foams. PFAS is a class of compounds with over 6000 chemicals. This family of chemicals has been studied extensively since a lawsuit in Parkersburg, West Virginia between a cattle farmer and DuPont. A cattle farmer notices his cows were sick, their teeth were rotting, and they began to die off after drinking from a creek downstream of a DuPont discharge. Piles of white foam were seen at the discharge. This led to the largest public health study ever condcted, where it was discovered that two of these PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, were detected in extremely high levels in the community of Parkersburg. While searching for a control, or a clean blood sample with no PFAS present, it was also discovered that these compounds were present in every study participant across the globe, even polar bears. These two toxins have contaminated the world. The newest health advisories set by the EPA are 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS for lifetime exposure. These toxins lead to increased risks of cancers, low birth weights, hyper tension, high cholesterol, immune disorders, low vaccine response rates, and other serious health concerns.

Summary of the Lawsuit

Pittsboro has named twenty major corporations as defendants in this lawsuit. Some of the most recognizable defendants include 3M, Dupont, Chemours, and BASF corporations. Many others are subsidiaries of these larger corporations, but all are responsible for having “designed, manufactured, marketed, promoted, sold, supplied, distributed, used, or disposed of PFAS products, including AFFF,” or fire-fighting foams. The lawsuit states that these companies had the financial resources, legal and scientific expertise, and time to fully know and understand the risks of these products. Pittsboro is seeking to “ensure that those profited from the production promotion and sale of PFAS products also bear the costs stemming from the ordinary and foreseeable handling and use of those products.”

Two of the five claims in the lawsuit include design defect and failure to warn. This argument states that these products were not adequate in their intended use and were unreasonably dangerous. These companies knew the risks of public and environmental harm, but failed to use safer products and practices. Two additional claims include public and private nuisance. This argument states that the drinking water, natural resources, surface water, groundwater, and the Town’s property including the drinking water plant have been contaminated. Lastly, the claim of trespassing covered the contamination and unwarranted harm to public and private property.

Pittsboro’s solution proposed in this lawsuit is solely focused on relief for costs associated with past actions. These companies conducted business within the Haw River watershed, and therefore, are being held responsible. The lawsuit seeks recovered costs for administrative and response, loss of use, natural resource damages, investigation, sampling, monitoring, and treatment costs, court costs, and punitive damages for the malicious actions of the corporations named in the suit.

What does this mean for Pittsboro?

After six years of pushing the Town of Pittsboro to take meaningful action to hold upstream polluters accountable, this is an encouraging sign. However, it took six years of presenting at Town Council meetings, holding public meetings, sending mailers and phone calls to every resident, working with amazing community members like Katie Bryant, Jessica Merricks, Reverend Carl Thompson and his wife Mechelle Thompson to get the word out to Pittsboro residents that the drinking water supply was extremely contaminated. The lack of action meant increased and prolonged exposure for these communities. Yet, the recognition of these levels of contamination in the drinking water supply shows the Town’s commitment to addressing this. Just last year, a granular activated carbon treatment facility was put in place. That system has reduced PFAS levels in finished drinking water by over 90%.

This lawsuit focuses only on the financial burden that Pittsboro faced because of past actions by these corporations. What is missing here is any accountability for the industries in the watershed that have been using those toxins and dumping the products into surface water. Elevate Textiles, Shawmut Textiles and Unichem in Burlington, and Lanxess, Shamrock Environmental, and the Piedmont Triad Airport in Greensboro continue to use and discharge these products. For multibillion dollar corporations, this lawsuit will have little impacts, unless this action is followed by other impacted communities pushing towards this same goal. These products have to be eliminated from all production lines at the source in order to protect communities not only in the Haw River watershed and North Carolina, but worldwide. These chemical corporations need to be held accountable. The Town of Pittsboro does not have the authority to ban PFAS products from being sold within the Haw River watershed. However, legislation has repeatedly been introduced in North Carolina to enforce that and has not been passed. Representative Pricey Harrison plans to reintroduce these bills this session. We need you to contact your representatives and ask for their support of those bills.

Haw River Assembly has been working with Southern Environmental Law Center to uphold the Clean Water Act and hold upstream polluters accountable. Our litigation work against the City of Burlington and the City of Greensboro has led to increased investigation to track sources and strict limits on discharges. However, we do not have the authority to require strict discharges limits on permits across the watershed. North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality does have that authority. Upcoming discharge permits will be the opportunity the set those limitations. Sanford’s wastewater treatment plant is currently under review and a public hearing is scheduled for March 7th at 6pm. Asheboro’s permit is also under review and the comment period closed earlier this month. We anticipate a public hearing within the next month. Greensboro, Reidsville, and Burlington are also in the queue for upcoming permit reviews. All of these permits also require public input. Haw River Assembly will be pushing our members to attend public hearings and submit comments to have the most protective permits for our river and our communities.

Haw Riverkeeper talks PFAS and 1,4-dioxane

On April 21, Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton gave a presentation to a packed room at the Chatham County library on the most recent updates in our fight against industrial contaminants in our river. On April 6th, the City of Greensboro found levels of 52.2 ug/L of 1,4-dioxane in their effluent. This triggers fines and further investigation. The source has been identified as Lanxess, a chemical company. So see the full presentation, watch the recorded stream on Facebook here, or download the presentation here.

Bird Flu comes to North Carolina

What does this mean for water quality?

In early February, experts across the state began to sound the alarm to another infectious outbreak in our state. As of mid-February, 65 strains of avian influenza have been detected in wild bird populations in several counties across the state. Though this virus does not pose an immediate threat as a vector to infect humans, this highly infectious strain of influenza has the poultry industry on high-alert, and for good reason.

In North Carolina, the poultry industry is largely unregulated, and the few regulations that are in place are not enforced. The Department of Environmental Quality has no records of where these facilities are located, how many birds are housed in each facility, or how much waste produced from these facilities is being applied on neighboring fields. Without a permitting system for poultry operations, this industry has been exponentially growing and polluting our streams and groundwater for decades. The latest outbreak of avian influenza shows us how this lack of oversight can quickly result in catastrophic impacts to both farmers and surrounding communities. Full post here.

Trash Trout Installed in Third Fork Creek

On Saturday, February 12th, over a dozen people came out to the Third Fork Creek Trail in Durham to install the first Trash Trout in the Haw River watershed. The Trash Trout, a product of Asheville Greenworks, is a floating litter trap that will allow us to capture litter in Third Fork Creek before it moves along the creek and eventually in Jordan Lake.

This Trash Trout isn’t the solution to the problem of litter in our streams. With 920 miles of streams in our watershed, that kind of reactionary solution would not be sustainable. However, this Trash Trout is the first of what we hope to be several traps throughout the watershed. This trap is not only meant to capture litter, but to start a conversation about the issue of plastic pollution in our waterways. What would our streams look like if we had common sense policies to minimize single use plastics? How much litter could we prevent if businesses were incentivized to switch to compostable alternatives and skip the plastic bag? How many less bits of would be scattered across a stream bank if our cities took steps to ban it like other states and municipalities have?

Haw River Assembly, along with 15 Waterkeepers across North Carolina, is working with Duke Law and Policy Clinic, North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, and other plastics policy advocates to propose legislation that would move North Carolina on a better path towards litter reduction.

To read the full blog post, click here.

EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap Explained

Earlier this month, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Raleigh, NC to unveil a new plan to regulate PFAS compounds over the next five years. This plan is a big step forward, and though much of the stronger pieces of enforcement fall on a longer timeline that we’d like, this plan provides state agencies the tools they need to regulate these compounds right away. However, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has released their own proposed plan that involves many more years of sampling and research before any meaningful regulation occurs. To read the good, the bad, and the next steps click here.

What’s happening with the MVP Southgate project?

May 2021

Last week, we learned that NCDEQ used it’s authority to reissue the denial of the stream crossing permit for the MVP Southgate project. This followed an original denial letter in August of 2020 and a federal court hearing that ruled NCDEQ had the authority to deny the permit. This is a huge win for impacted community members, and communities in the Dan and Haw River watersheds. See our press release here. MVP Southgate has a few options of how to proceed, but all options are costly and cause significant delays.
Additionally, MVP Southgate is now THREE YEARS behind schedule. The mainline project is four years behind schedule and $2.5 Billion over budget. These pipelines face an increasingly uncertain future. To read the full blog for MVP Southgate updates, click here.

Act Now: Support Clean Water Funding in North Carolina

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North Carolina legislators have a chance to improve our state’s water quality. Take action NOW to ask our legislators to protect your water quality further with these easy 2021 budget inclusions.

Please take time to contact your legislators NOW. It’s easy, we have a letter ready for you to personalize!  https://actionnetwork.org/letters/water-lovers-demand-higher-water-quality-standards?source=direct_link& 

For talking points and a list of water protections we’re asking for, visit the full blog post here.

Restoring Eroded Farmland through Creative Partnerships

Controlling Erosion with Mushrooms

Saxapahaw, North Carolina is a tiny riverside village nestled against the Haw River in southern, rural Alamance County. It is a community of artists, environmentalists, creative business owners, chefs, and farmers. 

Two of these farmers, Ches and Laura Stewart, recently purchased new land to expand their mushroom business, moving them closer to Saxapahaw. Haw River Mushrooms grows a diverse variety of mushrooms, and boasts of creating a “business model that values people, profit, and planet.” After the first major rain event on the new farm, they quickly realized that there was no soil left to hold in stormwater runoff. The creek bisecting their farm ran bright orange with clay from the eroded banks and compacted soil from years of intensive livestock. Ches and Laura were concerned – they knew that unless something changed, erosion and runoff would continue to harm their land, the creek, and ultimately the community they care about, but they weren’t quite sure what to do. So they called their Riverkeeper. 

When Haw River Assembly got involved, we had the experience and tools to restore banks and minimize stormwater runoff, but Laura had a vision of something different. Mycoremediation is the science of using mushrooms to pull pollutants and toxins from water and soils. Rather than creating traditional check dams, we would use the byproduct of spent mushroom substrate as material for our erosion control. In addition to targeting the volume and velocity of the runoff, we would also be filtering the runoff before it reached the stream. Read the full post here.

Microplastics Study Measures Impact On Waterways

Durham – Measuring microplastics in North Carolina’s waterways is no small job. In collaboration with Waterkeepers Carolina, Haw River Assembly is launching a two-year study to collect surface water and sediment samples to understand better the volume of microplastics and macroplastic pollution in North Carolina’s streams, rivers, lakes, and bays.

The study “Improving Human and Ecosystem Health through Microplastic Reduction” launched in February as a collaborative project across 10 nonprofit environmental organizations. To get baselines, 15 Riverkeepers collected two surface water samples and sediment samples. This is the first of bi-monthly samples that will be collected over two years. Read the full post here.

To follow this study and learn more about North Carolina’s Riverkeepers’ work, visit Waterkeepers Carolina – https://waterkeeperscarolina.org.

What’s happening on the MVP Southgate fight?

Haw River Assembly, represented by Southern Environmental Law Center, has been approved to join the case to defend NC Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to deny the 401 permit. That decision, denied in August of 2020, was based heavily on the likelihood of MVP mainline not being successfully completed due to ongoing legal challenges, ballooning costs, and environmental violations. These challenges were also faced in the Atlantic Coast pipeline project, which was canceled and abandoned earlier this summer. 

Divestment meetings have begun with MVP mainline investors. Who are these investors? Big banks. Banks do not hold their customers’ money in the building, they use the money to invest in fossil fuel projects. Check out this report from Oil Change International, and make sure your money isn’t funding this fossil fuel projects. Read the full post here.

Building Relationships and Organizing Communities – Community Leader Spotlight of Brenda Hines

Written by Lucy Gray

Brenda Hines speaks very highly of community organization Down Home North Carolina, which is a group that is working to build multiracial power for working families across North Carolina, and which focuses on mobilizing small towns and rural communities. Ms. Hines has been a
member since Down Home began in 2017, and one of her current goals is making people aware about the effects of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project. The pipeline is proposed to cut through several central NC counties, including Alamance, which is where Down Home began.

“It takes a long time to develop relationships, and that’s what people have to be rooted in – the relationship building, not just the issue of the moment… Everybody is giving up something. Don’t be shortsighted because it’s a Black life or a Brown life in the forefront, but everybody is affected by it no matter what your racial background may be.”

View full post here.

March 2020 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) updates straight from your Haw River Intern, Emily Williams. Read what amendments to NEPA would mean for the protection of your water quality and how you can comment against the attack on NEPA.

Crystal Cavalier Keck of Mebane, NC, is a member of the Occoneechee Band of the Saponi Nation and is the founder of the Missing Murdered Indigenous Coalition of North Carolina. See what Crystal has to say about the intersection of these social justice issues with developing pipelines around the country in the full post.

“I’ve done research and talked with other researchers when we go into communities and decide to ask questions and ask people about things to do and participate in. Once that research is done, we all leave – it is being recognized now that that causes more harm than anything… When we look at community organizing, you are organizing, and you are beginning with the people who are most affected. You are beginning with the people who live in those communities and they are living the harm, and you help them, or they help you figure out what’s best for us.”

The unregulated poultry industry in North Carolina is burgeoning, with the number of chickens and turkeys increasing 17 percent in just the last 7 years to a total of more than 538 million. This is a problem for the state’s waterways because all those birds produce nearly 5 million tons of waste — and no one knows where it goes. 

Executive Director, Elaine Chiosso talks about Chatham Park.

Omega and Brenda Wilson co-founded the West End Revitalization Association in 1994; since then, the community group has been a pillar of strength and hope in the Mebane community.
Overall, one of the things Mr. Wilson is most proud of are the collaborative partnerships WERA has developed. “A lot of people, when we started filing complaints, saw what we were doing as black against white – that’s not what we’re doing. It’s wrong against right.”
For more information about Mr. Wilson’s work with WERA, you can go to their website at https://www.wera-nc.org/.

A quick update from your Haw Riverkeeper, Emily Sutton on Jordan Lake!

Factory Farming In The Haw River Basin

Isaiah Allen is the chef and a co-owner of The Eddy, a cozy pub tucked on the banks on the Haw River in Saxapahaw, N.C. The Eddy purchases almost every box of produce and side of meat from local farms that share its commitment to the area’s soil and water. Read Isaiah’s story about the farmer he met at the bar.

Environmentalists and concerned citizens alike are no strangers to plastic pollution; however, there seems to be another player in the game: microplastics. Read more about how microplastics are affecting water quality and how you can work with us to make the Haw plastics free!

In early August of 2020, NC DEQ denied the 401 permit, which is the permit necessary to cross streams. DEQ’s letter reads. “The uncertainty of the MVP Mainline Project’s completion presents a critical risk to the achievability of the fundamental purpose of MVP Southgate,” it continued. Read the full post for more info.

River Updates straight from your Haw Riverkeeper, Emily Sutton. Read what’s going on with the local concerns surrounding PFAS and other industrial contaminates here, as well as how to stay involved in local watershed issues.

MVP Updates

Industrial Contaminate Updates

Politicians in Washington, DC, just proposed gutting the Clean Water Act, stripping away longstanding protections for streams, wetlands, and smaller waterways that feed drinking water sources for millions of people in the South. Read more about how you can take action to prevent this.

UNC Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech are offering free well water testing to any resident or business using a private well for indoor and outdoor use in Chatham County, NC or nearby areas. The samples will be analyzed for metals such as lead, arsenic, and chromium. Read for more details.

February 2019 River Updates straight from your Haw Riverkeeper, Emily Sutton. Read what’s going on with MVP Southgate and the local concerns surrounding PFAS and other industrial contaminates here, as well as how to stay involved in local watershed issues.

The Animal Feeding Operation permits are up for renewal, which is an opportunity that only comes around every 5 years. Read more to see how you can comment and encourage NCDEQ to require more transparency in the permitting process for swine, cattle, and wet poultry production.