SELC plans to sue Burlington over PFAS, 1,4-Dioxane pollution in drinking water, sludge

By: - November 18, 2019 1:09 pm
Map courtesy of SELC

DEQ cites Greensboro and Reidsville for illegal discharges of 1,4-Dioxane into Haw River and its tributaries

The Southern Environmental Law Center plans to sue the City of of Burlington for discharging perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — and 1,4-Dioxane from its two wastewater treatment plants into the drinking water supply, unless state regulators intervene first.

Last week, the SELC filed a Notice of Intent to sue the city over alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The SELC is representing Haw River Assembly in its legal action.

The SELC could also sue the city under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which governs the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste. Contaminated sludge and biosolids from the city’s wastewater treatment plants is also applied on fields, ostensibly as a soil builder.

Burlington City Attorney David Huffman did not respond to a request for comment.

Although the EPA doesn’t regulate PFAS or 1,4-Dioxane under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the compounds are subject to provisions of the CWA, which covers rivers, streams and lakes.

Referring to the compounds as “unregulated” can mislead the public into thinking there is no legal way to stop the contamination from entering the waterways.

“You have to disclose what you discharge,” SELC Senior Attorney Geoff Gisler said.

Burlington’s wastewater discharge permits, an “NPDES” for short, does not include either 1,4-Dioxane or PFAS in its list of chemicals and compounds that the city can flush into surface waters. The two wastewater treatment plants — East and South — each process up to 12 million gallons of discharge per day.

A portion of the wastewater plant’s permit, Gisler said, also prohibits any chemicals or compounds in sludge to enter surface waters.

RCRA prohibits facilities from disposing materials “in a way that presents imminent danger to the public,” Gisler said. Unless the material is placed in a permitted landfill, it’s “open dumping,” Gisler said. “The chemicals in the sludge have no beneficial value to land application. There’s no reason to dump this stuff on fields.”

The sources of the contamination are industrial facilities that send their effluent to municipal wastewater treatment plants, which don’t have the technology to remove the compounds.

Roughly eight industrial plants send their waste to the South Burlington wastewater treatment plant, according to the SELC filing, which discharges its wastewater into Big Alamance Creek; the creek flows into the Haw River.

At least seven industrial dischargers, including textile manufacturing and metal finishing, and a manufacturer of polymer emulsions and resins, discharge to Burlington’s East wastewater treatment plant. That plant discharges directly into the Haw River.

From there, the contaminants have flowed downstream, where elevated levels of 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS have been detected in the Town of Pittsboro’s public drinking supply. Traditional water treatment methods can’t remove these compounds, so cities and towns spend millions of dollars on special technology to remove or reduce the concentrations.

The Haw and its contaminants then enter Jordan Lake, a major drinking water reservoir for western Wake County. Because of the volume of water in the lake, concentrations of the compounds are lower than they are in the rivers. Jordan Lake feeds the Cape Fear River, which also contains PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane from industrial dischargers and has contaminated the drinking water in Brunswick, Cumberland and New Hanover counties.

“DEQ should be setting limits for wastewater treatment operations that are protective of human health and keep toxic industrial compounds out of our surface waters and drinking water supplies,” said Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton. “DEQ should also be requiring dischargers to disclose what is in their waste, as mandated by the Clean Water Act, and moving to control other substances known to harm public health.”

Wastewater treatment plants can require that industrial facilities change and control their pollution, which is already being done in Michigan for PFAS.

The purpose of SELC’s filing, Gisler said, “is to let state or federal regulators step in and make sure the discharges don’t happen. DEQ can say it will take over enforcement, or we can file suit.”

The state and EPA have 60 days to act before SELC can pursue the lawsuit.

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin said the agency is investigating Burlington’s 1,4-Dioxane discharges.Weekly sampling is already under way as part of that investigation and we will pursue appropriate enforcement for identified violations,” Martin said.

Last week, DEQ cited Greensboro and Reidsville with violations related to their illegal discharges of 1,4-Dioxane. Sampling from Aug. 7 showed that Greensboro discharged wastewater with 957 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane. On June 12, Reidsville reported levels of 367 ppb of the compound, and on Oct. 11, concentrations hit 1,400 ppb.

The EPA has set a health advisory goal of 0.35 ppb for 1,4-Dioxane in surface water, which represents a 1-in-1 million cancer risk for those exposed to the compound over 70 years.

The discharges violated the conditions of the cities’ NPDES wastewater permits because they did not report the discharge to state officials within 24 hours. They also failed to properly control their industrial discharge. Greensboro has named Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit as the source of the recent 1,4-Dioxane exceedance; Reidsville has identified two sources, DyStar and UniFi. Burlington has not publicly disclosed its industrial sources.

Weekly sampling for 1,4 dioxane at the Reidsville and Greensboro wastewater treatment plants began in October, during a DEQ investigation into elevated levels of 1,4 dioxane and “will continue as long as necessary,” an agency spokeswoman said.  DEQ is also trying to determine and assess the additional sources of 1,4 dioxane in the basin beyond the dischargers that could contaminate groundwater, which then infiltrates the surface water.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.