PW special report: While toxic chemical polluted Cape Fear River Basin, some utilities officials dismissed public health risk
One Greensboro official falsely accused scientist of scaring public for private gain; Reidsville sought help from Sen. Berger’s office
2,650 words, 12-minute read
This is the first of a two-part story about the conflict between upstream and downstream utilities in the Cape Fear River Basin over the discharge of the likely carcinogen, 1,4-Dioxane, into the drinking water supply. Part 2 runs tomorrow.
On the cloudy, muggy morning of Aug. 7, 2019, William Burdick, an industrial compliance specialist for the City of Greensboro, dipped several empty vials into the wastewater at the TZ Osborne treatment plant. He sealed the vials, packed them in a cooler on ice, and waited for Pace Labs to retrieve them for analysis.
Such sampling was common. Some waterways in the Cape Fear River Basin — which encompasses 9,000 square miles from Reidsville southeast to Wilmington — had the highest levels of 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen, in the nation.
Unlike arsenic or uranium, 1,4-Dioxane does not occur in nature. Humans are solely responsible for its presence in the environment, most often through the manufacturing of common products: plastics, cosmetics, adhesives, even medical devices.
Because of persistently elevated levels of the compound, the NC Department of Environmental Quality since late 2017 had required Greensboro, Reidsville and other utilities within the basin to monitor the amount of 1,4-Dioxane in wastewater they were discharging into the streams and rivers. In turn, the utilities, who regulate their industrial customers through “pretreatment” agreements, were supposed to lean on them to reduce the amount of the compound reaching their wastewater plants in the first place.
Five days later, on Aug. 12, Burdick received the report from Pace Labs. Something had gone awry upstream. An industrial source had sent wastewater highly contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane through Greensboro’s sewer system to the TZ Osborne plant.
The result — a reading of 705 parts per billion — was the highest at TZ Osborne in more than a year. Other analyses by different labs using samples from the same day reported even higher levels of the compound, ranging from 957 to 1,210 parts per billion.
For comparison, the EPA has set a goal, albeit an unenforceable one, of just 0.35 parts per billion in surface waters that contribute to a drinking water supply.
Meanwhile, the contamination was barreling down South Buffalo Creek en route to the Haw River, a drinking water supply for Pittsboro. Soon that town would detect 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water flowing from the taps of thousands of customers at levels up to 300 times the lifetime cancer risk.
Yet provided with these alarming lab results — and knowledge of the potential consequences for people living downstream — Greensboro utilities officials told no one for a month.
“Myself and others downstream are dismayed that something this significant occurred and no one downstream was advised,” wrote Mick Noland, chief operations officer for the City of Fayetteville’s Water Resources Department, to DEQ. “Why does ‘confidentiality’ of an industry rank as a higher priority than notifying citizens that their drinking water has become seriously contaminated? To say this is flawed is an understatement.”
At the time, Greensboro officials justified the lack of notification, saying DEQ had not established a “trigger level” for the utility to immediately inform anyone.
Greensboro has publicly touted its success in reducing levels of 1,4-Dioxane by 80% in the wastewater it sends downstream. But levels still exceed surface water health goals, and downstream utilities are clamoring for more rigorous standards.
But a Policy Watch investigation has found that behind the scenes, in the years leading up to the 1,4-Dioxane emergency in the summer of 2019, Greensboro utilities officials, as well as those in Reidsville, felt threatened by DEQ to rein in their 1,4-Dioxane levels in wastewater.
The upstream utilities argued that the state was overstepping its authority. The EPA had not set an enforceable maximum level of 1,4-Dioxane in any type of water. Nor had the EPA established a method of testing wastewater for the compound. Establishing a state water quality standard would require a lengthy public process before the Environmental Management Commission.
Paul Calamita is chairman of the private firm AquaLaw and general counsel for the NC Water Quality Association, which represents the public utilities. “We are not opposed to DEQ promulgating a 1,4-Dioxane standard,” he told Policy Watch. “We are opposed to anyone denying the public the right to comment and appeal a water quality standard.”
Facing these legal uncertainties, as well as political and industry pressure, DEQ applied a very light touch: The agency wanted Greensboro to merely monitor their wastewater for the compound, or develop a reduction plan, as a condition of their discharge permit.
Nonetheless, a review of five years’ of emails obtained under the Public Records Act show that, to keep state regulators at bay, Reidsville utilities officials, with tacit approval from their Greensboro counterparts, went over the head of DEQ staff and sought help from people at the highest levels of the agency, as well as Sen. Phil Berger’s office. Greensboro officials shielded industry from scrutiny. They buried 1,4-Dioxane data in public reports. Some upstream utilities officials even pooh-poohed the dangers of 1,4-Dioxane; another falsely accused an NC State scientist of scaring the public for personal gain.
But Greensboro officials’ reliance on industry to self-regulate ultimately backfired. DEQ cited Greensboro with a Notice of Violation over last summer’s 1,4-Dioxane spike; now the two parties have negotiated a Special Order by Consent that would assess a fine and legally limit the amount of 1,4-Dioxane the utility can discharge into waterways. Reidsville is negotiating a similar agreement, but it is not yet public. Both utilities will now be subject to the type of regulation they tried to avoid.
2014-2015: DISMISSING THE SCIENCE
Curtains of kudzu shroud parts of South Buffalo Creek, a meandering waterway that in the summer is serenaded by cicadas.
South Buffalo Creek is also the recipient of the wastewater discharged by the TZ Osborne plant. “Influent,” as it’s known, is the raw wastewater from industry, office buildings and homes that travels through miles of sewer pipes and into TZ Osborne.
Effluent, the treated wastewater, is then discharged into South Buffalo Creek, which ultimately drains into the Haw River.
In 2013, a research team led by Detlef Knappe, an NC State scientist and environmental engineering professor, detected 1,4-Dioxane in the Haw and other drinking water supplies throughout the Cape Fear River Basin. The levels exceeded the acceptable threshold for a lifetime cancer risk by 225 times.
This was a key finding. 1,4-Dioxane was previously thought to contaminate groundwater from old industrial sites and unlined landfills.
But if 1,4-Dioxane is in surface water that’s a source for drinking water, the compound is almost guaranteed to be in the drinking water itself. Unless utilities install expensive and advanced treatment systems, the compound is impossible to eliminate from wastewater or drinking water.
Sometimes it was unclear where the compound was coming from. Industrial dischargers don’t have to disclose unregulated compounds in their wastewater unless required to do so by the utility or the state. But even without that information, by pinpointing the hotspots of 1,4-Dioxane in the Cape Fear River Basin, scientists could potentially trace the compound back to its sources: industry, old landfills and wastewater treatment plants.
Knappe alerted DEQ’s Public Water Supply Section of his findings in 2014. He subsequently met with DEQ and several utilities to discuss the data and future research.
Some officials at the upstream utilities — Greensboro, Reidsville and High Point — were unhappy with Knappe’s intervention, emails show. They complained that his analytical method was experimental, although his findings have been peer-reviewed and replicated. In an email to Greensboro officials, Carrie Boyd, industrial pretreatment supervisor for the City of High Point, wrote that “Detlef is a problem.” Similarly, Bill Frazier, a lab manager at High Point’s utility, called concerns about 1,4-Dioxane “much ado about nothing.”
In an email, Frank Skee, pre-treatment coordinator for Greensboro’s Water Resources Department, dismissing the risks of 1,4-Dioxane, comparing it to doubts about climate change. And William Burdick, the point person for all 1,4-Dioxane sampling and data collection at TZ Osborne falsely accused Knappe of being “behind numerous emerging contaminant public scares in an effort to gain grant money and sell treatment systems.”
Mike Borchers, director of Greensboro’s Water Resources Department, did not directly answer questions from Policy Watch about Burdick’s allegations; nor did he address whether Burdick’s dismissiveness toward Knappe affected his judgment about the public health risks of 1,4-Dioxane.
Borchers told Policy Watch the city “did respond to the urgency of the issue.” Utilities officials met with their major industrial users a month after receiving Knappe’s data. Within four to six months, in early 2015, the utility began monitoring wastewater, Borchers said.
However, EPA would not approve a wastewater analytical method for 1,4-dioxane for nearly another three years. Absent an official EPA method, Borchers said, “Any 1,4-dioxane analytical results on wastewater samples could be viewed as less than reliable, including those from the City of Greensboro study.” In other words, industry could challenge those results in court.
But downstream utilities were impatient. “The 1,4-Dioxane issue just recently hit the fan,” wrote Chad Ham, environmental programs manager for the Fayetteville Public Works Commission in 2014.
As part of the EPA’s required emerging contaminant monitoring program for 1,4-Dioxane, Fayetteville had detected the compound in its drinking water. “We have been putting pressure on the Division of Water Resources to figure out where it’s coming from and get it out of the river,” Ham wrote to Martie Groome, an Industrial Waste Section supervisor in Greensboro. “Or at least reduce the concentration to an acceptable level because our water treatment plants don’t remove it, and it’s in our drinking water.”
1,4-Dioxane soon dominated the discussion among many North Carolina utilities. Eight cities voted to help fund an additional phase of Knappe’s research that would have included potential treatment options.
Barry Parsons, division manager at the Greensboro Water Resources Department, had consistently supported further study of the compound. “I think this is a good proposal,” Parsons wrote to his boss, Steve Drew.
But Drew, then the department director, overruled him. “Please enter a NO vote,” Drew replied. (Drew retired in January 2020; Mike Borchers replaced him.)
High Point and Reidsville also declined to participate.
Reidsville officials were concerned about potential scrutiny after DEQ gave a presentation at a statewide utilities conference in 2015. “A Cooperative Study on 1,4-Dioxane” summarized Knappe’s and the agency’s findings of the contaminant in the Cape Fear River Basin.
“I believe Reidsville, Triad cities and other cities throughout the State have specific causes for concern regarding the unusual interest and resources the State is expending on the subject,” wrote Kevin Eason, then the Reidsville public works director. “While we respect Dr. Knappe’s research into topics that interest him, it is questionable as to why the state is expending time and money following along.”
He also criticized academic researchers’ handling of the 1,4-Dioxane issue, claiming the attention had prompted “unnecessary public anxiety and loss of confidence in their water supply.” Eason went on, falsely claiming that “there is nothing special about dioxane, any more so than the hundreds of other micro-contaminants found in the rivers and lakes of the State.”
Yet instead of requiring industry to control its sources of 1,4-Dioxane entering the utilities’ wastewater treatment plants, Eason had a bold idea: Reclassify the Upper Haw River to allow for more pollution.
The Upper Haw River’s classification as a drinking water supply, Eason said, “has a daily negative impact on Reidsville’s ability to discharge.” He alleged that the upper portion of the river would never be used for drinking water “except in dire emergencies.”
If the state would only designate the Upper Haw as a “non-water supply,” wastewater treatment plants could sidestep stricter regulations and pollute at even higher levels.
Eason retired in 2018. The Upper Haw is still classified as a drinking water supply.
Emails Dioxane Greensboro Reidsville (Text)
Above: Read several emails cited in this article or you can find them at this link.
2014-2016: RESISTING REGULATIONS
In 2014 and 2015, monitoring by Knappe and DEQ, as well as Greensboro, provided ample evidence that 1,4-Dioxane continued to contaminate the Haw River, Jordan Lake and the Cape Fear River. While there are a few known dischargers of the compound in the Lower Cape Fear, including DAK Americas in south Fayetteville, testing showed that the bulk of the contamination originated in the Triad.
Staff within DEQ’s Public Water Supply Section were concerned enough to propose adding new language to TZ Osborne’s discharge permit. It would have allowed DEQ to modify the permit, even between renewals, to require 1,4-Dioxane monitoring and/or reduction measures in wastewater under one condition: “If the discharge is identified as contributing to violations of surface water quality standards.”
Upstream utilities revolted, internal and external emails show. Greensboro viewed potential state regulations as premature. Top Greensboro utilities officials bypassed DEQ’s Public Water Supply staff, and pleaded with Julie Gryzb, a permit-writer at the agency to keep the monitoring language out of their discharge permit.
Greensboro didn’t want its compliance — and possible violations and fines for failing to comply — on an “unregulated emerging contaminant without an EPA approved wastewater method,” Borcher told Policy Watch, a position that was supported by the city’s legal counsel.
Ultimately, though, DEQ prevailed and added a provision, effective July 1, 2014. But there were no numerical limits in the permit. And Greensboro didn’t have to immediately monitor its wastewater, absent an EPA approved method.
Gryzb told Policy Watch that the state developed a plan to test surface water in South Buffalo Creek and throughout the Cape Fear. Once the EPA approved a test method for wastewater in 2017, DEQ required Greensboro to begin monitoring for the compound.
Reidsville, fearing it could be next, sought cover from one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers. In 2015, Reidsville Public Works Director Kevin Eason contacted Jeffrey Warren, then the science/energy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger, for help in protecting the utility from the requirements that had just been applied to Greensboro.
Warren thanked Reidsville officials for “bringing the Greensboro issue to my attention, as it has the potential to set an improper precedent that could run afoul of a handful of regulatory reform provisions that are now in the General Statutes.”
Warren also contacted Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder, then the No. 3 official at DEQ.
Reeder replied: “Jeff, please let your contacts know that I am taking care of this. I am setting up a meeting with appropriate staff.” Reeder added that he would look into whether the agency would remove the 1,4-Dioxane language from Greensboro’s permit. (It didn’t.)
“Please don’t misunderstand my intentions,” Reeder went on. “I’m all for protecting our critical drinking water supplies in North Carolina. However I don’t feel that we need to get out ahead of the federal government.”
When Eason passed along the news to his counterparts at TZ Osborne, his email read, in large bold letters: “Eason Wins One for Reidsville & Greensboro”.
The so-called victory was short-lived. In early 2016, DEQ began planning a second phase of 1,4-Dioxane monitoring in the Cape River Basin. Steve Tedder, then a member of the Environmental Management Commission, which makes rules governing DEQ, seemed dismayed. He told Greensboro utilities officials that “maybe the Division of Water Resources did not get the memo. Or maybe Reeder spoke what he thought Jeff Warren wanted to hear.”
A year later, DEQ launched yet another 1,4-Dioxane monitoring plan throughout the Cape Fear River Basin.
“I was hoping this would die a natural death,” Tedder wrote to Martie Groome of Greensboro Water Resources. “But I guess someone still pushing the issue.”
Tomorrow: When utilities shield industrial dischargers from scrutiny, downstream communities pay the price; plus details on the Special Order by Consent.
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