Burlington will curb PFAS discharges, per legal settlement with Haw River Assembly
Elevate Textiles, one of the city’s industrial customers, agrees into install new technology, phase out use of compound in some production lines
There are 12,00 types of PFAS from a variety of sources, including the textile and chemical industries. (Illustration: EnviroScience Inc.)
Levels of toxic PFAS in Burlington’s wastewater have decreased more than 6,000% over the past three years and are expected to decline further, the result of a settlement agreement between the City and the Haw River Assembly finalized this week.
The agreement requires Burlington ensure its current and future industrial sources control PFAS discharges before they enter the city’s treatment plants or the Haw River, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the Haw River Assembly. The agreement requires new and expanding industrial sources to disclose their use or discharge of PFAS. It also requires the city and its industrial sources to conduct extensive sampling using the latest methods to detect all PFAS, including precursor chemicals that degrade into measurable PFAS. This data will be available to the public on the city’s webpage.
Exposure to even very low levels of PFAS, short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, has been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, kidney and testicular cancers, immune system deficiencies, obesity, high cholesterol, and reproductive and fetal development problems. There at least 12,000 types of PFAS, and they are found in water-, stain-, and grease-resistant products, like furniture, carpeting, clothing, microwave popcorn bags and fast-food packaging. PFAS are also found in AFFF firefighting foam.
The Haw River has long been a dumping ground for PFAS pollution from upstream textile and manufacturing industries, Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton said.
“This agreement is a huge win for a cleaner, safer Haw River and downstream communities,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a prepared statement. “Now that we know the industrial sources of the PFAS in Burlington’s discharges, the city will take—and require its industrial sources to take—significant measures to prevent future pollution while reporting its results to the public.”
The City will also perform sampling to characterize the contribution of PFAS and other chemicals from residential customers. The City and the Haw River Assembly will continue to share sampling results, which Burlington will continue to post to its website.
A spokesperson for the City of Burlington called the agreement a “win-win for the City and HRA as well as the citizens of North Carolina residing in the Haw River watershed.”
In November 2019, the Haw River Assembly notified Burlington officials that it intended to sue over the illegal discharges of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, a probable carcinogen. Although PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane aren’t regulated in drinking water by the EPA or the state, the SELC argued the compounds are subject to provisions of the Clean Water Act, which covers rivers, streams and lakes.
In 2020, the parties formalized a memorandum of agreement that required Burlington to investigate potential sources of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane that were discharging into the City’s wastewater treatment plants. The East plant, which was later found to be receiving PFAS in wastewater from industry, discharges directly into the Haw River, the drinking water supply for the Town of Pittsboro.
The South plant, which has issues with 1,4-Dioxane, discharges into Big Alamance Creek, a tributary of the Haw.
Burlington contracted with a third-party to investigate the sources of PFAS; the Haw River Assembly enlisted Duke University scientists to analyze the wastewater and identify the types of PFAS it contained.
The City pinpointed one of its industrial customers, Elevate Textiles, as its largest source of PFAS. The new settlement agreement requires the company to install a closed-loop system to capture contaminated wastewater from its production lines that make medical and military products. The new system will keep PFAS from entering Burlington’s sewer system.
Although those products require the use of PFAS, Elevate Textiles has started phasing out its use of the compounds for its other products, according to the SELC. That phase-out will be complete by June 15, 2025.
There are other known sources of PFAS that discharge to the Burlington wastewater treatment plants, including the textile manufacturer Shawmut Corporation. That company and future industrial customers will also be prohibited from discharging PFAS. (Unichem Specialty Chemicals reported it stopped production as of June 30.)
The Alamance County Landfill and the Republic Landfill are also PFAS sources. Leachate — liquid from the landfill that is collected in tanks — is sent to wastewater treatment plants. However, that leachate often contains PFAS from the disposal of consumer products. When rain falls on the landfill, it carries contaminants to the leachate system.
Reducing the amount of PFAS entering the wastewater treatment plant addresses another problem: biosolids. Utilities often contract with companies to haul off the sludge, which is then spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer. When it rains, the PFAS in the biosolids can seep into the groundwater, contaminating nearby wells — or run off the property and into creeks.
The NC Department of Environmental Quality regulates wastewater treatment plants, but the municipalities regulate their own industrial users. That arrangement can create a conflict because cities and counties depend in part on fees paid by those industries to discharge into the plants. In effect, utilities can be held economically hostage by industry, who can choose not to expand or locate in an area, and instead seek laxer regulations elsewhere.
Last week, Burlington’s South wastewater treatment plant discharged a slug of 1,4-Dioxane that measured 160 parts per billion into Big Alamance Creek — far above the state’s recommended level of 0.35 ppb for surface water. By the time the compound entered Pittsboro’s drinking water supply, concentrations downstream had been diluted to 11.9 ppb. The EPA has not established a maximum level of 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water, but has set a health advisory goal of 35 ppb. However, that level is far less protective than the goal set for the chemical in rivers and streams. Since traditional water treatment systems can’t remove the compound, utilities can’t achieve the more protective goal.
The recent incident was “a dramatic spike from previous levels reported by the city to Haw River Assembly,” according to the SELC, which ranged from less than one to a high of 14 parts per billion. “The investigation developed by SELC, Haw River Assembly, and the city to identify the city’s PFAS sources lays the groundwork for the city’s investigation into the source of the recent spike of 1,4-dioxane,” the SELC wrote.
That investigation is ongoing.
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.