The town of Pittsboro is performing tests on the water it receives from the Haw River due to a 1,4-dioxane leak in Burlington — the second time in two months. 

On Sept. 22, the city of Burlington received a test it had conducted by its wastewater treatment plant from Sept. 14 showing 459 parts per billion of 1,4-dioxane were leaving Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant at that time. The Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory for 1,4-dioxane is .35 parts per billion in rivers and 35 parts per billion in drinking water — meaning this contamination is 1,300 times the EPA’s health advisory levels for rivers.

1,4-dioxane is used as a solvent in chemical manufacturing and can affect liver, eye and renal functions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In July, Burlington found 160 parts per billion of 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River. This slug – or bulked subof contamination took a week to travel the 30 miles downstream from Burlington to Pittsboro, according to Pittsboro Public Information Officer and Emergency Management Coordinator Colby Sawyer. 

This is not a new issue for Burlington or Pittsboro.

In the first few months of moving her family to Pittsboro in 2019, Elon professor of biology Jessica Merricks said she noticed a note in her water bill: the town was aware of the emerging presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, and 1,4-dioxane in the drinking water.

Alarmed by the letter and its lack of context, Merricks said she made some calls and did some research. What she found was concerning — these chemicals could be dangerous and had been around for some time. Pittsboro resident and microbiologist Katie Bryant had been advocating for change long before Merricks arrived in town. 

Merricks and Bryant co-founded Clean Haw River, a Pittsboro organization fighting for clean water, in June 2020. Merricks said the organization has been helping the community by identifying short-term solutions to the issue, including helping the town partner with a local co-op called Chatham Marketplace to provide free reverse osmosis treatment — which purifies water by separating water molecules from sediment and chlorine — for those affected by the contamination. 

The contamination of Pittsboro’s water comes from the companies incorrectly disposing of chemicals in the city of Burlington. 

In 2019, the city found an alarming level of PFAS — over 33,000 parts per trillion. The most recent recommendation from the EPA is less than one part per trillion.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to resist heat, oil, stains and water and can be found in food packaging, adhesives and much more, according to the CDC. These chemicals are a concern as they do not break down naturally and can affect  human growth and development, as well as thyroid, immune system and liver functions, according to the CDC. 

The city of Burlington and the Haw River Assembly — a nonprofit to protect the river — settled a lawsuit in early August, where Burlington agreed to take “significant measures” to limit PFAS pollution. The settlement included the names of the top contributors to PFAS pollution in Burlington: Elevate Textiles, Shawmut Corporation, Unichem Specialty Chemicals, Alamance County Landfill and the Republic Services Landfill. 

While the top contributors are now preventing PFAS discharge, Elevate Textiles — the largest contributor, as stated in the press release about the settlement — will implement a system to capture PFAS contaminated wastewater from its production and will phase out its use of PFAS for certain products by June 15, 2025.

In 2020, the city of Burlington and the Haw River Assembly formalized a Memorandum of Agreement stating Burlington’s commitment to collect and test samples of wastewater discharged from the city’s two water treatment plants. Specifically, these tests attempt to find PFAS and 1,4-dioxane compounds, which the typical treatment processes do not remove, according to Burlington’s PFAS and 1,4-dioxane website

The treated wastewater is sent downstream into the Haw River, meaning the contaminants do not affect the water of Burlington or Elon, but rather the drinking water of the town of Pittsboro. 

According to Pittsboro Public Information Officer and Emergency Management Coordinator Colby Sawyer, one of the issues with the testing system is that it takes a week for the water to be tested — meaning the contaminated water could have already been used by citizens of the town. 

“When a city like Burlington or Greensboro receives a routine test pop for one of these substances, we are having to react very quickly because we don't have days of lead time,” Sawyer said. “In fact, by the time we're notified of it, it could already be to us, past us, depending on how fast the river’s flowing.”

Merricks also said the town of Pittsboro installed a gas filter with granular activated carbon, which has lowered the amount of contaminants that get through the tap water, but it still isn’t enough.

“Unfortunately, these sorts of problems often fall on the laps of the communities who are the victims, so I think Pittsboro is doing the best it can,” Merricks said.

Sawyer said there are few options for how the town can stop the contamination without the help of the cities upstream. 

“Really, the only thing the town can do is to continue to leverage our partnerships with the city of Greensboro and the city of Burlington to try to communicate to the industries and the commercial customers in their cities that what they put into the water impacts us downstream,” Sawyer said. 

Merricks said the long-term solutions sit in the hands of federal and state governments. 

“I think that at the end of the day, towns like Pittsboro will always be victim because the state and federal leadership is not doing what it has within its power to do, which is to hold industries accountable and to make these sorts of problems go away,” Merricks said. “They have the power to do that. Unfortunately, my community will always be on the offensive until things change from the top.”