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Burlington gets set to embark on groundbreaking PFAS study

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The city of Burlington is preparing to plunge into a seven-figure endeavor that could give its water resources division the means to remove one particularly troublesome class of contaminants from the local water supply.

This venture, which was laid out before Burlington’s city council on Monday, aims to nail down the most promising methods for scrubbing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds from the treated wastewater which the city releases into the Haw River.

Known collectively as PFAS, these synthetic compounds have been used widely for decades in everything from nonstick cookware to cosmetics and textiles. Lately, however, these substances have become a growing cause for concern due to their potential health effects as well as their persistence in the environment – a trait that has earned them the dubious distinction of “forever chemicals.”

At the moment, federal and state agencies are still putting the finishing touches on a regulatory framework that will ultimately address the presence of PFAS in the public water supply. Yet, the city of Burlington has already gotten a jump on the regulators thanks, in no small measure, to pressure from Pittsboro-based activists, who’ve blamed Burlington and other cities that lie upstream along the Haw River for the contamination in their own community’s drinking water.

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In response to these detractors downstream of Burlington’s wastewater treatment facilities, Burlington’s water resources division has developed monitoring and reporting procedures for PFAS that city officials insist are light years ahead of the curve.  Bob Patterson, the city’s water resources director, was not shy about plugging some of these achievements when he presented his department’s most recent gambit to the city council on Monday.

“Burlington has been at the forefront of identifying sources and trying to minimize [PFAS],” he declared during a monthly work session that evening, “On the wastewater side, we’re really ahead of most municipalities. Nobody is looking at it to the depth that we are.”

Patterson added that Burlington already has fairly sophisticated procedures in place to detect the PFAS that enters the city’s sewer system, trace the contamination back to its source, and lower the subsequent PFAS levels from the culpable business or industry.

Now, though, Patterson said that the city’s water resources division wants to take things up a notch by finding the best ways to eliminate these contaminants before the city’s treated wastewater goes into the Haw.

In order to help with this effort, North Carolina’s General Assembly has set aside $500,000 to cover half of the anticipated cost for a study to evaluate various methods for removing PFAS from wastewater. The city, for its part, must kick in an additional $500,000 to proceed with the study, which still needs a greenlight from state regulators in Raleigh before it can begin in earnest.

Patterson said that this study will ultimately assess various powdered adsorbents and coagulant aids that have shown some potential to trap and remove PFAS from treated wastewater. As part of this study, the city will also conduct pilot tests of a decontamination procedure that has been developed by Invicta Water, a subsidiary of a Burlington-based firm known as BNNano.

Bob Patterson, Burlington’s water resources director

“Burlington has been at the forefront of identifying sources and trying to minimize [PFAS].”

– Burlington water resources director Bob Patterson

Patterson ultimately yielded the floor to BNNano’s co-founder Jason Tayler to provide a few details about his company’s cutting edge process for PFAS removal. Taylor told the city’s leaders that this method begins with production of miniscule air bubbles to trap the PFAS within the wastewater stream. The water is then taken out, leaving behind a highly concentrated solution of PFAS. The next phase of the process relies on the same UV radiation that wastewater treatment facilities commonly use for disinfection. But because UV rays are powerless against PFAS, Invicta introduces a photocatalyst to give the radiation more umph and atomize the contaminant while its contained.

Taylor assured Burlington’s city council that this method could be a gamechanger if it lives up to its promise during the city’s proposed assessments.

“In the end, you no longer have the PFAS compounds,” he explained. “It enables us to handle the PFAS problem at significantly lower capital compared to other, existing filtration solutions. The annual operating expense is significantly reduced…There’s no waste. The footprint is significantly smaller, and we use significantly less energy.”

It remains to be seen if Invicta’s new process is all that it’s cracked up to be. But Patterson said that his division’s proposed study would ultimately confirm this method’s efficacy while ensuring that Burlington remains at the cutting edge of wastewater treatment.

“This continues to put us in that leadership role,” he added, “so we can not only inform our decision but ultimately gather information to help inform the regulatory approach.”

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