The city of Burlington has enlisted the services of a Raleigh-based environmental engineer to prime the pump for a forthcoming regulatory change that may ultimately demand some costly improvements in the city’s water treatment facilities.
Burlington’s city council formally hired the firm Hazen & Sawyer on Tuesday to conduct an assessment of the city’s water treatment system in anticipation of a new set of EPA standards for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The council also allocated $1.2 million to cover this firm’s services, which are merely the first step in what could be a long and costly endeavor for the municipality.
These compounds, which are known collectively as PFAS, have been widely used since the ‘40s in everything from nonstick cookware and cosmetics to fire-resistant fabrics. Lately, however, studies have shed light on the adverse health effects of some of these compounds, which are sometimes described as “forever chemicals” due to their tendency to linger around in the environment.
In recent years, the city of Burlington has come under increasing pressure from activists in Pittsboro to remove these chemicals from the treated sewage it discharges into the Haw River. Earlier this year, the city struck a deal with a Pittsboro-based advocacy group that promises to keep a more careful eye on the industries believed to be responsible for much of this contamination.
In the meantime, Burlington’s water resources division has been looking at the other end of the treatment process to determine what the city can do to eliminate PFAS from the city’s own drinking water supply.
On Monday, Burlington’s water resources director Bob Patterson presented with the council with Hazen & Sawyer’s proposed contract in order to jumpstart the process that he hopes will address this intractable dilemma.
Patterson told the council that the firm’s services will enable the city to prepare for a new set of standards that the EPA has developed for two of the most dangerous forms of PFAS that are present in the environment. He added that these new regulations, which also address a number of other so-called “emerging contaminants, are expected to be released later this year or at the beginning of 2024.
“When those rules are finalized, drinking water providers across the U.S. will have anywhere from three to five years to comply with those rules,” Patterson said. “They have set very low advisory levels in anticipation of issuing those standards. So, our drinking water hasn’t changed. But the goal posts have moved. We’re still in compliance with current regulations. But we need to take action to be where the future regulations are.”
Patterson said that Hazen & Sawyer will help the city prepare for this regulatory change by identifying sources of PFAS in the city’s water supply and developing techniques to remove these compounds. He noted that the systems the city will need to treat these contaminants are a spot more sophisticated than what’s in use at the city’s two water treatment facilities.
“Generally,” he said, “these technologies will involve some sort of media that will absorb [PFAS]. You can think if it like a golf ball that has lots of dimples, and when you hit it into the rough, it comes up with mud on those dimples.”
Patterson said that once the council has signed off on the proposed contract, Hazen & Sawyer would be able to begin its evaluation of the city’s water treatment system later this month. He added that the company estimates its initial work will cost the city some $553,000, while another $665,000 or so will be needed to conduct a pilot study of whatever decontamination techniques it develops. Patterson added that the city may be able to get some funds from the state to reimburse a portion of this anticipated outlay.
Patterson went on to warn the council that the final cost of these water system improvements will far exceed the $1,218,000 that he requested for this particular contract. The city’s water resources director conceded that one set of rough estimates indicated that it will take up to $30 million to make the necessary upgrades to the Ed Thomas plant – the older of Burlington’s two water treatment facilities.
Patterson said that it remains to be seen if it will be more financial prudent to retrofit this 70-year-old plant or construct a new treatment facility in a more conducive location.
In either case, the council gave the proposed contract its unanimous blessing on Tuesday as part of a a-called consent agenda of purportedly routine or noncontroversial items that it adopted en bloc.