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Burlington prepares to spend millions to meet EPA’s new limits on PFAS

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The city of Burlington is girding itself for yet another budget-busting endeavor as it takes stock of a newly-released set of water quality standards from the federal government.

The city issued a formal announcement on Wednesday to assert that it has already begun the prep work to meet these new regulations, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had released earlier that day to limit the levels of so-called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water.

These man-made compounds, which are collectively known as PFAS, have been in use for decades in everything from stain repellants to non-stick coatings. Lately, however, concerns about the potential health effects of these compounds, as well as their tendency to linger in the environment, have set off alarm bells for both regulatory agencies and environmental advocacy groups.

In 2019, one Pittsboro-based group threatened to take Burlington to court over its hunch that PFAS from some of the larger community’s industries was entering the Haw River and ultimately contaminating Pittsboro’s drinking water. This shot across the bow eventually prompted the city to broker an information sharing agreement with its critics downriver. In the meantime, the city’s water resources department began bracing itself for new state and federal limits on PFAS that were already in the pipeline by then.

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On Wednesday, the EPA finally released these long-anticipated regulations, which establish maximum levels for six forms of PFAS. Among other things, these rules set a ceiling of 4 parts per trillion for two classes of chemicals known respectively as PFOS and PFOA. In the meantime, the EPA has laid out a “hazard index” for the agglomeration of four other chemicals dubbed PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA – the latter of which is better known by the trade name GenX.

According to John Vernon, a spokesman for the city of Burlington, the city’s water resources department has no illusions about the time and expense it will have to invest to comply with the EPA’s new limits on these six chemicals.

“Burlington will need to undertake major capital projects to install treatment systems capable of removing these chemicals,” Vernon went on to explain in a statement on Wednesday. “The new regulations allow five years for drinking water providers like Burlington to come into compliance…Staff estimates that it will take three to four years to complete planning design, and construction of the multi-million-dollar upgrades that will be necessary.”

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