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Burlington touts joint venture with advocacy group to monitor industrial discharges into the sewers

The city of Burlington has announced a new, “one-of-a-kind” deal with an environmental advocacy group to jointly monitor certain categories of chemicals that local industries have released into the city’s sewer system.

The city issued a brief news release on Wednesday to declare that it had teamed up with the Pittsboro-based Haw River Assembly to address these industrial discharges of 1,4-dioxane as well as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which may be entering the Haw River by way of the city’s wastewater treatment facilities.

“This agreement is a win-win for the city and [the Haw River Assembly] as well as the citizens of North Carolina residing in the Haw River watershed,” the news release adds.

This new agreement is actually the second that Burlington has brokered with the Haw River Assembly regarding these so-called “emerging contaminants,” which are a growing concern for both state and federal regulators due to their increasing prevalence in the natural environment.

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Although the EPA doesn’t currently have national water quality standards for either 1,4-dioxane or PFAS, the former has been identified as a likely carcinogen by federal regulators and is currently being monitored by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality in several locations along the Cape Fear River basin. PFAS, meanwhile, are a nearly ubiquitous category of chemicals found in everything from cosmetics and pizza boxes to nonstick cookware.

These substances are, likewise, receiving heightened attention from state regulators in Raleigh.

The city initially struck a deal in 2020 to jointly monitor these contaminants with the Haw River Assembly after the Pittsboro-based organization threatened to sue over the high concentrations of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane that were showing up downriver of Burlington’s wastewater treatment plants. This arrangement, which has remained in effect ever since, allows both the Haw River Assembly and the general public to access the city’s own data on these emerging contaminants. But it didn’t originally extend to any of the private industries that may be discharging these chemicals into Burlington’s sewers.

The specter of industrial contamination nevertheless began to set off alarm bells in Pittsboro as water quality tests along its stretch of the Haw revealed disconcertingly high levels of PFAS. A portion of this contamination was assumed to have come from industrial facilities in Burlington – and in particular, a plant that Elevate Textiles operates within the city.

These concerns eventually came to a head in the fall of 2022 when a number of environmental activists from Pittsboro approached Burlington’s city council to demand that it take action against these suspected industrial polluters. Then, in March of this year, the council received a personal visit from Pittsboro’s mayor Cindy Perry, who reiterated the calls that Burlington’s leaders had previously heard from her constituents.

Pittsboro mayor Cindy Perry when she came before the Burlington city council earlier this year.

Perry’s diplomatic mission to Burlington was followed by an appearance from Emily Sutton, the soi-disant “river keeper” for the Haw River Assembly, who publicly castigated Burlington’s city council over its alleged failure to deal with its recalcitrant industries.

Then, in the third week of June, the council received a follow-up visit from Jessica Merricks, an assistant biology professor at Elon University who had been among the Pittsboro residents to confront the city council last fall. This time, Merricks appeared with a group of high school students involved in an educational venture dubbed the Elon Academy.

Elon University professor Jessica Merricks during an earlier appearance before the Burlington city council.

These students included Victoria Choi, a Burlington resident enrolled at the N.C. School of Science and Math, who addressed the council directly to urge its members to take the lead on addressing the threat of emerging contaminants.

Victoria Choi

“It is a concern when we don’t question the [water quality] standards because we trust that our water is clean,” she declared during a designated public comment period at the end of a regularly-scheduled council meeting. “We shouldn’t wait for the laws to change if we want to be a role model as a community.”

The city appears to have taken this suggestion to heart in its latest arrangement with the Haw River Assembly.

According to Wednesday’s news release, the city’s new deal with the advocacy group spells out sampling procedures that Burlington’s water resources department will use to determine the share of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane that local industries contribute to the city’s own discharges. This data will then be used to come up with specific plans to reduce the concentrations of these chemicals.

“Both the city of Burlington and [the Haw River Assembly] expect the cutting-edge results from this cooperative effort to be the subject of scientific articles and presentations in the years ahead,” the city goes on to assert in its news release. “The insights gained from this joint investigation have already benefitted and will continue to benefit publicly-owned wastewater treatment systems across North Carolina and the country.”

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