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Officials in Burlington dispute claims they’re to blame for water contamination in Pittsboro


Burlington’s municipal leaders opened the rhetorical floodgates this week in response to the latest round of complaints about the alleged impact that the city’s sewer emissions have had on the water quality downstream in Pittsboro.

During a city council meeting on Tuesday, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler took the city’s critics to task after enduring nearly 20 minutes of recriminations about Burlington’s supposed contribution to water contamination in the Chatham County community.

Butler also urged the city’s detractors to recognize the efforts that officials in both Burlington and Pittsboro have made to improve the quality of the water they draw from the Haw River.
“We’re at the very forefront of this,” he added. “Your comments are appreciated. But we have already done a fair amount.”

Butler delivered this defense of the city’s efforts after he and his colleagues heard from five speakers who had seized on a mandated public comment period on Tuesday to lambaste Burlington’s leaders over their alleged indifference to problems with Pittsboro’s water supply.

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These pointed remarks weren’t exactly the first assaults on Burlington’s environmental record to come from the city’s neighbors down river in Pittsboro.

Several years ago, a Pittsboro-based group called the Haw River Assembly threatened to take Burlington to court over suspicions that the larger community was responsible for high accumulations of several so-called “emerging contaminants” in their stretch of the Haw River.

Of particular concern to this advocacy group was a class of industrial contaminants called PFAS that had were becoming a growing priority for federal and state regulators.

The Haw River Assembly ultimately settled its differences with Burlington in 2020 after the city agreed to share data on PFAS and other contaminates with the former plaintiff as well as the general public.

This ongoing arrangement didn’t deter another Pittsboro-based group called Clean Haw River from making its own foray to the alleged wellspring of their town’s ecological woes.

Representatives of Clean Haw River initially confronted Burlington’s leaders in November over PFAS accumulations that they attributed to textile companies in the city’s domain. The council heard many of these same grievances in March, when Pittsboro’s mayor Cindy Perry approached her Burlington counterparts over their allegedly lackadaisical response to Clean Haw River’s concerns. During her appearance in Burlington, Perry observed that her own community has spent millions of dollars on sewer plant upgrades that promise to filter much of the PFAS out of its wastewater emissions.

For the most part, Burlington’s leaders have held their tongues in response to these allegations – although the council did call on the city’s water resources director, Bob Patterson, to make some explanatory remarks after Clean Haw River’s initial appearance in Burlington last fall. But the group’s resurgence on Tuesday apparently proved too more of a provocation for the city’s top brass.

That evening’s comment period began with a tear-soaked appeal from Katie Bryant, a Pittsboro resident and one of Clean Haw-River co-founders, who had previously addressed Burlington’s city council in November.

Katie Bryant

The council also witnessed a repeat appearance from the group’s other co-founder, Jessica Merricks, who serves as an associate biology professor at Elon University. Cradling a smart phone in one hand, and bracing an infant with the other, Merricks didn’t exactly mince words when she got her turn at the podium that evening.

Jessica Merricks

“The council is well aware it’s poorly treated wastewater makes its way into the Haw River and into my drinking water,” she admonished Burlington’s leaders. “I’m here to serve as a reminder of the real families who are waiting for someone to prioritize them over industry profits.”

Both Merricks and Bryant leaned on the council to exert pressure on local companies that they identified as unrepentant sources of PFAS – and in particular, Elevate Textiles, a Charlotte-based manufacturer that has a finishing plant along Anthony Road in Burlington.

Burlington’s leaders also came in for some criticism from Kelsey Bitting, a Burlington resident who teaches an introductory course in environmental science at Elon University. Bitting argued that the city council ought to be more vigilant about controlling the PFAS levels in the municipality’s own water supply.

Kelsey Bitting

Her remarks were later echoed by two of her students – Azul Bellot and Aliyah Preston – who likewise laid the blame for any harmful contaminants squarely at the feet of the council.

Azul Bellot and Aliyah Preston

“When you decide to ignore water contamination and leave it off the meeting agenda, we are the ones that suffer for it,” Preston declared in her remarks to the council
“As a community we need to come together for this cause – a cause that is fixable, but we need your help,” Bellot added. “What will you do to stop Burlington’s PFAS contaminated wastewater being sent down stream to Pittsboro? What will you do to help solve the problem of PFAS in Burlington? And what will you do to ensure that your citizens will no longer be affected by this detrimental outbreak.”

This nonstop spate of recriminations initially seemed to leave the city’s elected leaders a little nonplused. But the silence was eventually broken by a brief observation from city council member Kathy Hykes.

“There seems to be some misinformation as far as us not paying attention to it,” Hykes told the audience assembled in the council’s meeting chambers that evening.

Meanwhile, Burlington’s city attorney David Huffman piped up to stress Burlington’s ongoing relationship with the Haw River Assembly. Huffman also underscored the city’s collegial contacts with businesses like Elevate Textiles, which he insisted is on the verge of unveiling a new filtration strategy to reduce its emission of PFAS.

“So, I can assure you that they haven’t been derelict in any way,” he insisted.

Burlington city attorney David Huffman

Butler, for his part, emphasized the enormity of the challenge that all municipalities face as they grapple with PFAS and other emerging contaminants.

“We’re very sympathetic to all municipalities that are downstream,” he told the city’s detractors. “But PFAS is a complicated issue. If you have food packaging, you’re exposed to PFAS at very high levels. PFAS is all around us – [in] mascara and lipstick.”

Butler added that recent improvements to Pittsboro’s own water treatment processes have reduced the town’s PFAS levels to just two parts per trillion – as compared to the EPA’s guidelines of four parts per trillion.

“And a part per trillion is a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” he asserted. “And I will assure you that Burlington is certainly going to do its part to continue to support our sister communities.”

Read earlier coverage of Pittsboro mayor’s remarks at Burlington city council meeting:

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