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Pittsboro mayor lambasts Burlington city council over water quality downstream

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“Our small town of less than 5,000 people cannot spend millions of dollars to clean up your chemicals. Pittsboro and its citizens should not bear this burden to our health or our budget.” – Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry

The mayor of Pittsboro made some ripples in Alamance County this week when she confronted Burlington’s leaders about the contaminated water that she alleges their city is sending downstream to her own Chatham County hometown.

Cindy Perry, who is currently in her third term as Pittsboro’s mayor, took advantage of a designated public comment period to air her complaints before Burlington’s city council when its members convened their latest regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

During her time at the podium, Perry accused Burlington’s wastewater treatment plants of flooding the Haw River with dangerous chemicals that inevitably find their way into Pittsboro’s water supply.

“We are suffering. We have been suffering for years, drinking polluted water from your wastewater treatment plant. Burlington and its industries continue to discharge and endanger our lives with toxic chemicals.” – Mayor Cindy Perry of Pittsboro

“We are suffering. We have been suffering for years, drinking polluted water from your wastewater treatment plant,” she declared. “Burlington and its industries continue to discharge and endanger our lives with toxic chemicals.”

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Perry then zeroed in on a specific class of fluorine compounds called PFAS, which are found in everything from cosmetics to non-stick cooking surfaces. One of many so-called “emerging contaminants” that have traditionally been outside the scope of state and federal regulations, PFAS have recently begun to draw more attention from the EPA, which has issued “non-binding” standards for the safe levels of these substances in drinking water.

The proliferation of PFAS has also been a pressing concern for many municipalities that operate their own water and sewer systems. Perry noted that her own community has spent $3.1 million on an activated carbon filtration system that removes “some but not all of PFAS” from the town’s drinking water. She argued, however, that Pittsboro would never have needed to make this investment if the larger communities upriver simply cleaned up their act.

“Our small town of less than 5,000 people cannot spend millions of dollars to clean up your chemicals,” she insisted, “Pittsboro and its citizens should not bear this burden to our health or our budget.”

Perry’s remarks to the council were merely the latest in a steady stream of vitriol that has flowed out of Pittsboro regarding Burlington’s supposed release of pollutants into the Haw River.

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Several years ago, the Haw River Assembly, a Pittsboro-based environmental advocacy, even took the city of Burlington to court over the high levels of certain chemicals that have turned up in their neck of the Haw.

The city and the advocacy group eventually struck an agreement in 2019 that has guaranteed Burlington would share its data on emerging contaminants with the Haw River Assembly and other interested parties. But in spite of this settlement, people in Pittsboro have continued to blast Burlington over its purported indifference to the release of PFAS and other pollutants.

“We have done some real cutting-edge research that’s still underway to identify what we think are the major sources [of PFAS]…But they are ‘forever chemicals,’ which makes them very hard to treat and remove…The treatment technology that’s used to remove these chemicals is evolving, and most types of treatment are very expensive to implement on a large scale.”  – Bob Patterson, Burlington’s water resources director, in response to criticism from Pittsboro residents in November of 2022

Last fall, a group of Pittsboro-based academics and activists shared their concerns about emerging contaminants directly with Burlington’s city council. In response, Bob Patterson, Burlington’s water resources director, assured the city’s critics that he and his colleagues have done quite a bit to address this thorny dilemma on their end.

“We have done some real cutting-edge research that’s still underway to identify what we think are the major sources [of PFAS],” Patterson explained during a city council meeting in November of 2022. “But they are ‘forever chemicals,’ which makes them very hard to treat and remove…The treatment technology that’s used to remove these chemicals is evolving, and most types of treatment are very expensive to implement on a large scale.”

The city’s water resources director went on to stress that the water resources department has been working with area businesses to come up with ways to reduce their discharges of PFAS and other pollutants into Burlington’s waste water treatment plants.

Yet, Patterson’s account of the city’s efforts to address this issue apparently didn’t reach everyone downriver in Pittsboro.

“What have you done through the years?  You have not announced further actions. We have no communications from you. Burlington should be acting with urgency. It should be mandating [local companies] to stop polluting my community. – Pittsboro mayor Cindy Perry

During her remarks to the council, Perry evinced her apparent ignorance of the water resources department’s efforts to manage industrial effluent and to apprise outside groups like the Haw River Assembly of what the city is doing.

“What have you done through the years?” she inquired rhetorically. “You have not announced further actions. We have no communications from you. Burlington should be acting with urgency. It should be mandating [local companies] to stop polluting my community.”

The visitor from Pittsboro punctuated her remarks to the council with a dramatic gesture that may not have gone exactly as she expected.

Perry recalled that, a few years ago, she delivered a similar spiel about water contamination to Greensboro’s city council, which she concluded by offering the group a taste of some tap water from Pittsboro. Perry said that no one on Greensboro’s city council took her up on this officer.

Then, as she wrapped up her comments to Burlington’s leaders, she extended the same invitation.

“Would you like a sip?” she asked as she brought a plastic water bottle up to the podium. “I brought cups.”

“That’s okay,” Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler replied as he pointed to a cup of tap water next to him on the dais; “I have some Burlington water right here.”

Originally elected as Pittsboro’s mayor in 2015, Perry served two consecutive terms before she opted not to seek reelection in 2019. Perry returned to the campaign trail in 2021 and unseated Pittsboro’s then mayor Jim Nass in the general election. Her seat is scheduled to reappear on the ballot this fall.

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