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Pittsboro threatens to sue Burlington company over hazardous discharge

The town of Pittsboro has decided to take legal action against a Burlington-based company that’s already in hot water with the city of Burlington for its repeated discharges of a hazardous chemical into the city’s sewer system.

Pittsboro’s elected leaders launched this incipient court battle against Apollo Chemical on February 12 in response to the same discharges of 1,4-Dioxane that had previously raised eyebrows in Burlington.

The town’s board of commissioners – its equivalent of a municipal council – threw down the proverbial gauntlet after a 25-minute closed session with the town’s lawyers that took place at the end of an otherwise open board meeting that evening. Once they emerged from their conclave, the board’s members unanimously voted to send Apollo Chemical a notice of intent to sue under the federal Clean Water and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts.

The basis of Pittsboro’s gripe with Apollo Chemical wasn’t spelled out at the board’s meeting on February 12.  But three days later, the town’s higher-ups convened a brief news conference at Pittsboro’s municipal water treatment plant where they outlined their longstanding grievances.

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Pittsboro’s mayor Kyle Shipp, who was joined at the podium by State Rep. Robert Reives and North Carolina’s attorney general Josh Stein, kicked off that afternoon’s proceedings with a few words about the Haw River, which flows through both Burlington and Pittsboro on its way to the coast.

“The Haw River is the source of drinking water for us and has been a lifeline for our community for generations,” he declared. “Yet, the shadow of contamination has loomed large over these waters, and the issues we faced with pollutants entering our water supply have not only threatened our environment but the health and wellbeing of our residents…Our response to these challenges has been multifaceted and unprecedented.”

Shipp went on to catalog Pittsboro’s state-of-the-art water treatment system, its efforts to educate the public about water quality, and its ongoing lawsuits against several companies that have been implicated in the contamination of the Haw River. He also mentioned the town’s shot across the bow to Apollo Chemical, which could, likewise, presage an all-out court battle should the company’s response to Pittsboro’s notice prove unsatisfactory.

A notice of intent like the one Pittsboro has issued is a prerequisite to legal action under federal laws like the Clean Water Act. These laws allow individuals and organizations to take polluters or even regulatory agencies to court, although they require that the targets of potential lawsuits receive 60 days to clean up their acts before litigation proceeds.

In contrast to Pittsboro’s litigious approach to Apollo Chemical’s discharges, the city of Burlington has taken a less obviously adversarial tack to address the company’s release of 1,4-Dioxane – a suspected carcinogen that has been drawing increasing scrutiny from state and federal regulators.

In the summer of 2023, the city noticed a precipitous spike in the dioxane levels of effluent from the company’s plant along Willow Springs Lane. In response, its water resources department has applied for a state-level permit to force Apollo Chemical to “pretreat” its wastewater before it enters the city’s sewer system. In the meantime, the city has spent well over $100,000 on daily water quality tests to monitor the dioxane levels of effluent from Apollo Chemical.

The city was still waiting on state regulators to rule on its permit request when it observed a second spike in dioxane levels on January 24 of this year. In response, city officials ordered Apollo Chemical to halt its dioxane-discharging operations until they have the state permit in hand, which they currently expect to be ready as early as March.

During last week’s news conference in Pittsboro, Shipp commended officials in both Burlington and Greensboro for their “vigilance” in dealing with the suspected polluters in their jurisdictions. Shipp also commended Burlington specifically for its speedy response to Apollo Chemical’s latest discharge of dioxane.

“In this case, we got a really quick notification from Burlington,” he said in response to a reporter’s question, “and our staff works really well with the other municipalities.”

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