Agreement promises investigation of industrial pollution in North Carolina river

Jordan Lake is one of many waterways downstream from the City of Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant, which is a major source of industrial pollutants. (© JT Taylor)

In the last week, on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, SELC finalized a memorandum of agreement with the City of Burlington, North Carolina, in which the city agreed to investigate the sources of industrial chemicals in the city’s wastewater discharges. The agreement focuses on studying the levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals and 1,4-dioxane.

“This agreement and investigation takes us one step closer to making the Haw River cleaner and safer,” said Senior Attorney Kelly Moser. “With the city’s cooperation, we can identify the source of the PFAS and 1,4-dioxane pollution in Burlington’s treatment systems much more quickly than through litigation. Once the source is identified, the city can and should take steps to stop the pollution.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Burlington will investigate the sources of industrial pollution into its wastewater treatment systems that are causing the city to discharge PFAS chemicals and 1,4-dioxane into the Haw River. The city will conduct extensive sampling throughout its treatment systems over the next several months under the agreement.

“Haw River Assembly has been studying and working to stop PFAS pollution in the Haw River since 2015,” explained Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper. “Burlington's treatment plant is a main source of the PFAS in the river, and we are glad this important investigation is moving forward. We are committed to eliminating these toxic chemicals from the river to protect the communities who depend on it.”

Last year, SELC notified the City of Burlington of Haw River Assembly’s intent to sue the city for its PFAS and 1,4-dioxane pollution. The City of Burlington has wastewater treatment plants that accept waste containing PFAS from industrial facilities. Like most wastewater treatment plants, Burlington’s treatment plants do not remove the PFAS before discharging the waste into rivers and spreading contaminated sludge on fields. This threatens the drinking water for communities downstream who draw their drinking water from the Haw River, its tributaries, and Jordan Lake.

PFAS is a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, and GenX and is associated with serious health impacts. These contaminants are known as forever chemicals because they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade but stay in water, soil, and our bodies.

Like PFAS, 1,4-dioxane is harmful to human health and does not readily degrade in the environment.

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