Settlement reached to control Burlington’s PFAS pollution into the Haw River
Novel investigation leads to significant reduction of Burlington PFAS pollution
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, today finalized a settlement agreement with the city of Burlington under which the city will take significant measures to control the sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances pollution in the city’s wastewater discharges. Levels of PFAS in Burlington’s wastewater discharge, which spiked as high as 33,000 parts per trillion in November 2019, have dropped to 519 parts per trillion following implementation of initial measures by the city and its industries. Concentrations of PFAS should continue to drop sharply as additional controls are employed.
“This agreement is a huge win for a cleaner, safer Haw River and downstream communities,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents Haw River Assembly. “Now that we know the industrial sources of the PFAS in Burlington’s discharges, the city will take—and require its industrial sources to take—significant measures to prevent future pollution while reporting its results to the public.”
Today’s settlement cements Burlington’s promise to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to require its current and future industrial sources to control PFAS discharges before they enter the city’s treatment plants or the Haw River. The agreement requires new and expanding industrial sources to disclose their use or discharge of PFAS. It also requires the city and its industrial sources to conduct extensive sampling using the latest methods to detect all PFAS, including precursor chemicals that degrade into measurable PFAS. This data will be available to the public on the city’s webpage.
“The Haw River has seen decades of toxic PFAS pollution from upstream textile and manufacturing industries,” explained Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper. “With the help of researchers, scientists, community members, and our incredible legal team at SELC, we have now identified what those toxins are and where they are coming from. Today we celebrate a huge victory for all of us who love and depend on this river and the ecosystems it supports. Industrial polluters are being held accountable and our communities can rest easier.”
The agreement requires the city’s largest contributor of PFAS, Elevate Textiles, to implement a closed-loop system that will capture PFAS-laden wastewater from its production lines making medical and/or military products which require the use of PFAS. The company has also started phasing out its use of PFAS for its other products and will complete that phase-out by June 15, 2025. The other remaining known sources, Shawmut Corporation, Alamance County Landfill, and the Republic Landfill, and future new and expanding sources will similarly prevent their PFAS discharges from causing the city’s unlawful discharges of PFAS into the Haw River.
Haw River Assembly, SELC, and the city broke new ground with the investigation of the city’s sewer collection system through which the main sources of PFAS into the city’s plants were identified. The investigation was supported by Dr. Lee Ferguson and Duke University’s Environmental Analytical Chemistry Lab, which used advanced analytical methods, including total oxidizable precursor assay, to identify measurable PFAS and their precursors and to tie those PFAS to the city’s industrial sources. The method mimics the natural degradation process that occurs in the environment (e.g., with exposure to sunlight) and within waste treatment systems at much faster rates to identify the full spectrum of PFAS present, including precursors.
In 2019, the Southern Environmental Law Center notified the city of Burlington of Haw River Assembly’s intent to sue the city for its PFAS and 1,4-dioxane pollution. Burlington’s wastewater treatment plants accept waste that contains 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 practice threatens the drinking water for communities downstream who draw their drinking water from the Haw River, its tributaries, and Jordan Lake.
The recent report of 1,4-dioxane measured at 160 parts per billion in July 2023 in the city’s wastewater discharge to the Haw River is a dramatic spike from previous levels reported by the city to Haw River Assembly, which ranged from less than one to a high of 14 parts per billion. The investigation developed by SELC, Haw River Assembly, and the city to identify the city’s PFAS sources lays the groundwork for the city’s investigation into the source of the recent spike of 1,4-dioxane—which is moving forward.
PFAS is a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, and GenX and are associated with serious health harms. These contaminants are known as forever chemicals—they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade but stay in water, soil, and our bodies—and are not removed by conventional water treatment.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment, rooted in the South. With a long track record, SELC takes on the toughest environmental challenges in court, in government, and in our communities to protect our region’s air, water, climate, wildlife, lands, and people. Nonprofit and nonpartisan, the organization has a staff of 200, including 100 attorneys, and is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., with offices in Asheville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Nashville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C.
The Haw River Assembly is a non-profit corporation organized under the laws of the State of North Carolina that seeks to protect, restore, and preserve the Haw River, its tributaries, and Jordan Lake through education, advocacy, and pollution prevention. www.Haw River.org
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