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The City of Burlington's landmark settlement to cut PFAS pollution


The City of Burlington, North Carolina, has reached a agreement to prevent huge amounts of forever chemicals from getting into the Haw River. That change will also impact the Cape Fear Watershed, and it’s a cutting-edge change compared to cities around the country.

When Burlington tested its water in 2019 because of a state mandate, it found something shocking: PFAS levels in the Haw River were over 33,000 parts per trillion.

The man-made contaminants, known as forever chemicals, are found in thousands of consumer products. They’re used in manufacturing, and they were coming out of the city’s wastewater treatment plant at frightening levels, given the high level of toxicity with even very small amounts.

The Haw is a tributary of the Cape Fear River, meaning that pollution reached the drinking water of nearly a million people.

Geoff Gisler is an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed a claim against Burlington on behalf of the Haw River Assembly, a nonprofit founded in the early 1980s to protect the river and Jordan Lake. They pushed the city to enforce the Clean Water Act to reduce pollution coming from the wastewater treatment plant.

“The way that the law is set up, is that it gives community groups and citizen groups the chance to go to step into the state's shoes when the state's not enforcing the law,” Gisler said.

That 2019 notice of intent to sue led to testing. The city figured out how bad the pollution was, and eventually learned exactly who the biggest polluters were.

Bob Patterson, Burlington’s water resources director, said the litigation and settlement were really a collaborative effort. The final part of the settlement changed the city permits to require the major polluters — which are two textile manufacturers — to use closed-loop systems. That means their contamination doesn’t end up in the treatment plant, and doesn’t end up in the river.

"Both are what are called 'significant industrial users,'" Patterson explained. "We have an industrial pretreatment program that is, overseen by DEQ. So we have local control, we do local permits for our industries."

That meant the city was able to modify its permits for the factories, requiring them to clean up their wastewater before sending it to the treatment plant.

These changes drastically reduced the amount of PFAS entering the water. Instead of 33,000 parts per trillion in the Haw, the latest tests show under 600 parts per trillion.

But Patterson said there’s still work to do — the other biggest polluters are the two landfills in the area: “They don't create or produce PFAS either, it's in everything that is brought to the landfills, that decomposes and the liquid is collected from the bottom.”

Ongoing research will determine how to handle that leachate from the bottom of landfills and, perhaps, destroy the forever chemicals. But there isn't a process set in stone for leachate quite yet.

Regardless, advocates are thrilled with the progress. Haw River Keeper Emily Sutton says Burlington was a great partner in solving the problem — and that other cities should take note.

“So I'm hopeful that this can be a roadmap for other utilities, and the state will require wastewater treatment plants to really understand what is coming through their wastewater systems, and how to stop it," Sutton said.

Other wastewater treatment plants along the river are continuing to pollute it, including Greensboro and Reedsville, which both have discharge permits coming up for public review. While every wastewater treatment plant likely deals with PFAS and 1,4 dioxane to some degree, it's those in cities with significant manufacturers that are often the largest polluters.

The legal strategy of modifying permits has benefits. It doesn’t require public institutions to buy or install expensive filters. The cost falls on the manufacturer that's using or creating PFAS, rather than on the consumer. That's a far cry from past problems in the Cape Fear region, where Chemours put GenX in the river, and it fell on drinking water utilities like CFPUA to try and filter it out.

Patterson said the textile plants in his city took the news fairly well. They had questions, but they were aware that PFAS are on their way out of fashion, so to speak.

“They've been working with the chemical industries to develop, as I understand it, alternative chemicals that are thought to be much safer than the PFAS compounds that provide the same benefits that consumers are used to," he said.

Patterson said he’s been getting calls from wastewater treatment plants and engineering firms across the country who want to learn from what they did. Burlington is on the cutting edge of enforcement, it seems.

But Emily Sutton wants to see this kind of regulation come from the state.

“There's a process here that the state needs to be requiring for every discharger," she said. "It should not be on the backs of small environmental nonprofits and our amazing team at Southern Environmental Law Center to figure this out to protect our communities and to enforce the Clean Water Act. The state knows how to do this, they are required to do this. And they need to be holding polluters accountable.”

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.