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Greensboro agrees to curb industrial discharges of likely carcinogen into Haw River

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission has approved a revised settlement outlining how the City of Greensboro should search for 1,4-dioxane contamination in its wastewater system. Here, Duke researchers Amy Yoon and George Tait are shown collecting water samples in the river in July 2019.

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission has approved a revised settlement outlining how the City of Greensboro should search for 1,4-dioxane contamination in its wastewater system. Here, Duke researchers Amy Yoon and George Tait are shown collecting water samples in the river in July 2019.

Duke University

The City of Greensboro will have lower limits on the discharge of a likely human carcinogen and will investigate local industries whose wastewater could be contributing to contamination of the Haw River, under the terms of a revised legal consent agreement.

The agreement revolves around a chemical called 1,4-dioxane, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a likely carcinogen. In Greensboro, industrial users discharge 1,4-dioxane into their wastewater streams where it passes through the T.Z. Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant and into a tributary of the Haw River. From there, the chemical is carried into Jordan Lake and the Cape Fear River.

The contamination has been happening since at least 2014, but the most recent incident was Nov. 3, when Greensboro reported a discharge of 823 parts per billion, well above the 45 ppb limit established under a consent order reached with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality earlier this year.

The Fayetteville Public Works Commission and the Haw River Assembly challenged that agreement, claiming that it did not limit discharge levels strictly enough and could actually result in more pollution.

That challenge led to last week’s revised agreement, which limits discharges of 1,4-dioxane to 35 parts per billion. It increases fines for chemical releases that triple that level, with fines even higher for releases of 500 parts per billion or more. Advocates said the agreement’s requirement for increased sampling and pollution control plans at Greensboro’s industrial dischargers will likely help curb future contamination.

“I wish that we could go in and clean up the Haw River tomorrow. Given that we can’t do that, I think what you see in this agreement is a structure that will make the water as safe as possible as soon as possible,” said Geoff Gisler, a Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney who represented the Haw River Assembly in the matter.

1,4-dioxane risks

Pittsboro, which draws its drinking water from the Haw below Greensboro, has struggled with the contamination. Earlier this year, the town voted to spend $1.2 million to start installing granular activated carbon filters at its water plant in an effort to keep PFAS out of drinking water, but the system likely won’t be able to capture 1,4-dioxane.

haw river 3.jpg
The N.C. Environmental Management Commission has approved a revised settlement outlining how the City of Greensboro should search for 1,4-dioxane contamination in its wastewater system. Here, Duke researchers Amy Yoon and George Tait are shown collecting water samples in the river in July 2019. Dr. Kateri Salk-Gundersen Duke University

Companies use 1,4-dioxane as a solvent and in some textile processes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical is also found in paint strippers, varnishes and waxes.

The EPA has not set any enforceable limits for 1,4-dioxane in drinking water, but does have a 35 parts per billion health advisory level. North Carolina has set a health advisory level of 0.35 parts per billion of 1,4-dioxane.

Under the previous consent order, Greensboro was limited to 45 parts per billion in the first year of the agreement, declining to 33 ppb in the second year. The revised agreement has a limit of 35 ppb in the first year, followed by 31.5 and 23 ppb in the second and third years.

Emily Sutton, the Haw River Assembly’s Haw riverkeeper, said she is somewhat disappointed that the discharge limits are above the state’s 0.35 ppb, a level that is expected to cause one cancer case in a million people. But, Sutton said, the increased sampling and fines required under the new order will likely help decrease 1,4-dioxane levels.

“If there’s no discharges occurring, then those levels will be below 0.35 anyway, so we’re really focused on removing the problem at hand. We don’t want any of this toxin to be discharged into the Haw,” Sutton said.

Greensboro’s ongoing efforts

Elijah Williams, Greensboro’s water reclamation manager, said in an email that all sampling data gathered to this point will be posted to the city’s website by Dec. 3. After that, all reports will be posted within a week of being sent to DEQ, as the revised agreement requires.

“The City of Greensboro continues to be committed to the reduction of 1,4-Dioxane in the Haw River and Cape Fear River Basins,” Williams wrote. “We worked with all parties during mediation to settle the challenge of the (consent order) and will comply with all of the additional requirements listed in the settlement agreement and the modified (consent order).”

Under the new agreement, Greensboro will need to require pollution control plans for industrial sites that send 100 parts per billion of 1,4-dioxane to the treatment facility this year, 31.5 ppb next year and 23 in the third year.

In its investigation of the Nov. 3 discharge, Greensboro has homed in on a portion of its wastewater collection system called the Patton Trunkline.

The city required each of the seven industries that discharge wastewater to that line to collect daily samples from Nov. 13 to 19 and have them tested. Those companies are also required to collect weekly composite samples until further notice, as well as daily samples that they must retain until Greensboro receives the lab results from its own wastewater to see if there’s a spike in 1,4-dioxane.

“We expect the city to find the industry that’s responsible,” Sutton said of the Nov. 3 investigation.

Sutton pointed to the original consent order as a key reason for Greensboro’s quicker progress in 1,4-dioxane investigations.

The discharge permit for Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant expired in 2019, but has not yet been reviewed by DEQ. When it is, Gisler said, that could provide a chance for state regulators to apply the much lower 0.35 ppb goal to the facility’s discharge.

“That’s where we think this all needs to lead back to,” Gisler said. “Getting Greensboro, getting their discharge of 1,4-dioxane into the regular permitting process where DEQ requires them to come into compliance.”

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. His work is produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.



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