State News

Toxic chemical spill affects Pittsboro's drinking water

Posted October 16, 2019 12:23 p.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2019 7:15 p.m. EDT

Residents were meeting Wednesday night to talk about the safety of Pittsboro's drinking water after tests showed the town's water contained high levels of a cancer-causing chemical weeks before anyone knew about it.

The chemical, 1,4 dioxane, an industrial solvent used in paint strippers , varnishes and other solutions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified it as a likely human carcinogen.

The chemical was spilled into the Haw River, which is Pittsboro's source for drinking water, in August, but no one in town knew about it until a researcher found high levels of it and started asking questions.

The Department of Environmental Quality said the 1,4 dioxane came from Shamrock Environmental Corp., a Greensboro company that handles industrial waste.

In a statement to WRAL News, Shamrock spokesman Monty Hagler said the company didn't know the toxic compound was in the water.

"In August 2019, we treated and discharged approximately 15,825 gallons of non-hazardous wastewater from a customer that did not report the wastewater contained 1,4-dioxane," Hagler said. "Although this discharge did not violate any federal, state or local water quality regulations, Shamrock immediately and voluntarily reported the issue to the city of Greensboro and ceased accepting this waste as soon as the problem was identified."

But DEQ wasn't notified of the spill until Sept. 27, and officials said Tuesday that Greensboro holds the discharge permit for the pretreatment program. The agency is "pursuing appropriate enforcement for all identified permit violations," officials said in a statement.

Haw River Keeper Emily Sutton said state regulators need to do more to force polluters upstream to clean up their acts.

"This discharge happened, and DEQ wasn’t immediately notified, downstream drinking water facilities weren’t notified," Sutton said. "People are drinking this water, and it’s 400 times the North Carolina state guidance on what’s safe? That’s a huge concern for public health."

It's not clear who alerted Shamrock of the 1,4 dioxane spill because water systems don't test for the compound. But a spokeswoman for DEQ said systems will soon be required to test for it and several other emerging contaminants.

Levels of 1,4 dioxane in the Haw River were hundreds of times higher than the state recommends – 107 micrograms per liter in treated water versus the recommended maximum of 0.35 micrograms per liter.

Sutton said local water officials have been slow to acknowledge there’s a problem.

"The staff has been really adamant about how their water quality is meeting every state standard – because there’s no state standard for these compounds," Sutton said. "We know that they’re toxic, but they’re technically unregulated because they don’t have limits."

Many unregulated chemicals likely flow into Pittsboro’s drinking water. On any given day, more than half of the water in the Haw River can be treated wastewater from Greensboro and other cities upstream.

Sutton says conventional water treatment often doesn’t remove those compounds.

"I would not drink the water from the town of Pittsboro unless it went through a reverse osmosis system," she said.

Longtime Pittsboro resident Barbara Taylor agrees, saying she used to have a filtration system in her home. But once she moved to an apartment, she had to find another way to filter her water.

"Now I drink tap water, but I filter it through a Brita, and that’s about the best I can do because I don’t want to do the bottled water and all the plastic," Taylor said. "You’re kind of between a rock and a hard place."

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