Read the full article by Adam Wagner (The News & Observer)

“The City of Burlington will require manufacturers that send forever chemicals to the city’s wastewater treatment plant to find ways to eliminate them, as part of a settlement agreement between the city and the Haw River Assembly.

Burlington worked with the Haw River Assembly, Duke University professors and environmental consultants to track wastewater through its system and determine where per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as forever chemicals, were coming from. That investigation focused on two companies and a pair of landfills in the area.

As part of the agreement, Burlington agreed that it will require the companies to control PFAS or phase them out of certain product lines. Any new or expanding user will also need to answer a questionnaire describing whether and how it plans to use and control PFAS or 1,4-dioxane.

‘Upstream industry has been dumping toxic chemicals into the Haw River and into drinking water supplies for decades and now we know who those industries are and we’re holding them accountable,’ Emily Sutton, the Haw River riverkeeper, told The News & Observer.

Sutton and the Haw River Assembly measured PFAS levels as high as 33,000 parts per trillion in the river in November 2019. Those have now declined to 519 parts per trillion.

PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals that have been linked with a wide array of health effects including increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, lower birth weight and elevated cholesterol. The other chemical, 1,4-dioxane, is classified as a likely human carcinogen that can also damage the kidneys and liver.

Chemicals that are discharged into the Haw River flow downstream, often getting into Pittsboro’s drinking water intake before making their way to Jordan Lake.

‘This Agreement is a win-win for the City and (the Haw River Assembly) as well as the citizens of North Carolina residing in the Haw River watershed,’ Burlington officials wrote in a statement.


Environmental groups say the Burlington settlement sets an example for how other wastewater treatment plants should manage their industrial customers.

‘For us, and what we suspect is the case for a lot of municipal wastewater systems across the state, is these industries are smaller sources within a larger wastewater utility system. So this investigation has allowed us to pull back the curtain and figure out what the sources are,’ Sutton said.

Municipalities frequently operate industrial pretreatment programs, where they accept wastewater from industrial customers. The companies are supposed to remove chemicals from that wastewater per terms of an agreement with the local government because the treatment plants have little ability to remove evasive chemicals like PFAS or 1,4-dioxane.

The treatment plant is technically the water quality permit holder for anything that is discharged. For example, the City of Burlington holds the permit for the discharge into the Haw River. The city is responsible for the chemicals that are sent through its wastewater plant.

But operators of wastewater treatment plants do issue permits to industrial customers requiring certain chemicals to be removed from the water, and the pretreatment program gives them enforcement authority.

In Burlington, the problem has been that the sources of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane were not disclosed on those permits.

Wastewater treatment plants are best positioned to prevent those discharges, either through enforcing the permits when a chemical is not disclosed or conducting an investigation akin to the one Burlington did, Kelly Moser, a Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney, told The News & Observer.

‘We’re pleased that they’re cooperating at this point, but they and other wastewater treatment plants across North Carolina and the country should be stopping the pollution at the source and requiring their industry to control the pollution rather than putting the burden on downstream communities,’ said Moser, who represented the Haw River Assembly in the settlement.

In Burlington, those industries included Elevate Textiles, Shawmut Corp. and Unichem Specialty Chemicals, a supplier that shut down earlier this year. Those businesses and a pair of landfills all sent their wastewater to the East Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Elevate said it has already phased PFAS out of a third of its non-medical or military products and will commit to phasing the chemicals out of the rest by June 15, 2025. The company also plans to install a closed-loop system that captures wastewater from its medical or military products, keeping it from entering the city’s sewers.

The company also plans to draft a PFAS minimization plan by Sept. 1 that will describe other steps it plans to take. At other facilities, Elevate has installed reverse osmosis systems that capture contaminants or implemented procedures that result in no liquid discharge.

Shawmut produces laminated materials at its Burlington facility, with the company touting that about half of the United States’ vehicles have headliner material from the North Carolina plant.

Burlington agreed to reevaluate Shawmut’s pretreatment agreement within three months and make changes that will limit PFAS discharges. Those could include substituting some products, making changes to manufacturing lines or eliminating discharges from some manufacturing processes that contain high amounts of PFAS.

With the Alamance County and Republic landfills, Burlington agreed to find steps that can be taken within one year to limit PFAS coming from landfill leachate that is making its way into the city’s sewer system. Specific steps will be incorporated into pretreatment programs for both facilities within two years.” …