As far back as 2014, the city of Greensboro’s T. Z. Osborne Water Reclamation Facility has been discharging 1,4-dioxane, an unregulated cancer-causing toxin found in manufacturing processes and such household items as shampoo, body wash and cosmetics, into South Buffalo Creek and the Haw River.
The Haw is the source of the drinking water for more than 3,000 people 50 miles downstream in Pittsboro. Over the last two years, the rates of 1,4 dioxane have been nearly 3,500 times higher than the health advisory goal set by the EPA. The contaminant can’t be removed via traditional drinking water treatment processes.
While Greensboro’s own water supply was not contaminated by the chemical, its wastewater treatment plant was one of several in the Cape Fear River system flagged for excessive releases that affected other downstream communities’ water supplies.
State regulators and Greensboro officials initially refused to identify the entity responsible for the discharge, how the release happened or how much of the chemical was discharged. Shamrock Environmental Corp. was later identified as the company responsible.
The discharge violations first came to light with the August 2019 release of 1,4 dioxane about 27 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory. In response, the DEQ filed a notice of violation against the city and reached a settlement in February, 2021.
But the Haw River Assembly and other environmental groups challenged the agreement as too lenient. They argued that it failed to adequately penalize or incentivize Greensboro to prevent future releases.
“The state’s agreement gives Greensboro a free pass, putting the interests of the city’s industrial polluters ahead of communities downstream,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement released along with the legal challenge. “The department refused to apply the correct standard, rejected the concerns of Pittsboro and Fayetteville, and allowed more pollution, not less.”
In the meantime, the illegal discharges continued. In June, Greensboro notified the state DEQ of high levels of 1,4-dioxane in treated wastewater from its treatment facility. In early November, test results of untreated water samples in downstream communities showed 1,4-dioxane levels was more than 2,100 times the EPA's and State Health Advisory's goal for surface water.
The new settlement secures a better process to identify 1,4-dioxane pollution sources and requires DEQ to investigate the sources of the toxin. Greensboro will incur higher penalties for future discharges and must cover the cost of sampling and testing 1,4-dioxane analysis for the town of Pittsboro and publicly post the results.
“The monitoring required under this agreement will identify the industries responsible for these toxic discharges in Greensboro and put the responsibility of safe and clean water on polluters, instead of the downstream users,” says Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper.”
In the meantime, Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy said the town is proceeding with caution by only drawing the bare minimum of raw water to avoid possibly contaminating its drinking water system.