Legal challenge filed against agreement allowing toxic 1,4-dioxane pollution in Pittsboro drinking water

Chapel Hill, NC – An agreement by state regulators with the City of Greensboro allows increased discharges of cancer causing 1,4-dioxane into the drinking water source for nearly one million people in violation of the Clean Water Act and state water quality laws, according to a legal challenge filed today in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Haw River Assembly. According to EPA risk assessments, the drinking water concentration of 0.35 parts per billion (about one drop of water in three Olympic-size swimming pools) over a lifetime may be harmful to a person’s health.

Haw River runs under 15-501 & the Bynum Bridge in Chatham County. (photo by Gene Galin)

“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. “The department refused to apply the correct standard, rejected the concerns of Pittsboro and Fayetteville, and allowed more pollution, not less. This agreement is a dangerous precedent that puts every community in the Cape Fear River watershed at risk.”

The agreement negotiated by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality with the City of Greensboro allows 33 to 45 ppb of toxic 1,4 dioxane—about 100 times more than the state toxics substances level of 0.35 ppb, and 2-3 times higher than Greensboro’s average discharge concentration in 2020—into the Haw River and the Cape Fear River basin. The basin supplies the drinking water for nearly one million people in North Carolina, including communities in Pittsboro, Chatham County, Sanford, Harnett, Dunn, and Fayetteville (including Fort Bragg). 1,4 dioxane is not removed through traditional drinking water treatment process.

“The Haw has been threatened by ongoing industrial contamination by multiple sources for decades, leaving the ecosystems and the downstream communities that depend on it at risk,” said Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper. “This is a clear example of a polluter acting in violation of water quality standards, and we expect the department to hold them accountable.”

Industries send 1,4 dioxane-contaminated waste to Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant which has been discharging 1,4-dioxane into the Haw River since at least 2014. Both the state and Greensboro have the responsibility under the Clean Water Act to regulate harmful industrial waste and prevent 1,4-dioxane from polluting downstream drinking water supplies. To do so, wastewater treatment plants have the authority to require the polluter to control pollution at the source with treatment technology or to use alternative materials. Over the past six years, the state and Greensboro have refused to take actions that would keep 1,4 dioxane pollution out of the drinking water supply for communities and families downstream, settling for voluntary measures rather than enforcing the law.

Instead, the Department of Environmental Quality negotiated an agreement, or special order by consent, with Greensboro that allows the city to continue to pollute and even significantly increase its pollution from recent levels. This agreement violates the Clean Water Act and state water quality laws and threatens the health and safety of downstream communities.

1,4-dioxane is toxic to people, causing liver and kidney damage, and increases the risk of cancer. It is used, and created as a byproduct, when manufacturing chemicals, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products, dyes, textiles, paper, and other products.

For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region.