“Viewpoints” is a place on Chapelboro where local people are encouraged to share their unique perspectives on issues affecting our community. If you’d like to contribute a column on an issue you’re concerned about, interesting happenings around town, reflections on local life — or anything else — send a submission to viewpoints@wchl.com.


Safeguarding Our Water from PFAS

A perspective from Terri Buckner


On Thursday evening, June 27, OWASA hosted the first of several planned “community chats” on Safeguarding Our Water: PFAS Q&A. This first chat was intended to address community questions about the costs associated with removing PFAS from our drinking water. An OWASA representative, Stephen Winter; Shadi Eskaf from the NC Division of Water Infrastructure, and Jean Zhuang from the Southern Environmental Law Center were present to answer questions.

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a class of fluorinated chemical compounds found in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. Known as “forever chemicals” these compounds provide fire resistance to consumer goods, they prevent food from sticking to cookware and food packaging, and they add water and stain resistance to products such as carpeting and furniture upholstery. For all their positive benefits, they create multiple health and safety problems. They have been found in the blood of most Americans, in our waterways, and in our wildlife. They do not break down over time, and they have been linked to:

  • Reproductive problems
  • Testicular, kidney, live and pancreatic cancer
  • Weakened childhood immunity
  • Low birth weight
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Weight gain in children and dieting adults

PFOA, or Teflon, was commercialized by 3M Corporation in 1946. Since then tens of thousands of similar but different fluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, have made their way into our lives, our bodies, and our environment. 3M, while never accepting responsibility for the pollution and toxicity they have thrust upon us, has paid out millions in lawsuits, and agreed to stop using PFAS compounds, when there are non-toxic alternatives. One community’s fight against PFAS is documented in the 2019 movie, Dark Waters.

In 2016, the FDA banned the use of PFOS and PFOA in “food contact” applications (such as packaging) but continued to allow other PFAS chemicals in food production/sales until January 2024 although existing inventory will be allowed until it is exhausted.

Eight years later, on April 10, 2024, the EPA finally announced new, enforceable drinking water standards for six (6) PFAS compounds. The new rule gives utility companies like OWASA three (3) years to complete PFAS monitoring and five (5) years to reduce any PFAS found that exceed the standard.

How did PFAS get into OWASA waster?

According to the OWASA PFAS website, OWASA’s raw water from the Cane Creek reservoir exceeds the minimum standard for two (2) out of the six (6) compounds identified in the new EPA standard. Two other PFAS compounds are found in OWASA’s raw water but do not exceed the minimum standard. The remaining two (2) compounds have not been found. None of these compounds have been found in University Lake.

OWASA officials believe the source of the PFAS at Cane Creek reservoir comes from two tributaries that flow into the reservoir. Land along both tributaries was used by the city of Burlington for applying biosolids/sludge until 2017. OWASA also applies biosolids/sludge to farm fields, but not within the Cane Creek water supply watersheds.

Biosolids/sludge is the solid remainder left over from the wastewater treatment process. It can be incinerated, landfilled, or applied as fertilizer to farm fields that are not producing food for human consumption. None of those are ideal disposal methods.

How will OWASA pay for removing PFAS?

The NC Environmental Management Commission estimates that roughly 300 public and private water systems, including OWASA, will be required to implement PFAS removal systems as a result of the new EPA standards. The state has allocated $20 million from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help utilities in low-wealth communities implement PFAS removal technology. Although OWASA will not qualify for that funding under current rules, they are eligible for funding to help design a removal system. With their estimated cost of $75M for water treatment removal only (does not include wastewater or biosolids), every little bit will help.

The OWASA Board of Directors approved a 15% rate increase in May, scheduled to go into effect this fall to offset the majority of the cost of PFAS removal technology at the water treatment plant on Jones Ferry Road. One half of the funds from that rate increase will be allocated for PFAS removal. Future rate increases are anticipated but the full financial cost won’t be known until they receive the full design and cost proposal later this year.

What’s Next?

Two EPA chemists were in the audience on Thursday night. One of them believes (as does at least one past OWASA chair) that more attention needs to be paid to mitigating the source of the pollution along the two Cane Creek reservoir tributaries. OWASA officials believe the cost of such clean up would be prohibitive. But with “forever chemicals,” the short term expense might be less than the long term cost of treatment, especially since the $75M cost estimate does not include removal at the wastewater plant. EPA standards for wastewater have not been established at this time.

The second “community chat” is expected to occur in late July and focus on the three known technology options available for PFAS removal.

A few helpful references:

“Viewpoints” on Chapelboro is a recurring series of community-submitted opinion columns. All thoughts, ideas, opinions and expressions in this series are those of the author, and do not reflect the work or reporting of 97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com.