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OWASA continues testing for PFAS, developing filtration upgrades

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The OWASA building in Carrboro pictured on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

In its most recent quarterly report released in October, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority said it would soon develop treatment technology to upgrade its water treatment plant and reduce the prevalence of PFAS in local water.

The report said this upgrade would take five years to design and build and would cost around $50 million. It did not expand on what exactly the upgrade or technology would include, but it said OWASA would continue testing for PFAS.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals with many potential harmful effects found in at least 45 percent of tap water across the United States, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Since 2018, OWASA has been testing for PFAS compounds in Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s two primary sources of drinking water — Cane Creek Reservoir and University Lake.

Katie Hall, OWASA’s public information officer, said of the 45 PFAS compounds they tested for, Cane Creek Reservoir was found to contain 11. After filtration, the drinking water still contained nine PFAS compounds.

Currently, OWASA is launching a pilot program to test different filtration systems to remove as much PFAS from the water as possible, Hall said. 

“We have had a consultant use our water and run it through different technologies off site, but we want to implement that on site in a pilot program to then evaluate these technologies on site,” she said. “And then we'll choose a technology or possibly even a combination of technologies here.”

After new studies showed the negative health effects of PFAS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came out with a regulation proposal earlier this year for how much PFAS can be in drinking water.

Sammy Slade, a member of the Carrboro Town Council, said he believes the EPA regulations are not enough to protect people’s health. 

He said he thinks the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro should create their own set of standards for how much PFAS can be in the water, and that it was unlikely that OWASA would set its own standards. 

“The way it felt is that they don't want to be bothered and they just go with what everyone else is doing, irrespective of people and articles that point to it being problematic, and just kind of business as usual,” he said. "I don't see any change.”

Hall said OWASA has noticed the same issue across all of Orange County.

To increase people’s awareness, she said OWASA is working on a community communications plan to go out this winter, which will explain what OWASA is doing to treat the water and ensure clean drinking water, as well as what the community can do. 

Earlier this year, the Town of Pittsboro sued several companies for contributing to high levels of PFAS contamination in their drinking water source, the Haw River.

To remove the PFAS compounds, Pittsboro implemented a granular activated carbon filtration system, or GAC, in late 2022.

This system successfully removes 95-99.9 percent of PFAS compounds in their drinking water, Colby Sawyer, the town’s public information officer, said.

However, Sawyer said he did not know what impact the PFAS that the town has already been exposed to will have on its population. 

While the EPA has research on the effects of PFAS on human health, because there are so many types of PFAS, the long-term impact of certain chemicals is unclear. 

“We don't know what this has done," Sawyer said. "And frankly, that's part of our lawsuit. We don't know. We know what it's capable of — we know what the EPA shows it is capable of."

Though Pittsboro’s GAC filter was effective in removing most PFAS compounds, the implementation of the system cost about $3.5 million of their $7 million total utilities budget, Sawyer said.

He said this high cost makes it more difficult for other small towns to ensure they have clean and safe drinking water. 

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“Small towns and small systems are not going to be able to achieve this advanced filtration without support from the state and federal government,” he said. “Without funding, without grants, without settlements from these companies that are putting the stuff in the water, without financial support, there is no way these towns are going to be able to install or maintain these advanced filtration systems.”

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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