GREENSBORO — State environmental regulators said Wednesday the Cape Fear River system that includes the local watershed appears to have the state's most glaring problem with the industrial pollutant 1,4-dioxane.
And they listed Greensboro as one of three communities discharging the most of this suspected carcinogen, one that the state Department of Environmental Quality recently cited the city for releasing in excessive concentrations.
"What we have found in North Carolina is that we are one of the higher states," DEQ staff member Linda Culpepper said of the industrial contaminant.
And treated wastewater released into Cape Fear tributaries by Greensboro, Reidsville and Asheboro are the major sources, she and her DEQ colleagues told the audience during a sparsely attended town hall meeting at Craft Recreation Center.
"I feel like we are focusing our efforts on the right facilities to get reductions" to lessen the Cape Fear's burden, added Julie Grzyb, the agency's supervisor of complex permitting.
The two DEQ officials spoke in the meeting arranged by the Guilford County legislative delegation to share information about Greensboro's recent citation from the agency for releasing 1,4-dioxane at a concentration many times above permissible levels.
The violation stemmed from an Aug. 7 release of the industrial chemical from the T.Z. Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant into Buffalo Creek, which is a part of the Cape Fear system.
The city was issued a formal "notice of violation" last week for both the discharge and failing to alert DEQ until late September.
The discharge did not affect Greensboro's drinking water because Buffalo Creek is not part of the city's water supply. But releases do cause problems for downstream communities, such as Pittsboro and Fayetteville, that draw their drinking water from the Cape Fear.
The DEQ officials at Wednesday's town hall stood by their citations against Greensboro, but also praised city officials for being proactive in tackling problems with the chemical and at one point achieving an 80% reduction in levels released in effluent from the Osborne plant.
The chemical is used by a variety of industries in solvents that are part of many manufacturing processes.
It is a so-called "emerging contaminant" for which there are no hard and fast, enforceable maximum contaminant levels that govern chemicals that are more widely known and understood.
Until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acts to set "maximum contaminant levels," state officials have followed a strategy of setting release levels individually in the permits that authorize communities' wastewater plants to operate.
Legislators who attended Wednesday's presentation included three Greensboro Democrats, state Sen. Michael Garrett and state Reps. Ashton Clemmons and Pricey Harrison.
Republican state Rep. John Faircloth of High Point also attended and said he looked forward to finding solutions for the problem of emerging contaminants.
Garrett said he thought Greensboro might have borne the brunt of unfair criticism in its efforts to deal with a problem for which state leaders have failed to meet head-on.
"I think we legislators deserve a lot of the blame because we have woefully underfunded DEQ," Harrison said. "This is a public health crisis from my perspective."
Greensboro's recent citation stemmed from a local waste handler, Shamrock Environmental Corp., that unknowingly discharged industrial waste containing 1,4-dioxane into Greensboro's sewer system.
The tainted discharge of just less than 16,000 gallons "came from a customer that did not report the wastewater contained 1,4-dioxane," Shamrock said in a statement last month.
The city was cited for the violation because its Osborne plant has ultimate responsibility for what is discharged into the river system. City officials also ran afoul of a requirement to promptly report such releases by failing to alert state officials until more than a month later, regulators said.
After the meeting, Greensboro water resources leader Steve Drew said the time lag in reporting was caused by two factors — the one to two weeks that it takes for city officials to receive chemical test results showing pollution levels and the fact that the state has no clear standards for when such reports should be filed.
The only directive Greensboro had was that the spike should be reported in the city's monthly report to DEQ, which is what city officials did, said Drew, who attended the meeting as an observer.
"Knowing what we do now, we'll simply go ahead, pick up the phone and report it" if and when such a situation should occur again, Drew said.
DEQ also cited Reidsville last week for releasing treated sewage with too much 1,4-dioxane from its wastewater plant on June 12.
The EPA considers 1,4-dioxane likely to cause cancer in humans but has not set safety limits, a process that takes years.
The industrial chemical is a clear liquid used to stabilize solvents in a wide range of industrial processes. It is particularly insidious because it mixes readily with water.