Pittsboro to install water treatment system for unregulated chemicals

by Casey Mann, Senior Correspondent

The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners approved $1.2 million as a down payment for a water treatment system for its drinking water, with the total project estimated to cost between $2.5 and $3 million for construction. The system will likely add an additional $400,000-600,000 to the operation budget for the town’s water treatment plant annually.

The town has been deliberating how best to improve the town’s water quality as study after study shows that upstream discharges are releasing alarming levels of unregulated chemicals, such as 1,4 Dioxane and PFAS and PFOA compounds, into the Haw River where the town gets its drinking water. The town engaged engineering firm CDM Smith to perform an analysis of the town’s systems as well as conduct a pilot project to determine what particular type of system would best serve to reduce the unregulated chemicals from the drinking water. The company provided several options ranging in cost up to $20 million which could take a substantive amount of time to procure. In consultation with town staff, it was determined to offer a “fast track” option, installing a GAC system.

GAC, or granular activated carbon, filters chemicals from water. The GAC is placed in vessels where water flows through, trapping the unwanted chemicals. After a few months, the GAC must be removed, disposed of, and new material installed inside the vessels to keep them working at an optimal level.

Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy said this option was the “fastest way to get” treatment, estimated to be completed within 12 to 18 months. The initial $1.2 million allocated by the Board includes $400,000 for design and permitting costs, with the additional $800,000 being used to put in orders for the GAC vessels that may take a significant amount of time to be delivered.

When asked about the total cost annually to replace the GAC, Kennedy estimated it would likely be about $600,000 a year, with CDM noting it may be between $400,000 and $600,000. Commissioner Kyle Shipp asked if these costs were something that the town could absorb without increasing water rates, Kennedy noted that alternative funding sources had not yet been identified. However, he did say that he believed that town staff could find sources to help reduce the pain to taxpayers. 

In the end, the Board voted unanimously to approve the allocation and directed the staff to search aggressively for funding sources urges the town to have a representative participate on the stakeholder conference call that is hosted on a quarterly basis by Kim Nimmer, Emerging Compounds Coordinator for Division of Water Resources.

“These calls allow stakeholders from municipalities, state agencies, academic researchers, and community groups to discuss ongoing research, issues, and potential solutions to 1,4-dioxane contamination issues across the Cape Fear Basin,” the report reads.

Commissioner Michael Fiocco concurred, “Management of the emerging contaminants issue is watershed wide with varying impacts, but will require cooperation and participation among communities throughout the river basin.”

Long-term water resources

The report suggested the town continue to investigate and invest in the Jordan Lake Western Intake, a partnership that allows members, of which one is Pittsboro, to draw water from Jordan Lake for water treatment.

The report also noted that the 2020 Chatham County Water and Wastewater Utility Master Plan suggested exploring getting additional water supply from Sanford. The Water Task Force raised concerns about the quality of that water that it said were not addressed in the report.

Finally, the task force reviewed installing industrial cleaners and expanding the town’s current treatment plant. The challenge with that option is that the contaminants would then be returned back to the Haw River. The report also suggested expanded use of reuse water treatment and distribution systems.


The report suggested the town invest in a reverse osmosis filling stations for water as well as rebates for reverse osmosis installation in the homes of users that are considered low-income and discounted systems for renters, homeowners and businesses.

The group also wants the town to send out alerts to community members about the presence of emerging contaminants as well as potential impacts of those contaminants. The task force also wants information to be available in water bills, via electronic communication, on social media and on the town’s website.

“The Town of Pittsboro will face many challenges related to water resources over the coming years—all of which will be complicated and will require many points of view and expertise,” the report read.

There was a lively presentation by the three representatives of the task force to the board followed by a Q & A session.

One of the questions by Mayor Nass focused on how contaminants/byproducts could be eliminated if the Town were to build a new reverse osmosis water treatment plant. (Such a plant would provide much better water to Pittsboro, but would have byproducts that would likely be sent to the Town’s wastewater treatment plant and discharged.)

In the near term, Commissioner Bonitz was interested in the Town creating a production and distribution center for reverse osmosis water, while Commissioner Fiocco was more interested in pursuing the strategy of providing individual reverse osmosis systems for all residential, commercial and institutional water customers. 

Eventually a motion was made by Commissioner Bonitz and amended by Commissioner Fiocco that instructed Town staff to evaluate these options and report back to the board.

Town Manager Chris Kennedy made it clear that he wants to lead Pittsboro forward on a path to solve the problems identified in the report and build and operate a newer water treatment plant that eliminates the contaminants.  

The report is now in the hands of town staff which has been charged with reviewing and working through a path forward as it enters the budget making process.