CHATHAM COUNTY, N.C. — Bottled water or reverse osmosis are no longer necessary in Pittsboro. The town is celebrating the one-year anniversary of a new water treatment system called the GAC filter, which is a granular activated carbon filtration system. It’s removing nearly 100% of the PFAS chemicals found in the town's drinking water.

The GAC system at Pittsboro's water treatment plant. (Spectrum News 1/Rachel Boyd)

What You Need To Know

  • Pittsboro’s GAC system is removing 93% and 100% of PFOA and PFOS

  • The system is one year old and exceeding expectations

  • The EPA will enact new regulations on PFAS chemicals at the end of the year

In 2015 the town received the first concerning reports that its water supply may not be safe. 

Pittsboro Town Commissioner John Bonitz was first elected in the same year those early reports came out, and he found himself as impacted as everyone else living in the town but with the power to make a difference. 

“We have made headlines repeatedly for some of the worst water quality in the nation,” Bonitz said. “And I am just so pleased that here we are on the first anniversary of the new GAC filter, and we can proudly say that we have the cleanest utility scale drinking water in Chatham County.”

Sample taps at the water treatment plant after water has been cleaned. (Spectrum News 1/Rachel Boyd)

The issue of clean water is personal for Bonitz, whose wife and two children have autoimmune conditions.

“The concerns about the drinking water were really, really profound in our house,” Bonitz said. “We have not been using the reverse osmosis filter in our kitchen. We've been very happily and confidently using the water straight from the tap.”

Cory Saulsbury, the water treatment plant superintendent, said no matter how many tours he gives, the plant still gets phone calls from people wondering whether their drinking water is safe. With the GAC system in place, he said not only is the water safe, the levels on other nonharmful particles have dropped as well. 

“For me to be able to be a part of treating it and getting it as clean as possible, it's just, that's a reward in itself,” Saulsbury said.

The EPA says they plan to enact regulations on PFOA and PFOS at the end of the year. These two chemicals will have to be nondetectable in drinking water for it to be deemed safe. Pittsboro’s GAC system is already far surpassing that requirement and has made it the model for other municipalities fighting the same battle. 

Aerial view of the water treatment plant tanks. (Spectrum News 1/Rachel Boyd)

“We are ahead of the game when it comes to the PFAS regulations that are coming at the end of this year,” Saulsbury said. “And then other municipalities will have three to five years to get a GAC system, RO system or anything that will help PFAS.”

In August the EPA released the first results from PFAS testing for 2,000 water utilities across the United States. The initial round of data confirms the presence of one or more PFAS compounds at 431 locations serving more than 26 million people. 

While in Pittsboro they’re celebrating that a solution has been found, they mourn the fact that it was ever needed to begin with.

“It turns my attention to the fact that this is a national problem, and we need stronger regulations, and that's really the only way we're going to solve the problem,” Bonitz said. “This is cleaning up the problem afterwards, and we have to have regulations that prohibit the introduction of these contaminants in the first place.”