OWASA water rates rise $12 to finance fight against “forever chemicals”


By Fraser Sherman

CARRBORO—Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) plans to increase monthly rates by $12.32 starting Oct. 1. More than half of the increase would be spent removing toxic “forever chemicals” from the local water supply.

OWASA representatives told Carrboro Town Council members on June 4 that smaller rate increases would follow in the next few years. The utility company provides water to Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and rates are OWASA’s primary funding source, although they are hunting for alternatives.

The council members agreed forever chemicals needed to go but worried about what rising rates would do to financially struggling town residents. Councilor Eliazar Posada also said OWASA needed to do better publicizing its plans. “I quite honestly didn’t know that was happening myself and I’m a customer.”

PFAS Forever

Manufacturers have used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) since the 1950s. PFAS make clothes stain-resistant, create non-stick cookware, and improve the power of firefighting foam. Unfortunately, PFAS molecules are long, durable chains of carbon and fluorine that don’t degrade easily and they accumulate in human and animal bodies. PFAS have been linked to cancer, developmental damage in children, and harm to the human liver and heart.

The Biden Administration has announced new rules for removing PFAS from the environment and reducing human exposure. OWASA’s representatives said the utility has five years to meet the new environmental standards by cleaning PFAS out of the water supply.

Treatment Options

Removing forever chemicals from water “is super-expensive,” said OWASA Board Member Mel Kramer. “The estimated budget for this is $75 million.”

In the short term, OWASA’s Todd Taylor said they’re looking at carbon filters that can absorb PFAS as water passes through them. That will give them time to research and test more effective methods, such as ion exchange treatment that binds PFAS particles to a membrane.

Council Member Randee Haven-O’Donnell asked if OWASA has considered reverse osmosis. Membranes using reverse osmosis can extract even the smallest particles from water.

“We did look at that early on but it’s orders of magnitude more expensive,” replied Taylor. Reverse osmosis is also energy intensive, which flies in the face of OWASA’s sustainability goals, and disposing of the PFAS concentrates it produces “is quite an ordeal, let’s put it that way,” added Taylor.

When Rates Rise

Haven-O’Donnell asked how the rate increases would affect residents making 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income. Councilor Catherine Fray asked if OWASA had figures for how many customers were already financially in a “precarious position” and struggling to pay their water bill.

Taylor said while the number stays constant month to month (a few hundred out of 22,000 customers) it’s not the same people: OWASA shuts off water after a couple of months of non-payment, so nobody gets to skip payments month after month. OWASA sends bills to the property manager at multifamily residences, so there’s no way to tell how individual renters are coping.

Fray also asked if there was any way to make the utility’s tiered rating system more progressive. Taylor said that was tricky because “the volume of usage is not necessarily a good indicator of wealth. You could have a large family that uses a lot of water, but they’re not watering the garden.” Legally, he added, charging different rates to two households using the same amount of water isn’t an option.

The utility’s main resource for helping financially strapped customers is Care to Share, a program that lets customers include a donation in their water bill to help other customers pay. The Care to Share website says $12.50 extra per month will help a family pay off two monthly water bills.

Taylor said OWASA has been outsourcing the program to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service (IFC), but IFC has limits on how much it can distribute. OWASA plans to bring Care to Share in-house, which will solve that issue.

Taylor said OWASA is looking at funding sources besides rate increases. There’s federal funding for PFAS water treatment, and the utility is participating in a lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers. The utility also has applied for grants. However, they can’t count on any of that money yet.

Council Member Danny Nowell said OWASA should talk to the city again if costs are steeper than anticipated. “When you reach the friction points of your revenue model, hit us up.”

Public Awareness

Taylor said OWASA held a public hearing on the rate increase in May but received no comments. In answer to Councilor Posada’s question about public notification, he said the utility communicates news through the OWASA website, social media, and newsletters.

Council members said OWASA needed to improve its communication skills, given the importance of removing PFAS and announcing the rate increase. Haven-O’Donnell recommended that the utility ask the town for help, as Carrboro had “a fairly robust way of getting communication out.”

Also, the council voted to reappoint Melody Kramer as one of Carrboro’s OWASA board members. Haven-O’Donnell proposed moving the vote to June 18 because some community members had expressed interest in the reappointment. Earlier that evening, former Town Council candidate April Mills asked the council not to reappoint Kramer.

Nowell said with Kramer’s term expiring at the end of this month, they shouldn’t delay. Haven-O’Donnell said waiting wouldn’t affect Kramer’s standing on the OWASA board. After a heated discussion, Nowell moved to reappoint Kramer. The motion passed 5-1, with Haven-O’Donnell voting no.

You can access the agenda (including PDFs related to OWASA’s presentation) via the Carrboro Legistar website or watch the entire meeting streaming on YouTube.

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press<

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