A new Environmental Protection Agency proposal to eliminate «chemicals forever» in drinking water could cost local water companies millions of dollars, and part of that price is already being passed on to consumers.
The EPA regulation would limit a handful of PFASs, a label for the thousands of potentially harmful chemicals that don’t break down easily, in drinking water to the lowest detectable limits, 4 parts per billion. If the proposal is approved, one study estimated that annual costs to water utilities could exceed $3.8 billionexpenses that could leak to taxpayers.
The costs are already taking place in states that are proactively cleaning up chemicals: PFAS cleanup contributed to increasing water utility rates by a 18% in Hudson, Massachusettsand by 50% in Wellesley, Massachusettsand is expected to increase water rates to 13% this year and another 13% in 2024 in Hawthorne, NJ.
Whether the EPA’s new standards are achievable for affected water companies is up in the air, according to interviews with experts, state-level environmental agencies and the utilities themselves.
“Some systems may need to drill new wells or add treatment to address PFAS levels in your drinking water,” Meaghan Cibarich, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, wrote in an email, adding that the new wells could cost between $5,000 and $2 million
PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been found in products made to be resistant to water, stains, and heat. These chemicals have been detected in household items such as nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, and some fast food wrappers and plastic containers. PFAS exposure is associated with organ cancershigh cholesterol and thyroid disease.
Julia Varshavsky, an environmental scientist at Northeastern University’s PFAS Project Laboratorysaying the EPA movement amounted to a statement that any level of PFAS was unsafe.
“The proposed maximum contaminant levels that the EPA published for PFAS was a super innovative move because it reduced the amount to the smallest amount that we can measure,” Varshavsky said. «It’s basically like saying there’s no real safe level of these legacy PFAS compounds.»
He The EPA estimates that between 70 and 94 million people in the US are affected by PFAS-contaminated drinking water, though Varshavsky said the estimate is likely an underestimate because tests only monitor six of thousands of different PFAS.
In the absence of national regulation, some states have taken PFAS testing into their own hands. This is done by setting a maximum contamination limit, or MCL, on a chemical and monitoring water systems for violations. In all, 10 states have enacted enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water, while another 12 may monitor but are not required to report violations to a regulatory agency.
New Jersey was the first state to enact limits for PFAS in drinking water, doing so in 2018. So far, less than 10% of the 1,220 public water systems in New Jersey have violated the state standard of 40 parts per billion, according to the state Department of Environment. Protection spokesman Larry Hajna wrote in an email. Hajna estimated that «at least three to four times» many water systems would exceed limits under the EPA’s new proposal.
The EPA’s proposed limits will be submitted for public comment on May 4.. If the limits become official, all states would have three years to comply.
Other states have enacted and are anticipating big changes that come at a high price. These prices have so far been assumed by the water companies.
Cleaning is not cheap. New Hampshire, which has set a maximum limit for PFAS in drinking water, faces initial treatment costs ranging from $65 million to $143 million, not including sampling and maintenance, according to the state Department of Environmental Services.
In 2020, Massachusetts water utilities were required to complete an initial round of PFAS testing. WBUR reported that a new plant for the treatment of PFAS cost the water utility in Littleton, Massachusetts $16 million, four times what the city’s annual water budget typically is. Residents will see a 30% increase in their water bill in the next few decades. Two other treatment facilities cost or is estimated to cost $4 million each to build in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Two of the best-known chemicals under the PFAS umbrella, PFOA and PFOS, were phased out of production in the US in the early 2000s, although they still appear in groundwater. To continue making non-stick products like Teflon, the company then known as DuPont introduced another PFAS called GenX. This chemical is also in the EPA’s proposed regulation. 3M, a chemical and consumer goods giant, announced in December plans to phase out the use of all PFAS at the end of 2025.
In addition to drinking water, Maine is working to ban PFAS in all products. Starting in 2030, any product with “intentionally added” PFAS cannot be sold in the state, unless its use is deemed “unavoidable” by the state environmental department.
“Advocates are trying to push for regulation of PFAS as a chemical class, but also to put the burden of paying for cleanup and testing on the industry that is responsible for polluting in the first place,” said Varshavsky, of the Northeast PFAS Lab. . , adding that it is not mandatory for industrial companies to share the content of their products. «That’s another area of concern, especially for exceptionally exposed and contaminated communities.»