What tighter federal PFAS mandates mean for local contaminated communities - Salish Current
May 14, 2024
What tighter federal PFAS mandates mean for local contaminated communities
Sam Fletcher

Some water systems in Ferndale and on Lummi and Orcas islands are re-examining risks and looking for contamination sources, as test results for “forever chemicals” now are rated near or above new federal allowable limits. Higher amounts of the chemicals may lead to numerous health issues. (City of Bellingham video image)

May 14, 2024
What tighter federal PFAS mandates mean for local contaminated communities
Sam Fletcher

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Lowering the maximum allowed levels means that many local well tests are now close to or over the federal limit. 

In April, the Biden administration put a strict limit on so-called “forever chemicals” — polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — in drinking water which, at much lower than the state standard, may help more communities in Washington limit their exposure.

Several communities dwell right in the gray area, above what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises is safe, but below even the new maximum contamination level. While funding options and remediation efforts appear limited, many response policies will shift in the two years Washington has to adopt the new rule. 

The new federal standard limits two common types of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS —PFOA and PFOS — to four parts per trillion, a significant decrease from the state standard of 10 and 15 parts per trillion.

Lowering the maximum allowed levels means that many local well tests are now close to or over the federal limit. 

The north side of Lummi Island found 3.3 parts per trillion of PFOA. Two wells near Ferndale turned out to be contaminated, one with 3.3 PFOA and one with 2.2 PFOS and 3.2 PFOA. One well on the south side of Lummi Island resulted in 4.4 parts per trillion of PFBA and one on Orcas Island with 18.8 of another PFAS chemical, PFHxA. The federal level for PFHxA is 10 ppt, and Washington state has not established a limit. 

Free testing, but only once

Craig Bryant, water manager for the Paradise Park Water System east of Ferndale, initially volunteered to test that system’s well because the state offered to pay for it.

Much contamination comes from firefighting foam. The nearest fire station is around three miles away, and there are no airports nearby, so Bryant wasn’t expecting any contamination. He was wrong. 

Worse yet, the state requires continued quarterly tests for contaminated wells with no additional funding. 

With limited research capacity, funding and resources, any kind of remediation is out of the water association’s hands, Bryant said, and even the federal government hasn’t deemed the community’s 3.3 parts per trillion of PFAS a cause for concern. 

“I have to put my faith in what the state is doing and the federal government, what they’re doing, to protect their water systems, that they have come up with this (maximum contamination level),” he said. 

The state has two years to adopt the new federal standard, and even then Bryant’s contamination levels won’t quite warrant action, but that doesn’t mean the water is safe to drink. 

The EPA’s lifetime health advisory levels which, as an agency they are unable to enforce, are .02 parts per trillion for PFOS and .004 parts per trillion for PFOA, around 825 times less than what some Ferndale residents and Orcas and Lummi Islanders are currently drinking. 

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the federal Center for Disease Control, PFAS may lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreases in infant birth weights and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

Acceptable or unacceptable risk?

The association behind one contaminated supply on Lummi Island, Sunset Water and Maintenance, serves a population of 42 part-time and full-time residents and 18 well hookups, said its water manager, Dan Dittrich. Despite the EPA’s advisory level, Dittrich isn’t concerned about the contaminated water.

“We can’t really try to pinpoint what’s going to happen down the road,” he said. “Everything has cancer risks anymore in our environment. We’re a modern society that uses all kinds of chemicals, so the result is we inhale or ingest all manner of those.”

Dittrich has no idea what contaminated the water. 

“We live on an island in the middle of the Salish Sea, so we don’t have a chemical repository. We don’t have firefighting apparatus anywhere near us, and we don’t live at the bottom of an airport that dumps all kinds of military junk,” he said. 

Lummi Island has a small, volunteer-run fire department far away from the affected homes. 

The contamination could come from anything, Bryant said. The Paradise Park water system pulls from a shallow aquifer beneath sandy soil. The years when the Consumer Product Safety Commission required all baby pajamas to have fire retardant are one example of a widespread source of PFAS.

“They had a problem with people catching their babies on fire,” he said. 

People wash waterproof clothing, the water goes into the septic tanks, then onto the field, then back in the ground, he suggested, but it could come from anything; nearly 75% of water-resistant products contain PFAS chemicals. 

The contaminated wells on Orcas Island and the south side of Lummi Island tested even higher for PFAS, though with a chemical with no state action level. This isn’t because it’s safe to drink, said Kara Kostanich, Washington Department of Health public information officer, but simply because they didn’t have enough data on it when they set the standard. 

This will be discussed when the state board of health considers options for adopting the new federal standard, Kostanich said. 

Who pays?

Dittrich, like Bryant, originally tested his water because the Department of Health offered to pay for it, he said. Since it came back with what he termed “miniscule” amounts of PFAS, the department also requires unfunded follow-up tests. 

The department is putting the burden of the cost on the water district, despite how small it is, for their own data collection, Dittrich said.

The health department requires quarterly follow-up tests at $400 per test with additional costs, around $2,100 total for the district each year, Dittrich said, to collect data on a chemical which isn’t reaching their action level, so there will be no remediation effort offered either. 

“We like clean water,” Dittrich said. “We don’t treat our water in any way, form or fashion. We don’t even use chlorine, so we have pure water coming right out of the earth, and it’s good. The water tastes pretty good to us, but we’re being saddled with a lot of costs that the Department of Health is benefiting from in their data collection.” 

While the Department of Health received funding from the federal government for the initial tests for small or disadvantaged water systems, this funding cannot be used for the quarterly follow-up monitoring, though it is a requirement, said Mike Means, capacity development and policy manager of the health department’s office of drinking water. 

To receive additional funding, contamination levels must be much higher, at least for the next two years. 

After water at Hannah Heights, a small neighborhood on San Juan Island, was reported in 2023 to have PFAS contamination 164 times greater than the state action level, they received $2.2 million in 2024 from the state Legislature to drill a new well. 

While there are federal funding options to treat PFAS over the maximum capacity level through the State Revolving Fund program, there is currently nothing to remediate contamination beneath that level despite it being much higher than the EPA’s lifetime advisory, Means said. 

Much of the prevalence of PFAS remains unknown, and mandates and support will change as time goes on. The Legislature is continuing to study the scope of the challenge and how support might be needed, Means said. Currently, the Department of Ecology is developing a multiyear spending plan to address PFAS in Washington, which is due to the Legislature next year.

While the Department of Health awaits the final decision, they are working with the governor’s office to help develop plans and funding strategies to further help communities, Means said. 

— By Sam Fletcher

For additional reading about some funding options through the Infrastructure Act and lawsuit payouts from PFOA/PFOS manufacturers read “Washington will move to tougher federal limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in tap water” (Washington State Standard, April 19, 2024)

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