SEATTLE — The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal Tuesday to regulate “forever chemicals” in drinking water could pose steep cleanup costs for public water systems across Washington.
More than 50 water systems in the state have recorded levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, above the proposed limit, according to a Seattle Times analysis of well test results.
The long-anticipated rules cover six types of PFAS, which can leach into groundwater from firefighting foams and a multitude of other sources. The rules reflect scientific research indicating health risks that include disrupting the immune system, increasing the risk of prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, accelerated puberty in children and elevated cholesterol levels.
The EPA’s proposed limits for two of the most persistent of these chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, are set at 4 parts per trillion, which is less than half the advisory levels that were put in place by the Washington Board of Health in 2021.
The substances’ removal is an expensive undertaking that involves the installation of large filtration systems.
Washington state expects to receive some $17 million annually through 2026 to help public water systems comply with the proposed EPA limits. The Biden administration also is expected to provide other funding but the overall amount is “not going to be even close to enough to cover the costs of impacts to utilities,” said Mike Means, who works in the Office of Drinking Water in the state Department of Health.
The contamination ranges from wells in a cluster of public water systems around Western Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord to a well operated by Kennewick in central Washington and one used by Cheney in Eastern Washington.
Vancouver, the state’s fourth largest city, has detected low levels of PFAS in many wells, and is expected to face one of the most expensive compliance challenges. An earlier engineering report estimated treatment costs at more than $170 million. In a statement Tuesday, Vancouver officials said the cost of designing and building a treatment system to comply with the proposed federal standards would be an estimated $300 million.
Some water systems with PFAS contamination, such as the Lakewood Water District, already have made investments to remove the chemicals and now supply water that is expected to comply with the proposed federal limits.
Other public water systems in Washington have limited contamination affecting one or two wells. Tacoma Public Utilities, for example, has a contaminated well already taken out of service. Some utilities have wells where PFAS was detected at low enough level that the water could be blended with other clean sources, and then meet the proposed limits.
The substances can be found in products ranging from nonstick pans to waterproof coatings on jackets, fast food wrappers and even some kinds of dental floss. Since first brought to market in the 1950s, they have been used in hundreds of different manufacturing and industrial processes.
A survey completed in 2000 indicated the two chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — were present in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population. And when people routinely consume water contaminated with PFAS, the level in their blood may rise a lot higher.
The EPA rule has been released amid a growing legal battle over the costs of the cleanup. More than 200 U.S. providers of public drinking water have sued manufacturers, distributors and in some cases the Defense Department in federal court seeking compensation for the costs of PFAS removal.
The EPA rules are expected to be finalized and take effect by the end of this year.
The proposed PFAS levels are intended to make the water safe enough for someone who might drink from the same water source over the course of a lifetime.
“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement released Tuesday.
For four of the chemicals that will come under regulation, the EPA proposes to use a hazard index calculation to determine if they collectively pose a hazard when mixed together.
For PFOA and PFOS, the proposed drinking water limits of 4 parts per trillion are the lowest that can be reliably detected through laboratory analysis. Yet in an advisory released last year, the EPA found that there could be risks from these chemicals at levels far below 1 part per trillion.
Utilities will scrutinize the regulations during a public comment period. PFAS filtration systems are costly not only to build but also to maintain. The water must be tested frequently, and contaminated filtration material eventually needs to be safely disposed of or incinerated on site.
“I expect there will be some significant resistance to these values. We’ll see,” said Means, who said that the Board of Health will review the EPA rules and then decide how to respond.
Vancouver officials on Tuesday released a statement noting that the “proposed EPA regulations will set levels of PFAS in drinking water at extremely low levels.”
The statement released by Vancouver’s Department of Public Works said the city will evaluate treatment alternatives through pilot testing, and is “committed to providing safe drinking water for all residents.”
Seattle already has tested for contamination in the Tolt and Cedar watersheds that are the primary supplies of drinking water and have not detected PFAS. Seattle is one of the more than 600 state water systems already tested for the chemicals. But another 1,900 Washington public water systems will be required to test by state regulators for PFAS in the next there years.
The EPA’s proposed rules do not require removal of contamination from private wells. But it is expected to have ripple effects for homeowners near U.S. military bases with private wells that have suffered contamination in the aftermath of firefighting foams spread during training exercises.
The Defense Department has only provided bottled water and other assistance — such as footing the bill for filtration systems — to homeowners whose wells tested at contamination levels for PFOA and PFOS that tallied 70 parts per trillion.
This frustrated many homeowners with wells near military bases that had contamination less than that threshold but still at detectable levels.
In Washington, during an 11-month period that ended in August of last year, 269 wells were tested by Defense Department contractors and found to be at levels above the EPA’s new proposed limits but below 70 parts per trillion, according to a Seattle Times analysis of Defense Department records. Most of these were private wells.
The Defense Department, grappling with a massive, slow-moving cleanup of PFAS contamination at dozens of bases, now appears willing to expand assistance to these well owners, once the EPA rules take effect.
The Defense Department is assessing “what actions can be taken to be prepared to incorporate EPA’s final regulatory standard into our current cleanup process,” said a statement released Tuesday by Jeff Jurgensen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This would include providing alternate water sources and conducting additional sampling of wells, when necessary, the statement said.