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Water Utility Shuts Down Wells Following 'Concerning Levels' of PFAS

Analies Dyjak @ Thursday, October 28, 2021 at 10:36 am -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Head of Policy and Perspectives   

The city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin is in the national spotlight for PFAS contamination in drinking water. The city’s water utility provider shut down half of it's wells due to unsafe levels of PFAS earlier this month. PFAS are a category of harmful contaminants that are known to cause cancer and other dangerous health impacts. 

Where Is The PFAS Pollution Coming From?

PFAS pollution has contaminated half of the 16 drinking water wells in the city of Eau Claire. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) believes that the contamination originated from the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport in Eau Claire. Airports and military bases are known to be a main source of PFAS contamination due to the excessive use of firefighting foam during training activities. PFAS are a key ingredient in firefighting foam because of their ability to act as a surfactant and suppress fire. You might see PFAS referred to as Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam or AFFF in this particular context. Camp Lejeune, McClellan Air Force Base, Pease Air Force Base, and Gerald R. Ford International Airport are some of the more well known incidences of AFFF contamination. There are however several other sources of PFAS that could be contributing to the contamination, including nearby PFAS manufacturing and processing facilities.

How Is Eau Claire Mitigating The Problem?

One of the most difficult hurdles faced by municipalities across the country is what to do with the PFAS once its contaminated a water supply. The Utilities Manager for the City of Eau Claire stated that they’re currently emptying out their wells and dumping contaminated water into “absorption ponds.” These ponds are a temporary solution and are problematic in their own way. PFAS can still seep from the absorption ponds into surrounding soil and groundwater. The utilities manager said in a recent interview that the absorption ponds are located in an area that “should not impact municipal drinking water.” The absorption ponds also don’t take into consideration the health of aquatic species and other organisms in that habitat. PFAS are known to bioaccumulate in fish, which could indirectly affect humans throughout the food chain.

City officials made the decision not to provide bottled water to its residents, and continue to allow them to drink the contaminated water on the grounds that it’s “under the DNR hazard index level” of 20 parts per trillion. Proactive sampling occurred in 2020, which found that Eau Claire wells had detectable levels of PFAS. In 2021 when the hazard index was introduced in the state of Wisconsin, the utility department determined that PFAS were then problematic. 

What’s Next For The City of Eau Claire?

There are currently no mitigation plans and several unknowns regarding the next steps for the city of Eau Claire. State and local officials are still unsure of the size of the plume, the direction of the plume, and the levels that they are dealing with. The City of Eau Claire has hired an engineering firm to assist with answering some of these questions as well as a cost estimate for future action. The utilities manager did however say that since removing PFAS-contaminated water, PFAS levels had decreased in 5 of the city wells.

Once PFAS are in a water supply it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all of the contamination. Water treatment plants will simply focus on water that’s actually being consumed by members of a community, which includes purchasing proper filtration technologies. It’s important to note that Eau Claire is not the only municipality that has taken water sources “offline” due to PFAS contamination. The community of Bethany Crest, Delaware was told to only use bottled water for drinking and cooking due to “concerning levels” or PFAS. Many municipalities are testing for PFAS for the very first time, so there’s no way of knowing how long PFAS has been a problem in either of these communities. 

Our Take:

The utilities manager in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio stated that “the city of Eau Claire’s water is safe and always has been.” We’ve seen similar statements from public officials in other states when their water was in fact not safe at all. The mayor of Newark, NJ made a similar statement about lead levels that were almost two times higher than the federal limit, claiming that Newark’s water was not only safe, but “some of the best in New Jersey.” We suggest first taking a look at this Environmental Working Group (EWG) map to see if PFAS have been detected in your area. You may also consider purchasing a filter that removes PFAS contaminants

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What You Need To Know About PFAS Chemicals in Rainwater:

Christina Liu @ Monday, July 26, 2021 at 6:06 pm -0400
Researchers across the country have begun studying the presence of PFAS chemicals in rainwater. This phenomenon comes at a time when Congress and health officials are making important decisions about this toxic contaminant. PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’ are now believed to be present in all major U.S. water supplies. Our team discusses everything you need to know about the most recent research and what PFAS in rainwater means for you. 

Wisconsin's Failure To Regulate PFAS Effluent

Analies Dyjak @ Tuesday, December 22, 2020 at 4:33 pm -0500

 Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Head of Policy   

Millions of Americans drink water contaminated with PFAS chemicals every single day. Cities in Wisconsin, including Madison and Milwaukee have some of the highest levels of PFAS in the country. PFAS are known human carcinogens, increase the risk of miscarriage in pregnant women, and cause other irreversible health impacts. This article is about these failures, as well as the importance of limiting pollutants at the source. 

Wisconsin's Recent Failure To Regulate PFAS Effluent Into Waterways

The Wisconsin state legislature recently voted for the reversal of a bill that would have create limits for PFAS effluent in waterways. Act 101 had the potential to reduce PFAS levels at the source, before reaching municipal water systems. More specifically the bill would have allowed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to set non-enforceable “indicator levels,” which would be used for treating foam before being discharged into the waterways. The legislature ultimately voted not to allow PFAS effluent limits and removed the “treatment” definition to exclude the term “immobilize, remove or destroy the contaminant.” The reason lawmakers voted against this portion of the bill had nothing to do with PFAS, but rather concerns about the DNR overstepping its authority, and the potential effects on businesses that use and produce firefighting foam.

PFAS have been detected in the drinking water of Wisconsin’s state capital of Madison. Madison uses groundwater, which can be particularly susceptible to PFAS contamination. PFAS are also present at alarming concentrations in Milwaukee, specifically near the General Mitchell International Airport. Total PFAS in groundwater near the airport is 202,161 parts per trillion, according to the Environmental Working Group. These levels are nearly 3,000 times higher than what EPA claims to be safe. For perspective, the state is proposing a regulatory level of 20 parts per trillion for total PFAS in drinking water. 

What Does Controlling PFAS At The Source Mean For Drinking Water?

Putting limits on PFAS concentrations at the effluent level is a proactive way to reduce its presence in drinking water. It also reduces the burden on municipal treatment facilities, which are often under-funded and typically not equipped to handle high levels of pollution. Effluent controls make the polluters responsible, rather than the public. 

What Are Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL’s)?

A popular technique for limiting pollution effluent is a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL. TMDL is a set amount of daily pollution that a waterbody can endure while still being able to meet water quality standards. Under a TMDL, each major polluter is allocated a certain amount of pollution that they must meet on a daily basis in order to be in compliance. It’s important to point out that TMDL’s do not exist for every pollutant, including things like PFAS, Chromium 6, and other harmful known human carcinogens. 

TMDL’s are often used to limit the amount of Phosphorus, Nitrogen, and Sediment in a waterbody. The largest and most well known TMDL is the Chesapeake Bay, which includes the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. It has a limit of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus, and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year. It’s important to point out that neither the state of Wisconsin or the federal government are currently proposing TMDL limits for any PFAS compounds in any body of water. In recent years regulators have proposed NPDES permits for PFAS substances, which could be an alternative solution to TMDL's.

What Does This Mean For Other States?

PFAS are not currently regulated at the federal level - which is problematic because states are entirely on their own for determining how to address PFAS polluters and PFAS in drinking water. Certain states have created both enforceable and non-enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water. Because PFAS are so nuanced and so little is known about how to deal with their presence in drinking water, states are desperately looking for guidance from other states and the federal government. 

There are two prominent issues with regulating PFAS at the state level:
1. Municipal water systems will be required to spend a tremendous amount of money to remove PFAS. This referred to as an "unfunded mandate," which is very unpopular in local governments.  
2. Industries impacted by state-level regulations will have little incentive not to move to a neighboring state, where such PFAS regulations don't exist. This isn't very appealing for states trying to grow their economies. 

Our Take

The prospect of regulating PFAS chemicals appears to be bleak. What we do know is that PFAS are incredibly harmful to human health, and that drinking water is the most common route of exposure. The best way to protect you and your family is to stay informed and understand what new regulations and legislations mean for you. If you live in an area with known PFAS contamination, you may want to consider purchasing a water filter rated to remove it

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