Houses are nestled on the hillside above Harrington Lagoon, downhill from a water well that for over a year has tested positive for PFAS on Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Coupeville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Houses are nestled on the hillside above Harrington Lagoon, downhill from a water well that for over a year has tested positive for PFAS on Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Coupeville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘Not a finish line’: For water providers, new PFAS rule is first step

Eight county water systems have some PFAS, though the state deems them safe. Many smaller systems still lack protection.

COUPEVILLE — Two years ago, Harrington Lagoon became one of the first communities in Island or Snohomish counties to report high levels of so-called “forever chemicals” in its drinking water.

One of the chemical compounds at the site exceeded Washington’s standards by over five times.

Since then, it appears not much has been done to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the small Whidbey Island community, said John Lovie, the former director of the Whidbey Island Water Systems Association. Ecology staff need to do more testing and investigating, according to a page on the agency’s website. The state agency also hasn’t determined the source. But locals suspect an old Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue station, as highlighted in previous reporting by The Daily Herald.

As of April, testing of 40 public water systems in Snohomish County showed at least eight with some level of PFAS in drinking water. Half of the systems serve Arlington, providing water to at least 270 people. The other four are in Edmonds, Marysville, Snohomish and Sultan, collectively serving over 11,300 people, according to state Department of Health data.

None of the findings exceed the state’s thresholds, which range between nine and 345 parts per trillion, for five PFAS chemicals.

Under a new rule released earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave water providers a deadline to address contamination: By 2029, water systems need to start reducing PFAS levels below 4 and 10 parts per trillion, depending on the exact compound.

In line with the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA established maximum levels for six PFAS compounds that have been linked to cancer, low birth weights and high cholesterol, among other health effects. The rule also requires utilities to test drinking water before 2027.

“It’s focusing people’s attention,” Lovie said. “Everybody now knows what target they need to aim for.”

The requirement could cost state public water utilities an estimated $1.6 billion, according to an early estimate made by the state Department of Health in a media briefing earlier this month.

PFAS is everywhere: from nonstick pans to clothing, as well as shampoos and dental floss. Federal agencies have largely phased out use of the chemicals, as manufacturers have stopped selling materials that historically had PFAS. The substances are called “forever chemicals” because they can take centuries to break down.

PFAS can still enter drinking water through wastewater and landfills. Firefighting foam is another significant source — and that’s the suspected cause of contamination at Harrington Lagoon.

The EPA’s new rule only applies to water suppliers that serve 15 or more residents, known as “Group A” water systems. At least 1 million Washington residents have private wells or use smaller water suppliers, called “Group B” systems.

The Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t protect these wells, some of which are near Harrington Lagoon. Those wells also likely have PFAS contamination, Lovie said.

“They’re not eligible for any of the loans or grants that Group A water systems can get to take care of these problems,” he said. “They’re not subject to requirements for testing for PFAS.”

Lovie and officials with Ecology — who have been tracking PFAS for years — said the EPA’s rule is a milestone in addressing drinking water contamination. But it’s only the first step in organizing funding, testing and cleanup efforts for the large and looming PFAS problem.

“This is not a finish line,” Lovie said. “This is a starting line.”

‘A fractured response’

The EPA’s new PFAS levels are mostly lower than Washington’s existing standards.

Even less PFAS will be allowed in drinking water, once the state Board of Health adopts the EPA’s rule. It’s unclear how long that process will take.

All tests already conducted in the state will count toward federal testing requirements.

In some cases, water providers may need to conduct one or two more samples to meet the EPA’s standard, said Mike Means, a policy manager for the state’s Office of Drinking Water.

“Washington’s got a head start on that,” Lovie said about the EPA’s testing requirement. “We’re a couple of years ahead.”

Still, the state is only making progress on testing large water systems, Lovie said.

The state Department of Health enforces the Safe Drinking Water Act, which doesn’t address smaller public water systems. And the state Department of Ecology implements the Clean Water and Model Toxics Control acts, but doesn’t have funding to focus on small systems.

“All those are different departments implementing different federal laws and state laws that are under them,” Lovie said. “So it’s a very fractured response.”

Lovie writes regularly about local PFAS issues on his blog, “Mostly Water”. Last month, he wrote about Ecology preparing a multi-year, statewide funding strategy to reduce PFAS in the environment and drinking water.

Lovie signed onto a letter with eight other local environmental leaders, advising where Ecology should direct PFAS dollars starting in 2025. In 2023, the EPA announced Washington agencies would receive more than $33 million to address drinking water contamination.

The letter asked Ecology to conduct more testing of private wells and smaller public systems. Environmental leaders also advised Ecology to create a rapid response fund to help people get access to safe drinking water.

Those who signed the letter are set to meet with Ecology leaders and discuss the agency’s long-term plan for PFAS.

“But it needs a lot more coordination,” Lovie said.

Ecology staff have identified two cleanup sites near Paine Field along the Mukilteo Speedway, totaling over 43,000 square feet. At one of the sites, tests showed PFAS concentrations over 160 times the current state recommendation level for cleanup.

Ecology doesn’t believe either of the sites are contaminating drinking water.

Both are also in the beginning stages of cleanup.

“From the time that you start investigating, and then you do the remedy selection, and then you implement the remedy, sometimes it’s 10 years,” Ecology toxicologist Priscilla Tomlinson said.

In places where PFAS has contaminated groundwater, Ecology can provide filter systems and bottled water, or drill a new well, Ecology spokesperson Cheryl Ann Bishop said.

But sometimes, locals assume Ecology staff are responsible for investigating sites contaminated with PFAS, determining the source and cleaning the site. These responsibilities tend to fall on property owners.

Some property owners, Tomlinson said, are more eager to address PFAS than others.

“It isn’t something where Ecology comes in and does all the work and saves the day,” Tomlinson said. “That’s not how we’re set up.”

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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