People fill up various water jug and containers at the artesian well on 164th Street on Monday, April 2, 2018 in Lynnwood, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

People fill up various water jug and containers at the artesian well on 164th Street on Monday, April 2, 2018 in Lynnwood, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Washington will move to tougher limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in water

The federal EPA finalized the rules Wednesday. The state established a program targeting the hazardous chemicals in drinking water in 2021.

By Bill Lucia / Washington State Standard

Washington regulators will adopt a drinking water standard the federal government issued Wednesday that’s meant to limit people’s exposure to a class of harmful chemicals used for decades in firefighting foam and manufacturing.

The new rules target per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS for short, and sometimes called “forever chemicals” because of how long they take to break down in the environment and people’s bodies.

It’s the first time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a legally enforceable maximum level in drinking water for the chemicals linked to cancers, heart and liver problems, as well as developmental damage in children.

In Washington, at least 1,228 water systems have tested for PFAS and 30 detected contamination greater than “action levels” the state’s Board of Health approved in 2021. Dealing with the contamination in Washington alone is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The EPA’s new federal limits for the chemicals are mostly lower than Washington’s, meaning they’ll be more stringent and protective of human health, the state health department noted.

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement.

‘Consequential decision’

PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to manufacture industrial and commercial products, like nonstick cookware, carpets and raincoats. They’ve also been a common ingredient in firefighting foam used at sites like military bases, airports, and refineries.

Nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have PFAS in their blood, and around 200 million people nationwide could be exposed to the chemicals in drinking water, according to the Environmental Working Group, which has tracked PFAS issues for years.

“Today’s announcement of robust, health protective legal limits on PFAS in tap water will finally give tens of millions of Americans the protection they should have had decades ago,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. “It is the most consequential decision to regulate drinking water in 30 years.”

Washington’s Board of Health in 2021 set state standards for PFAS in drinking water. These apply to public drinking water systems with 15 or more customer connections or that serve 25 or more people 60 or more days per year.

Under this state program, these water systems must test for PFAS contamination by December 2025. If the water is tainted beyond the state action levels, they have to notify customers within 30 days and test more often.

On Wednesday, Mike Means, a policy manager in the state Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, estimated that based on completed sampling, somewhere in the ballpark of 200 Washington public water systems are likely contaminated with PFAS beyond allowable levels.

Means described it as pretty much guaranteed that any system above the state action level for PFAS would be out of line with the new federal standards. He also said a “very, very rough” cost estimate for infrastructure needed to upgrade contaminated systems is $1.6 billion.

While the federal guidelines will supersede Washington’s PFAS rules, testing that water systems have done under the state program should count toward meeting the new EPA requirements.

“Our state got going early, we didn’t wait for the feds to act,” said Barbara Morrissey, with the Department of Health’s toxicology section. “Because of that we’re well on our way to finding the water systems that have PFAS and getting those solutions started.”

Since 2018, Washington lawmakers have also imposed new restrictions on PFAS in firefighting foam, certain food packaging and cosmetics.

The road ahead

Adopting the federal PFAS limits for tap water will require rulemaking by the state Board of Health. Means said it’s unclear how long that will take. Morrissey emphasized the state standards would remain in effect until the federal rules are fully implemented, so there won’t be any gap in trying to detect and address PFAS pollution.

EPA estimates that between 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems nationwide that are subject to the new rule may have to take action to reduce PFAS. Systems will have three years to complete initial monitoring for the chemicals and where PFAS is found to exceed the new federal standards, they’ll have five years to reduce the contamination.

The agency said the new limits are achievable using available technology and approaches, including granular activated carbon filtration and reverse osmosis.

In addition to Wednesday’s final rule, EPA announced nearly $1 billion in newly available funding through the 2021 federal infrastructure law to help states cover the cost of PFAS testing and treatment and to assist private well owners dealing with the chemicals. The total includes $17.3 million for Washington, according to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s office.

“A stronger national standard will mean fewer people in Washington state drinking water that contains dangerous PFAS chemicals,” Murray said.

Some money for addressing the contamination will come from legal settlements. For example, a U.S. District Court in South Carolina last month gave final approval to a settlement between public water suppliers and chemical maker 3M, which will involve the company paying the suppliers between $10.3 billion and $12.5 billion through 2036.

Last year, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued companies involved in making and selling firefighting foam that contained PFAS. The city of Lakewood sued the U.S. government, along with companies, seeking damages for PFAS contamination in groundwater supply wells it says came from firefighting foam sprayed at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com.

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