Federal cash windfall to Washington state to detect, remove carcinogenic ‘forever chemicals’

Dec 9, 2021, 2:50 PM
forever chemicals...
Rattlesnake Lake, a part of the Cedar River Watershed, supplies clean drinking water to 1.5 million people in the greater Seattle area. (Photo credit: Brian Teutsch)
(Photo credit: Brian Teutsch)

Washington state is receiving $152 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update its water infrastructure. That spending is intended, in part, to quantify the scope to which pollutants, called “forever chemicals,” or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are present in the state’s water supply, as well as to develop capacity for its subsequent mitigation.

PFAS are non-biodegradable chemicals present in a variety of manufactured materials, from nonstick cookware to carpeting. Some of them, depending on their chemical structure and water solubility, can leech into the water supply. Firefighting foam, for example, is one such material that can easily pose a problem for utilities required by law to ensure that the water supply is fit for consumption. The EPA has linked exposure to the contaminate to a variety of health risks, including certain forms of cancer and decreased fertility.

The Washington Board of Health passed new rule changes in November, which require statewide testing for PFAS contamination, effective Jan. 1, 2022. The new rule dictates all public utilities that serve more than 25 individuals in a day must regularly test for the pollution. While PFAS chemicals are a determinant problem in other states which use them for manufacturing purposes or in connection with military operations — a U.S. Senate committee hearing held Dec. 9 examined a watchdog report of the Department of Defense’s detection of the chemical in drinking water in military bases — the extent to which the problem exists in Washington state is unclear.

“Exactly what the scope is for Washington, we don’t know,” Mike Means, a policy manager at the Washington State Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, told MyNorthwest.

“We’re hoping that the scope will continue to be relatively low compared to other states,” Means said. “Until we actually do comprehensive testing, we won’t know the absolute, but we will know that fairly soon.”

While the true reach of the problem is contingent on new and expanded testing infrastructure, Means is optimistic that the nature of Washington’s water supply insulates itself from the worst of the contaminant. Supply directly from the state’s surface water avoids withdrawal from that affected by wastewater distribution. Water drawn from the Mississippi River, for example, is subject to waste water released into the river.

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“We have a tremendous amount of fortune here in Washington that most of our water supplies have really pretty decent source water protection,” Means said.

“It’s not that they’re all protected,” he continued. “It is one of the most mobile contaminants I’ve ever seen in my career of working to see how quickly [PFAS] can move into groundwater. But, we’ve done a lot of work in the state to provide source water protection to our utilities. So we started at an advantage.”

The investment, allocated under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act via the EPA’s State Revolving Fund, will provide grant funding to the state’s communities affected by PFAS contamination.

“There’s a significant ongoing need of our utilities for support to address aging infrastructure,” Means added.

“We have water mains in the ground that are over 100 years old. We have new contamination detections specifically for PFAS. We’ll be sampling under our new rules for perfluorinated compounds. We’re going to find more, and then we have to deal with treatments and investigations,” he said.

A significant obstacle in updating that infrastructure is that much of the state’s population draws its water from supply disconnected from broadly connected utilities. The state Department of Health reports that 88–90% of the state’s public water supply services fewer than 100 people.

“How do we start thinking about how we can consolidate those utilities?” Means posed.

“If you’ve got 15 houses on one public water system, it’s hard to have enough capacity in those 15 homes to meet all the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” he said. “It’s not cheap to provide water and do all the testing that’s needed to maintain the infrastructure. That’s one of our big pushes is also to look for opportunities for consolidation and/or restructuring and the ability to have that work well, so that way you have enough of a rate base to make it cost effective.”

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Federal cash windfall to Washington state to detect, remove carcinogenic ‘forever chemicals’