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PFAS clean up could cost Virginia public water systems millions for years to come

PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. (Photo by CasarsaGuru via Getty Images)
PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. (Photo by CasarsaGuru via Getty Images)

Virginia’s public water systems could need to spend $390,000 to $2.4 million a year for the next 35 years to clean up a group of chemicals known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Private systems that rely on wells could also face costs of between $14,000 and $17,000 annually for the next 35 years.

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

The figures, which were formulated by the EPA as part of rules proposed by the federal government to deal with PFAS contamination, were presented to the  State Water Commission last month. But while they represent some of the first attempts at putting a dollar value on cleanup efforts, commission members emphasized the numbers are only estimates that could change as the state continues testing local water systems.

“Under the EPA rule, the public water systems affected by this would have to do at least quarterly sampling, or yearly sampling depending on the system type,” said Dwayne Roadcap, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water. “And so at that point, we’re going to know exactly what kinds of costs people are going to deal with when that sampling starts happening.”

The federal government gave about $90 million to Virginia, to help with infrastructure costs and another $22 million to deal with PFAS. Another $10 million is expected this year and next.. Additionally, said Roadcap, Virginia has historically received about $18 million annually for drinking water purposes that can be used for forever chemicals, although that figure will decrease this year to $6.1 million.

In March 2023, the EPA proposed new limits on the chemicals in an attempt to reduce harmful health impacts. Enforcement of the rules is left up to the states to carry out with federal funding. In Virginia, that’s done through the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality.

What are PFAS, and where are they found?

PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in numerous products and industrial applications  since the 1950s because of their ability to deflect oil, water and stains, among other benefits. Some of the products that contain PFAS include carpets, clothing, outdoor gear and cookware, and the chemicals have historically been used by the aerospace, construction and electronics industries. They are also an ingredient in firefighting foam.

Over time, PFAS have come to be present in many parts of the environment, including water and soil.

In Virginia, sampling has revealed the presence of PFAS at concentrations above levels of concern in some water systems.

In tests of 274 of the state’s 2,860 public water systems, the Virginia Department of Health found 18 had PFAS concentrations above the limit the EPA is proposing to allow. Most of those sites were in the densely populated Northern Virginia, with others in areas ranging from Southwest Virginia to Hampton Roads.

In 2020, the Western Virginia Wastewater Authority  found Gen X, another form of forever chemical, in the Roanoke River but found it had not seeped into private well sites. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality traced the chemical back to ProChem’s Elliston facility, which treats industrial wastewater.

Health concerns

Given the prevalence of PFAS, officials say it’s safe to assume everyone has some level of them in their system.

“Pretty much everyone’s going to have some level of PFAS in your blood,” said Roadcap. “They’re known as forever chemicals in the spirit of they’re hard to break down into the environment.”

But when levels exceed certain thresholds, officials say they become a greater cause for concern.

The new EPA rules, expected to be finalized this year, set a limit of 4 parts per trillion for the more common PFOA and PFOS type of forever chemicals in drinking water. For perspective, 1 part per trillion is the equivalent of  1 drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Once the threshold is exceeded, the  health damages may include kidney and liver disease, developmental effects in fetuses and infants and certain forms of cancer.

The EPA’s proposed rules are set to  limit health damage by accounting for accumulation of PFAS through other means.

Current lack of framework

While Virginia has made some attempts to identify the scope of its PFAS problems, the state has no framework in place to guide a coordinated understanding of the costs that could be incurred by local and regional entities.

“Can you all see any benefit to the state [in] sort of looking at these things on a global level as opposed to each system trying to figure it out?” asked Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, during the State Water Commission’s December meeting.

“I would see value in that approach,” said Roadcap. “One of the things that we can provide at the state level is a direct conduit to the EPA, and also provide some additional technical assistance and some security about the rulemaking.”

In 2020, legislation in Virginia  created a workgroup to study the  prevalence of PFAS and the associated health risks. That preceded $60,000 given to the Virginia Department of Health and $320,000 given to DEQ in the 2022 state budget for additional studies.

To better understand the magnitude of the presence of PFAS in Virginia, including sampling additional water systems, Surovell said by email, ”I think there will be proposed budget language directing state agencies to study the costs of pending federal rules on PFAS,” in addition to lead and copper on drinking water systems.

One of the things Roadcap said would help is increased lab capacity to cut down on the months-long turnaround time to get information on samples. The Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Laboratory is a partnership with Virginia Tech, DEQ, Fairfax Water and Northern Virginia city and county governments, as well as public water supply and reclamation agencies, that is in the process of setting up PFAS testing, according to DEQ.

But expanding the reporting requirements for industrial users also needs to be done, said Carroll Courtenay, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

“We need to start tackling this problem at the source. It costs more to treat more water,” Courtenay said. “The enormity doesn’t mean we can’t do anything until we know what we need to know.”

In 2023, legislators passed a bill that did narrowly require reporting from one facility in Southwest Virginia. This session, Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, has  introduced legislation for reporting industrial uses of PFAS.

That type of reporting, which Courtney said DEQ can require under the federal Clean Water Act, can help better understand the totality of the situation and determine ways to limit pollution from the source, not downstream from people.

“We know they’re entering the waste stream,” Courtenay said. “If we go on a chemical by chemical basis for regulation it’s going to be endless. It’s going to take too long to make sure we’re getting safe drinking water and keeping our water clean.”