A Growing Number of Cities are Concerned About Contaminated Drinking Water

March 1, 2019 - (6 min read)

From Florida to Washington and many communities in between, local officials are facing drinking water contamination from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). More cities, towns and villages are now becoming aware of the contamination and there is growing concern across all levels of government regarding health risks and how to address the issue.

PFAS substances are a group of man-made chemicals that were made and used in a variety of industries around the globe. In the United States, these chemicals were manufactured beginning in the 1940s for use in fire-fighting foams, commercial household products and production facilities.

Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States, but because the substances do not break down over time, they are still very persistent in the environment and in the human body. PFAS chemicals have been known to cause adverse health outcomes in humans including low infant birth weights, negative effects on the immune system, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.

As the chemicals have built up in the environment, they have found their way into drinking water systems across the country, particularly in communities near military installations or industrial sites. As of August 2017, the Department of Defense identified 401 active and Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) installations in the United States with at least one area where there is known or suspected releases of PFAS.

A map created by the Environmental Working Group and Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute provides information on all the known industrial and military contamination sites in the United States as of March 2018.

Here are a couple of examples of the effects that PFAS contamination is having on cities:

  • Decatur, Alabama
    In Decatur, PFAS chemicals have been used for many years in a variety of different capacities. For example, 3M   used the chemicals to produce Scotchgard, which was used by other companies in the city.  The company phased out production of PFASs in 2002, but in 2016 the EPA issued a health advisory for West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL) customers after detecting high levels of PFAS chemicals in the drinking water. WMEL warned the county’s 33,000 customers to use bottled water and installed a $4 million carbon filtration system as a short-term solution. However, WMEL officials say a reverse osmosis filtration system is needed for permanent safe water. This will cost an estimated $25 million.
  • Clearfield, Utah
    PFAS chemicals were found in 12 out of 13 groundwater monitoring well samples at Hill Air Force Base near Clearfield, Utah, in 2018, likely from the use of firefighting foam. There has not been an impact on the city directly, however, since the nearby aquifer is approximately 30 feet below the surface and is comprised of several layers that prevent the chemicals from reaching the drinking water. The Air Force has been proactive in its treatment of PFAS chemicals on base to ensure the drinking water source does not become contaminated.The city is, however, facing drinking water contamination stemming from other related chemicals used on base, which can more easily penetrate the layers protecting the aquifer. The Air Force thus far has been able to keep the chemicals from reaching the water supply by injecting a vegetable oil-like material into wells scattered throughout the region. This has been effective, but last year they discovered that the methane gas created in the process (a normal side effect) had reached levels that were potentially explosive. The city and the Installation have worked together to make sure that homes in this area are safe.

Federal Action to Address PFAS Contamination

In May 2018, the EPA convened a National Leadership Summit on PFAS in Washington, D.C., that brought together more than 200 federal, state and local leaders from across the country, including NLC, to discuss how to address PFAS. Following the summit, the agency hosted a series of visits in communities directly impacted by PFAS. The New Hampshire Municipal Association joined with other state associations to outline key considerations for the EPA as it moves forward on possible regulations.

In June 2018, the CDC released a draft report warning that PFAS chemicals could pose a health risk at levels lower than what is currently recommended by the EPA. Public comment on the report closed in August and the final version has not yet been published.

The EPA announced in February a comprehensive nationwide action plan for addressing PFAS. The EPA’s action plan identifies both short-term solutions for addressing these chemicals and long-term strategies that will help states, tribes and local communities provide clean and safe drinking water to residents and address PFAS at the source — before it gets into the water.

Most notably, the EPA will make a formal decision on whether to set a Maximum Contaminant Level under the Safe Drinking Water Act by the end of the year. The agency has also begun the regulatory process for listing PFOA and PFOS, two classes of PFAS chemicals, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This will provide the agency with additional authority to hold responsible parties accountable. Lastly, the EPA is developing interim guidance for groundwater cleanup actions at contaminated sites.

PFAS drinking water contamination has gotten the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-MI) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) co-chair the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force. The Task Force is calling for urgent action to address the public health threat and ensure the necessary resources to clean up PFAS contamination.

Because of this work, legislation was introduced in the last Congress to address the related healthcare needs of veterans, expedite clean up and assist with detection. Additionally, legislation was introduced in February that would require the EPA to designate all PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under CERCLA.

As Congress and the administration continue to examine this issue, NLC wants to ensure that local voices are part of the discussion. Join us this month in Washington, D.C., for the Congressional City Conference where the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources and Military Communities Council will discuss next steps with key administration officials.

For more information on PFAS, visit www.epa.gov/pfasor www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/


Carolyn-Berndt-small.jpgAbout the Authors: Carolyn Berndt is the program director for infrastructure and sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.



Domenick-Lasorsa-small.jpgDomenick Lasorsa is the associate for Veterans and Special Needs in the NLC Center for City Solutions. Follow Domenick on Twitter at @DomLasorsa