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The EPA's new PFAS standards will help protect residents. But it will cost utilities billions of dollars

EPA is limiting PFAS chemicals in drinking water in the U.S.
Rogelio V. Solis
EPA is limiting PFAS chemicals in drinking water in the U.S.

The stringent new standards will mean drastic reductions in the level of PFAS — harmful substances known as forever chemicals — in drinking water for millions of Americans. But the new regulations are largely unfunded, and lawsuits against polluters won't be able to fill all of the gap.

On Wednesday, the EPA announced final drinking water regulations for six PFAS, or forever chemicals. The levels set were much lower than many states have determined as safe levels for PFAS, creating a far more protective national standard.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority spokesperson Cammie Bellamy says the utility is already meeting those standards.

"We are well below those levels, thanks to the granular activated carbon filters that CFPUA brought online in October 2022," she said.

The Cape Fear Region beat the EPA to the punch because of the shocking revelation in 2017 that the Cape Fear River is contaminated with Gen X, one of the compounds the EPA has now set standards for.

That discovery set off a wave of outrage and activism, and led North Carolina to become a leading state for research on Forever Chemicals. It also led CFPUA and other public utilities along the Cape Fear to invest in significant new filters. Between CFPUA, Brunswick County, and H2Go, utilities in the Cape Fear Region are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on removing forever chemicals.

"Our filter facility to remove PFAS from drinking water cost our ratepayers $46 million. There was no federal assistance available at the time we were designing and constructing our facility. The polluter has not stepped up to assist with those costs. So those costs fell entirely on our ratepayers," Bellamy said.

That comes out to an average of $5 per month per ratepayer.

According to EPA estimates, between four and seven thousand utilities across the country currently have PFAS contamination levels above the allowable limit. While the Biden administration has set aside $9 billion in funding for PFAS mitigation, that’s only enough to cover 195 plants similar to CFPUA’s — or just under 5% of the low end of the federal government estimates. There is other money available, because of a recent class action lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers, but that’s still just $10 billion additional dollars.

Mike McGill is the president of Water PIO, a company that helps water utilities communicate with the public. Several of the utilities he works with were beneficiaries of that $10 billion lawsuit.

"To say that these lawsuits are coming and the infrastructure funding is coming, it's you know, pardon the pun, a drop in the bucket. It is not enough," he said.

Some of the utilities he works with have confidential settlement agreements with polluters that have helped pay for their system upgrades. But these court cases take years: CFPUA is still in the process of suing Chemours for its contamination of the Cape Fear River, and there’s no telling how long that case will drag on. And that’s a case where there’s a specific company to blame, which isn’t always the case.

"You know, WSSC [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission] outside of DC, they don't have a proven polluter on their on their waterway, the Potomac River," McGill said, by way of example. "They have no one they can point to and sue. So the customers are going to bear the brunt of $1.5 to $3 billion for advanced treatment on their water.”

And there’s another problem. Every utility in the country now has three years to comply with testing requirements to monitor for PFAS, and the nation doesn’t necessarily have the testing infrastructure to manage all that right now.

"The testing apparatus that that EPA talked about the monitoring, our testing, infrastructure is falling apart," he said.

Add to that, another problem: there are only a few successful and proven methods to filter out PFAS: granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis being the most common. While other methods are under development, there will suddenly be a lot more demand for the materials needed, which could, potentially, drive up costs. Under the EPA’s new rules, utilities need to be meeting these standards by 2029 – so that demand will ramp up quickly.

Bellamy expects ratepayers will bear that cost.

“I do anticipate utilities across the country as they're looking at what are very expensive facilities to design and build, rate increases are going to have to be part of the conversation for a lot of those utilities," she said.

While a lot of advocates are thrilled by the new EPA protections, they only serve to protect drinking water, not necessarily prevent contamination in the environment. And PFAS are in millions of consumer goods, which accounts for 80% of the average person’s exposure to the chemicals alongside other, non-drinking water sources, according to the EPA. Mike McGill said that’s where the enforcement should be: in a ban on all non-essential uses.

“In recent weeks we've been hearing it's in toilet paper, feminine products, deodorants, contact lenses, it's everywhere, and in ways that we're putting it right on or in our bodies. That's gotta go," he said.

Update, Monday, April 15, 2024: The EPA responded to WHQR's questions with the following statement:

"A significant amount of these costs are anticipated to be offset by available federal funding. Although some water systems may have to look to other sources to pay for these reductions in PFAS, there is unprecedented funding for drinking water systems impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants to provide safe water to communities. We know that PFAS pollution can have a disproportionate impact on small, disadvantaged, and rural communities, and there is federal funding available specifically for these water systems. There is $9 billion of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funding dedicated for communities with drinking water impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants. An additional $12 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding is available to communities to make general drinking water improvements, including addressing PFAS pollution. This funding is available through EPA programs that are part of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which set the goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.

"EPA’s free Water Technical Assistance program (WaterTA) is ensuring that disadvantaged communities can access federal funding. Too many communities across America face challenges providing safe drinking water services to their residents, and WaterTA supports communities to identify water challenges; develop plans; build technical, managerial, and financial capacity; and develop application materials to access water infrastructure funding. EPA collaborates with state, Tribes, territories, community partners, and other key stakeholders to implement WaterTA efforts and the end result is more communities with applications for federal funding, quality water infrastructure, and reliable water services.

"The benefits of the PFAS rule are significant, thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of serious illnesses avoided."

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.