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‘Forever chemical’ response may push costs to water utilities

Utility group estimates price tag could dwarf the cost of replacing lead service lines; Superfund law may help

An engineer showed a sample of the ion exchange resin that the Orange County Groundwater Authority uses to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water at a treatment plant that went online in 2021 in Fullerton, Calif.
An engineer showed a sample of the ion exchange resin that the Orange County Groundwater Authority uses to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water at a treatment plant that went online in 2021 in Fullerton, Calif. (MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

Federal efforts to address pollution by so-called forever chemicals may push increased costs onto water and wastewater agencies.

The Biden administration, in response to growing scientific evidence and calls from environmental and public health groups, has promised a series of actions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These man-made chemicals, used in applications ranging from firefighting foam to non-stick cookware, got their “forever” nickname for their ability to persist in both the human body and the environment.

Included in this push is a national drinking water regulation, which the EPA expects to propose this fall, and a proposal to designate certain PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund-governing Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

[EPA sets stricter advisories for ‘forever chemicals’ in water]

The scope of PFAS contamination, and the threat to human health, is still being studied as the EPA gathers data. On Wednesday, the agency updated drinking water health advisories for four PFAS chemicals, including determining that for two chemicals negative health effects may occur in concentrations that are near zero and below the EPA’s ability to detect. The advisories will be used to inform the agency’s drinking water regulations.

While the ultimate cost of compliance is still unknown, Tracy Mehan, executive director of government affairs for the American Water Works Association, estimated it will ultimately dwarf the cost of replacing lead service lines.

“Sometimes technology costs do drop, as they come online and get perfected and you get scale, but the costs are going to be significant,” said Mehan. “It all depends. If it turns out that most of the family of PFAS are benign, maybe we will see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Even without federal standards, some utilities have spent millions to address PFAS contamination. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has spent $43 million building a facility to filter out PFAS compounds in the Cape Fear River that originated at a Dupont, and later Chemours, facility in Fayetteville, N.C. The utility expects to spend roughly $3.7 million the next fiscal year and $5 million each year after that to operate the system.

Nearby in Brunswick County, N.C., the water authority has spent more than $122 million constructing upgrades to a water treatment plant.

Both utilities have argued that Chemours should be held financially responsible for the costs of installing the filters, and they are currently in litigation against the company. But for the time being, the utilities have been forced to pass the costs on to consumers through rate increases.

Chemours declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing ongoing litigation, but highlighted actions it has taken that include collecting and treating legacy groundwater and surface water discharges.

While utilities shoulder the cost, North Carolina state legislators are exploring legislation that would require it to cover costs associated with PFAS mitigation. The federal government has also pledged assistance and on Wednesday announced $1 billion in grant funding to help reduce PFAS in drinking water in communities facing disproportionate impacts.

‘Real threat’

“I think there is growing recognition that these chemicals are a real threat, and the utilities should not be the ones that are ultimately left holding the check when the industries are the source of the problem,” said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s my hope there’s a way these utilities will be able to recoup their expenses.”

Eric Sapirstein, president of the firm ENS Resources that has lobbied on behalf of sanitation agencies, said those impacted by these regulations may also incur additional costs if they are not given a carve-out in the Superfund law limiting their liability for cleanup.

“We have to ask ourselves, how did this become an issue outside of the public health and environmental concerns? And it became an issue because the chemical was used in the chain of commerce,” said Sapirstein. “We have argued that it’s unfair to saddle utilities with the potential for cleanup, costs and treatment for issues that they did not create in the sense of liability.”

Under legislation passed by the House last year, airports would be given an exemption to liability for PFAS contamination because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations that explicitly listed which firefighting foams they could use to combat fuel fires, all of which contained PFAS. Sapirstein said a similar carve-out under the Superfund law would ensure water and wastewater agencies are not saddled with additional costs that they may ultimately need to pass on to ratepayers.

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