A new rule for PFAS in drinking water moved ahead in PA Tuesday


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Pennsylvania is moving forward on regulating an emerging contaminant that shutdown drinking water wells serving thousands of Bucks and Montgomery County residents in 2016.

The state’s Environmental Quality Board voted 17-2 Tuesday morning in favor of proposed maximum contaminant levels for two of the most common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS.

The two dissenting votes were from alternate voting members Nick Troutman, representing Sen. Gene Yaw, and Glendon King, for Rep. Daryl Metcalfe.

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Metcalfe and Yaw are the Republican chairmen for the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in their respective chambers of the General Assembly.

Under the proposed rule, drinking water providers in the state will need to ensure no more than 14 parts per trillion of PFOA and 18 ppt for PFOS are in their water supplies.

A news release from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says the rule would apply to “3,117 community, nontransient, noncommunity, and bottled, vended retail, and bulk water systems.”

“This rulemaking not only protects our environment from elevated levels of contamination and pollution, but also protects the public health of Pennsylvanians,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

The DEP will publish the proposed rule in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, a publication of public notices of state rule changes and other policy and regulatory updates, in 2022.

After the rule is published, a 60-day public comment period will begin and at least five public hearings will be held.

Office of Water Programs Deputy Secretary Aneca Atkinson said Tuesday the hearings are expected to be held in person with an option to attend online.

As it’s written now, the level is significantly lower than a 70 ppt health advisory level for PFAS set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016, a level that is not legally enforceable.

The EPA began testing for PFAS as part of its Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule for emerging contaminants in drinking water in 2013.

The results of those tests revealed PFAS levels up to several hundred times the EPA level in drinking water wells in Horsham, Warrington and Warminster.

Decades of firefighting foams used frequently at nearby military bases are believed to be the source of the local contamination.

After shutting down contaminated wells, local officials and water authorities began purchasing water from outside vendors and installing filtration systems to ensure no detectable levels of PFAS were reaching their customer’s faucets.

The costs incurred during remediation over the past several years were largely paid upfront by residents and taxpayers, as public officials at nearly every level of government pushed for more compensation from the military.

Military bases have been referred to as the largest PFAS polluter for public drinking water contamination by environmental researchers and members of Congress, including Middletown Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle, of Philadelphia.

The military has typically agreed to pay for clean-up to bring PFAS levels under the 70 ppt level, but a lack of drinking water standards has been the biggest obstacle in getting more from the federal government.

Pennsylvania began the process to create a rule in 2018, with the formation of the state’s PFAS Action Team.

The team began sampling and testing for PFAS throughout the state to develop a baseline contamination level, ultimately recommending that the DEP set a limit for drinking water standards.

The limits proposed this week were based on research performed by Drexel University, which included developing a maximum contaminant level goal, a recommended level for PFAS that only considered the potential health affects.

Drexel’s goal for PFOA was 8 ppt and 14 ppt for PFOS. 

The DEP’s Atkinson and Bureau of Safe Drinking Water Director Lisa Daniels said Tuesday the final limits also considered overall costs for providers, like installing filtration systems, as well as how much it would take the state to actually enforce the rule and monitor providers.

Of the 435 sites tested by the PFAS action team, about 7.4% of them had levels for both chemicals over the proposed limits and about 280 exceeded at least one of the limits.

The average annual costs to install filters and treatment systems, including the ongoing costs to maintain those systems, would cost each of those 280 sites almost $412,000 a year — about $115 million in total.

Compared to complying with the current 70 ppt level from the EPA, the costs to comply with the PFOA 14 ppt limit alone would be about $97 million more expensive but also result in a nearly 90% higher “improvement in health protection” for residents, according to Tuesday’s presentation from Daniels and Atkinson.

There could be multiple funding sources through low interest loans and grants available to help cover costs, but the specifics of those options are still being looked into by the state action team.

Daniels said the state’s PENNVEST program, which provides low interest loans for capitol projects, has a $200 million fund specifically for water providers remediating various contamination issues, though it is not specifically earmarked for PFAS alone.

The recently passed federal infrastructure bill has a $800 million earmarked annually over the next five years nationally for emerging contaminants, with PFAS a priority, Daniels added. 

A number of studies over past decades have suggested multiple health issues associated with ingesting PFAS, including developmental issues in children, high blood pressure, ulcerative colitis and some cancers.

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As state moves forward, federal efforts remain stalled

While Tuesday’s vote is a step towards long awaited reform, it’s a step that took too long and only inches forward for some environmental advocates.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network previously chastised the DEP for not taking immediate emergency action to implement a limit, and in June petitioned the board to implement a rule for PFOA between 1 ppt and 6 ppt.

“Pennsylvania residents, workers, and visitors have been exposed to this highly toxic compound for additional periods of time due to DEP’s regulatory inaction and delays, increasing their risk of developing adverse health effects linked to PFOA,” the riverkeeper network wrote in a report to the board earlier this year.

A federal bill to set a two year deadline to set a similar limit by the EPA continues to languish in Congress after passing the House in a 241-183 floor vote on July 23.

The bill was sent to the Senate, where it has remained without any action since.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro joined his counterparts in 15 other states and Washington, D.C,. in a letter calling for the passage of that bill, the PFAS Action Act of 2021.

The letter calls the bill much-needed legislation in order to follow a PFAS Strategic Roadmap the EPA released earlier this year with a goal of regulating and mitigating pollution in water, soil and air pollution.

The federal PFAS plan covering 2021 through 2024 was called a “bold strategy that starts with immediate action” by EPA Michael Regan when it was unveiled last month.

Local lawmakers, like Rep. Todd Stephens, R-151, of Horsham, and local advocates like Hope Grosse, Warminster resident and co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, said the plan was a repeat of promises made in past administrations and downplayed the military’s role as a polluter. 



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