Updated at 10:01 a.m. March 16
Water utility experts in New England say meeting new EPA standards for PFAS in drinking water will be costly and could take years to achieve.
The EPA proposed new national standards on Tuesday for the so-called "forever chemicals" that are more strict than those already set by the state. Public water utilities in Massachusetts are required to regulate six PFAS chemicals at 20 parts per trillion. The new federal regulations would limit six PFAS chemicals — including two that are different from what state regulations cover — to four parts per trillion.
"Lowering that to four is definitely going to trigger violations for a lot more communities across the entire country," said Kirsten King, executive director of the New England Water Works Association. "And that's simply because PFAS is absolutely everywhere."
Installing systems to filter out those chemicals is no small feat, said Don Bunker, the New England Water Works Association's deputy director.
"We're talking probably in the millions of dollars [per facility], depending on the size and depending on what already exists," Bunker said. "Depending on the size of the utility, we can be talking filters that are 10 to 12 feet diameter, 20 feet tall, and you may need six of them. It's a building. It's not just a couple of things under your sink. And so that's going to take time to design, permit install, get up and running."
And with water systems around the country needing to upgrade or install filtration systems at the same time, there are likely to be significant supply chain challenges on the necessary equipment, Bunker said.
"There's only so many manufacturers and places where this can come from," Bunker said. "So how are all of these utilities now all at once going to be able to meet the timeline and put these [filtration systems] in?"
According to the Massachusetts Water Works Association, 170 public water systems in the state are currently working to address PFAS contamination, and more would likely need to install expensive filtration systems or find new water sources given the proposed federal standards.
"We're suspecting that there'll be a good number of water systems who will now have to move forward with treatment or finding an alternative source, given that the standard is going to be set at four parts per trillion," said Jennifer Pederson, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association.
Most PFAS treatment is being funded through loans managed by the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust, Pederson explained.
"But it is a loan and it's not a grant. It needs to be paid back by the ratepayers in the communities," Pederson said. "Certainly we want to provide high quality water, but the expense is enormous. And and so we are mindful that it will fall to our ratepayers to fund that expense."
Last month, the Biden administration announced $38 million from the federal infrastructure lawwould go to Massachusetts for addressing PFAS contamination. But experts said that funding won't cover what needs to be done.
"It doesn't even remotely come close to touching the amount of money that's going to be needed in order to install the treatment systems," King said.
In some cases, including near military bases that were responsible for contaminating groundwater, remediation has been paid for by those responsible for releasing PFAS. But Pederson said the source of the contamination often remains unknown.
"I think the problem we are seeing in Massachusetts is that we have so many detections right now," she explained. "You know, we are at 170 public water systems — DEP hasn't had the capacity on the waste site cleanup side to follow up with all of those detections and try to find a responsible party."
Last May, in an effort to secure cleanup money, Massachusetts joined a multistate lawsuitagainst more than a dozen manufacturers of firefighting foams that contain PFAS.
For some local water systems, a more affordable option might be finding alternative, uncontaminated water sources. So far, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system, which serves 61 communities in the Boston metro area, has not detected PFAS, said Fred Laskey, MWRA's executive director.
"Or if we do, it's very small trace amounts that are barely measurable," Laskey said, adding that the MWRA has the capacity to add more communities to its system.
"We're just watching closely to see how that develops with communities who do have PFAS who are close enough to us to to make a connection," Laskey said. "Some people want to maintain their independence. We understand that. Others want to take a look at the MWRA and our water and the value of it. It's great water."
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Fred Laskey's name.