Local water systems have 5 years to address PFAS under new federal rule: Who will pay for it?

Public water systems across the country have five years to come into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s bold new limits on toxic forever chemicals in drinking water.

The U.S. EPA adopted maximum contamination levels of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for the two most common types of PFAS (PFOS and PFOA) in April.

For Dayton, this has led to plans for a $250 million upgrade to the city’s public water system — the largest project of its kind in the country, city officials say.

As cities form strategies to come into compliance with the new rules, the question remains of how they will pay for water treatment upgrades and new testing standards. The EPA estimates it will cost $772 million per year for drinking water systems to comply with the new guidelines.

Some Miami Valley leaders point to forever chemical lawsuits, federal funding and other methods to collect money needed to alleviate the effect of the toxic chemicals. Environmental advocates say polluters should be footing the bill for PFAS.

“What’s going to be really important moving forward is making sure that the costs of implementing all of this doesn’t get passed onto the victims of contamination,” said Robert Bilott, an Ohio environmental attorney and author.

New expectations for water quality

Public water systems must monitor for these PFAS and have three years to complete initial monitoring. Water systems must also provide the public with information on the levels of these PFAS in their drinking water beginning in 2027, according to the U.S. EPA.

A Dayton Daily News investigation last year found more than a dozen Miami Valley public water systems had levels of a toxic, manmade chemical that exceeded the new drinking water standards.

PFAS are a group of powerful, toxic chemicals created to be resistant to heat and other elements. The chemicals are very difficult to break down due to their chemical composition, which consists of strong bonds of fluorine and carbon atoms. Research into PFAS is ongoing, but multiple studies link exposure to the chemicals to harmful health impacts like cancer.

PFAS at or above the U.S. EPA’s previous minimum reporting levels was found in more than one in four public water systems, according to EPA data released in January.

The Environmental Working Group, an organization that advocates for issues related to health and the environment, applauded the new standards during an April 10 virtual press conference.

“What you see, I think, is a very dramatic statement about the scope, the scale and the severity of this issue,” said Bilott. “And I think everyone in the public health sector should feel good that we’re taking a step in the right direction.”

There are thousands of different kinds of PFAS chemicals. The EPA’s new PFAS standards also include limits of 10 ppt for a class of PFAS called GenX chemicals and other forever chemicals variations.

Beginning in 2029, public water systems that have PFAS in drinking water which violates one or more of these limits are required to take action to reduce levels of these PFAS in their drinking water. The U.S. EPA will also require notification to the public of every violation.

Dayton PFAS project

About 400,000 people in Dayton and Montgomery County get their drinking water from the city of Dayton’s water system.

According to April water quality test results, the Ottawa Plant in Dayton has detected two kinds of forever chemicals — PFOS and PFHxS. Although the city reported it sampled for PFHxS below the new standard, PFOS levels were higher than 4 ppt.

The city said it fully expects to meet the EPA’s five-year mandate, as long as there is funding available to pay for its proposed PFAS-treatment investments.

For a cost comparison to the $250 million project, Dayton’s general fund budget for 2024 is about $214.5 million.

Dayton wants to build a new facility at its Ottawa Yards campus near the northeast edge of downtown that has the ability to treat man-made “forever chemicals” in up to 96 million gallons of water each day, which is the water production capacity at the Ottawa Water Treatment Plant.

The new advanced water treatment facility will try to combat and reduce PFAS in the water supply.

“The new EPA PFAS rule requires public water systems to complete initial monitoring testing by 2027,” said Michael Powell, director of Dayton’s water department. “However, the city of Dayton has been very proactive regarding PFAS and has been routinely testing its drinking water for PFAS since 2017, further illustrating Dayton’s ability to make sound decisions regarding threats to the water system and our ability to collaborate with both the U.S. and Ohio EPA.”

PFAS treatment funding options

Dayton filed a $300 million lawsuit against Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Defense. The case was transferred to a federal court in South Carolina in 2021 under a statute called “multi-district litigation.” It was consolidated with some 10,000 other PFAS-related lawsuits. Since then, little action has taken place.

A major contributor to groundwater contamination from PFAS in this area is runoff from firefighting foam used over decades at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Dayton International Airport because of its ability to extinguish jet fuel fires.

Powell said the city does not yet fully know what impact PFAS treatment will have on water rates.

Ohio EPA media coordinator Dina Pierce said her state agency is aware of Dayton’s plans.

Nearly $19 million has been awarded to Dayton for PFAS-related projects of its choosing, including blending water sources, water quality lab expansion, monitoring, production wells, and other projects related to its drinking water source.

Roughly $16.8 million of that funding is in principal forgiveness loans from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding intended for addressing emerging contaminants such as PFAS. Principal forgiveness is the portion of a loan that does not have to be repaid.

“Many Ohio public water systems are making similar efforts to plan and design PFAS treatment and mitigation systems,” Pierce said. “We look forward to continuing to work with Dayton as it determines the best way to treat PFAS in its drinking water.”

The Bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill in 2021 has provided $10 billion to water utilities to address PFAS contamination.

“Utilities will have a lot of options,” EWG vice president of government affairs Melanie Benesh said. “They will have discretion and power to figure out the system and install the technology that works best for them.”

Plans in development for other cities

Other area cities, like Bellbrook and Fairborn in Greene County, have settlement money coming from legal action they took against producers of the chemicals, like the 3M Co.

Leaders from both cities have said their cut of the $12.5 billion 3M settlement will fund efforts to test and treat water for PFAS. Coming into compliance over the next five years with the new standards is a doable undertaking, both cities said.

Fairborn’s public water system has tested for PFAS contamination as early as last year, and results came in below the new forever chemical standards.

“We will continue to sample as required by the state or federal government,” said Meghan Howard, Fairborn’s communication manager. “Given our current test results, we are not in a position that requires the installation of PFAS treatment. Should that change, we will take all necessary steps to operate in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.”

In Bellbrook, city leaders are hoping to avoid pushing the cost of PFAS remediation on residents and feel confident their participation in the 3M Co. class action lawsuit will hold toxic chemical producers accountable and protect their city’s water quality.

Bellbrook city manager Rob Schommer said the city is still carving out what steps it will take to comply with the new rules. The city’s most recent results listed on the Ohio EPA’s PFAS testing database were below the reporting limit.

“Our efforts were and remain to be ahead of the curve for addressing the issue to remain diligent and proactive to keep our drinking water safe,” said Schommer. “We continue to monitor and test, and with the EPA regulations formalized, it will help more clearly define a path to make permanent monitoring and remediation practices.”

Warren County, Middletown

Many other cities throughout the state that operate their own public water systems have not been named in forever chemical settlements.

Warren County’s water treatment facility will add a $9 million ion exchange water treatment system to its treatment processes.

Warren County sanitary engineer Chris Brausch said this effort will put the water treatment facility into compliance with the new rules by 2025 — four years ahead of the deadline.

“This has been on our radar for years,” Brausch said.

Ion exchange has proven to be highly effective in filtering PFAS out of water. Warren County water treatment officials have already completed another $45 million in work specifically geared toward PFAS remediation, Brausch said.

This includes a nanofiltration system, which softens water and filters out PFAS.

Warren County’s Richard Renneker water system in 2021 was tested for PFAS, showing levels nearly as high as 50 ppt. New systems put in place at the water treatment facilities that serve people living in Lebanon and other parts of Warren County saw samplings of 8 ppt and less of forever chemicals in 2022.

For cities that do not have detectable amounts of PFAS in their drinking water, efforts will focus on consistent monitoring and sampling of drinking water, said Middletown water treatment facility manager Scott Belcher.

“We’re concerned about protecting our aquifer. We’re a groundwater system,” Belcher said. “So we’re focusing on protecting our aquifer. And we’re focused on testing.”

The newspaper also reached out to Morrow and Phillipsburg to see what their leaders were planning to come into compliance with PFAS standards. Neither returned requests for comment.

Other federal agencies impacted

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base falls under the Department of Defense (DoD) and its water system detected these chemicals at among the highest levels in the state.

DoD in April said it has been preparing to implement the final rule both for its on-base drinking water systems and within its cleanup program.

For systems where DoD provides drinking water, the department has collected the necessary sampling information and is taking actions to ensure compliance within the required five-year timeframe.

The Department of Defense has said a significant number of additional wells will require treatment, and locations where known levels of PFAS in drinking water are the highest will be prioritized.

It’s unclear where Wright Patterson Air Force Base falls on this spectrum. The region’s military base reported last year that three of its wells yielded samples with concentrations of PFAS above 70 ppt, with one well located at the base boundary and two on Wright-Patterson’s Area A.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has pointed to multiple projects it has in development to address PFAS contamination in water at the Base, including $29 million committed to the construction of PFAS treatment systems at the base.

Work ahead to regulate, eliminate PFAS

The Ohio EPA will be holding webinars to help water treatment leaders learn what steps they can take to come into compliance, what funding options exist and more.

Environmental and health advocates say the new limit is a powerful step on the path of minimizing harm related to PFAS.

“I think what you’re seeing happen now worldwide are efforts underway to try to stop this stuff at the source, to try to restrict more of this coming out into the world and how these chemicals can be used,” Billot said.

Brausch said guidance will also be needed for public water systems that create biowaste as they work to filter out PFAS to ensure safe disposal procedures.

“That’s something that will need to be addressed down the road,” he said.