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EPA implements first-ever drinking water standards on 'forever chemicals' or PFAS

Pumps at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan move PFAS-contaminated runoff to a treatment facility where it can be filtered. Under the new standards, public utilities will need to assess their PFAS levels by 2027 and if necessary implement treatment systems by 2029.
Teresa Homsi
Harvest Public Media
Pumps at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan move PFAS-contaminated runoff to a treatment facility where it can be filtered. Under the new standards, public utilities will need to assess their PFAS levels by 2027 and if necessary implement treatment systems by 2029.

PFAS chemicals will now be federally regulated following a historic announcement from the Biden administration on Wednesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency is implementing the first-ever drinking water standards on six PFAS chemicals.

They join a list of nearly a hundred contaminants — like lead and copper — that must be screened for by all public water systems in the country.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt is a Michigan resident whose drinking water was contaminated by the shoemaker, Wolverine Worldwide. She said she felt like the government had failed her when she lost her husband to liver cancer, a disease associated with PFAS exposure.

"This has been a long journey, not just in our state where we have made incredible progress, but for our country," Wynn-Stelt said. "This is really a day of celebration."

The new maximum contaminant levels are set at 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS and 10 ppt for PFHxS, PFNA and GenX chemicals.

At least 45% of tap water in the U.S. has one type of PFAS, and although concentrations are dropping, approximately 97% of Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood.

"Call me 'Debbie Downer' — I'm very grateful, I've badgered the EPA … but we still have PFAS in too many places," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, said.

Michigan and Wisconsin are the only states in the Midwest that currently had PFAS drinking water standards prior to the EPA announcement.

In a statement, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said it welcomes the new standards and will integrate these stricter levels into the existing state programs. A department representative added that the state will need to evaluate how the rule will impact PFAS testing and drinking water treatment.

Missouri law requires the state’s Department of Natural Resources to be no stricter than federal law on many environmental regulations, so the state did not have PFAS drinking water standards.

“Typically, we rely on EPA to come out with a final rule because they have the resources and research available to them that we do not fully have here in the state to come up with what those actual limits and numbers should be,” said Eric Medlock, chief of the monitoring system for the public drinking water branch of Missouri’s DNR.

Now state officials are reading through the new rule and will begin the regulatory process required by the state to implement changes. Medlock said based on prior testing, only 6 out of more than 400 water systems are likely above the new standard.

The staff at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has been “actively preparing” for the new rule for some time, according to Deputy Director Robert Singletary.

“DEQ staff are reviewing the information released by EPA this morning and working to determine the impact it will have on Oklahoma’s drinking water systems,” he said in a public statement.

In Nebraska, officials with the state’s Department of Environment and Energy said they were reviewing the new rule and would work to update regulations.

“In addition, the department is reviewing the new Emerging Contaminant Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds for 2024 to learn more about funding available to public water systems affected by this new standard and how the agency can provide support,” the NDEE said in a statement.

The announcement coincides with $1 billion in federal funding to assist states in implementing PFAS testing and treatment at public water utilities.

Roughly 10% of public utilities in the U.S. will need to make changes to meet the new standards, according to an EPA estimate. Public water systems are now required to complete initial PFAS monitoring and will have to publicly share the data by 2027.

Public water utilities have by 2029 to be in compliance with the standards and implement treatment systems.

The new standards strictly apply to public drinking water systems — and do not include private wells or mandate polluters to meet the criteria.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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