By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed the first-ever drinking water standard for PFAS, a group of chemicals linked to some cancers and other negative health impacts.
While Vermont is one of several states with an existing drinking water standard for PFAS, the federal agency’s proposed standard — which is now subject to public comment and expected to be finalized by the end of the year — is much lower, and would likely require Vermont’s drinking water utilities to remove more of the chemicals.
Vermont regulates five PFAS compounds. Its drinking water standard is currently 20 parts per trillion for the sum of those five. But Vermont’s standard must match the standard or be stricter, so if the national standard is finalized, the state must follow suit.
The proposed standard would set the maximum contaminant limit for two of the most harmful chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, at 4 parts per trillion, which is nearly the smallest detectable amount.
As many as 60 of Vermont’s roughly 700 public drinking water systems have detectable levels of PFAS that are below the state’s current standard, according to John Schmeltzer, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Many of those utilities would be subject to the new regulation. Vermont has been allocated $25 million in federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help water systems address emerging contaminants.
The proposed regulation would require operators of public water systems to monitor for the chemicals and alert consumers if levels exceed the standard. Then, the utility would need to reduce the amount of PFAS in the drinking water.
“EPA anticipates that over time, if fully implemented, the rule will reduce tens of thousands of PFAS attributable illnesses or deaths,” the agency said in a fact sheet about the new rule.
Four other compounds — PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and HFPO-DA (also referred to as GenX chemicals) — would be regulated using a hazard index, which would be based on harmful combinations of the chemicals.
The regulation would only affect public water supplies, and Schmeltzer suggested that any Vermonters concerned about private drinking water supplies should contact the department.
Schmeltzer said he isn’t sure yet how the state will respond to the proposal, but that state officials plan to file comments in the coming months.
“This isn’t the first time that they’ve proposed new standards for contaminants in drinking water,” he said. “There have been instances where standards have changed based on the public comment. So I think it’s important to let this process go through and see what kind of information comes out during this public comment period.”
Environmental groups including the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Conservation Voters and Vermont Public Interest Research Group lauded the Biden administration’s decision while urging the agency to regulate more of the chemicals.
Around 9,000 PFAS compounds have been identified in total, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
“EPA and the state of Vermont need to take steps to address the entire class of PFAS chemicals,” Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said in a press release.
At small levels, PFAS are found almost everywhere in the environment. Known for making products nonstick and resistant to water and fire, the chemicals are commonly detected in household items such as rain jackets, pots and pans, food packaging, cleaning products, shampoo and more.
The so-called “forever chemicals” take thousands of years to break down. Repeated exposure can cause some PFAS to build up in the body.
In 2016, Vermont officials identified PFOA contamination in North Bennington, where nearly 3,000 households and 8,000 residents’ wells tested positive for the chemical due to pollution from a nearby Teflon plant. Some residents had astoundingly high levels of the chemical in their water, and some have linked health impacts to the contamination — though it’s impossible to know for sure whether a link exists.
The event spurred a statewide response. Officials have been monitoring the chemicals across Vermont ever since.
In 2019, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) identified PFAS of 25 parts per trillion at Killington Mountain School, which serves 125 users in Killington. Subsequently over a dozen other businesses along Killington Road were tested and identified as having PFAS over the legal limit.
“We’re the only state in the nation that does the ‘do not drink’ if they’re above 20 (parts per trillion),” Schmeltzer said.
PFAS has also been a source of tension at Vermont’s only landfill in Coventry. Liquid from decomposing trash, which often contains the chemicals, is eventually sent through municipal wastewater treatment systems, which do not remove PFAS from the effluent before it’s released into local waterways.
Currently, leachate from the Coventry landfill is treated in Montpelier and discharged to the Winooski River, which eventually empties into Lake Champlain. The state has required Casella, the company that owns the landfill, to treat leachate for PFAS, but the proposal has also sparked controversy among locals who argue that the project marks another expansion of a landfill they’ve long been fighting against.
Asked how residents should respond to the news that such a small amount of exposure is considered by the federal government to be unsafe, Schmeltzer said the state is working to address the contaminants.
“I think we’re doing everything possible that we can to help people drink clean water,” he said. “PFAS is challenging, right. And that’s why we are investing monies and resources into providing systems that will address PFAS and emerging contaminants.”