May 19, 2024 9:27 pm
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New EPA PFAS rule goes further than New Hampshire’s standards, setting up new challenge

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BY: LISA SORG AND ETHAN DEWITT

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule adding new limits on PFAS chemicals in public water systems announced Wednesday would go further than New Hampshire’s own limits and could have major implications for homeowners and water utilities, state officials say.

But the federal rule will not require remediation for years, giving utilities, towns, cities, and the state time to prepare and adjust. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Fayetteville, North Carolina, Wednesday morning to formally announce the new legally enforceable levels for five types of the toxic compounds: PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFNA, and PFHxS. Water systems have five years to comply, with intermediate benchmarks for testing.

The federal rule requires that PFOA and PFOS be limited to no more than 4 parts per trillion in public water supplies; New Hampshire rules currently limit those chemicals to 12 parts per trillion. 

And the rule limits a group known as GenX chemicals – PFNA and PFHxS – to 10 parts per trillion each. New Hampshire’s current limit is 11 parts per trillion for PFNA and 18 parts per trillion for PFHxS.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies, high cholesterol, and kidney, testicular, and other cancers.

Clean water advocates praised the move forward, which had been long anticipated since the EPA began its rulemaking process a year ago. 

“This is well overdue,” said Laurene Allen, a community organizer in Merrimack, the site of a Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics factory and one of the New Hampshire towns most affected by PFAS. “These are toxic, hazardous substances that somehow evaded the official designation. So they’re playing catch up.”

State asks for more federal support

In a statement Wednesday, New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services noted that the state requires that all public water utilities test for PFAS concentrations, putting New Hampshire ahead of other states when it comes to the mandated testing.

But when it comes to remediating the water systems, the department warned the new standards would be expensive. The EPA rule would “double the number of sources of drinking water for public water systems and private wells” that are above the accepted limits, DES said in its statement.

To help pay for advanced treatment systems or alternate water sources, the Biden administration is allocating $1 billion to assist utilities in meeting the legally enforceable standards. Traditional treatment systems don’t remove PFAS, so utilities must install expensive upgrades or secure alternative water supplies. Private well owners whose drinking water is contaminated can also apply for the funds.

Regan said the money would be apportioned based on need.

“We do recognize that some facilities will need help,” Regan said. “And President Biden has created a situation where not only can we provide resources and investment, but EPA also has the technical assistance to go along with that.”

But in New Hampshire, DES Commissioner Bob Scott argued the federal government’s commitment was not sufficient.

“New Hampshire is well positioned considering that our public water systems have already been testing for PFAS since we created our own drinking water standards five years ago in 2019,” Scott said. “However, we expect that these lower federal drinking water standards will result in more water systems and private well owners needing financial assistance to be in compliance, which will require a greater commitment on behalf of the federal government than the funding mentioned in their announcement.” 

Read the full New Hampshire DES statement here

Nationwide, the new standards are expected to affect about 4,100 to 6,700 utilities that have, or are suspected to have, PFAS in their water supply. This is equivalent to 6 percent to 10 percent of the total water systems in the U.S., according to senior administration officials.

Non-transient community water systems also must adhere to the new limits. These are defined as a public water system that regularly supplies water to at least 25 of the same people at least six months per year, such as hospitals, day care centers, and schools with their own systems.

There are some exceptions: Utilities don’t have to monitor for the compounds if they buy finished drinking water from another system; that requirement falls on the wholesaler.

The new standards will reduce PFAS exposure for roughly 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses, Regan said.

“As a parent, and as EPA administrator, there is no greater priority for me than protecting our children,” Regan said.

Advocates urge swift state alignment

Now that the federal rule is final, New Hampshire’s DES is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act to update its existing state standards to match the federal standards, according to Jim Martin, a spokesman for the department. 

But that will require the department to propose the new standards to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, composed of top senators and representatives, which will need to approve them. 

The state has two years to make the alignment, Martin said. But some advocates, like Allen, say that timeline is too slow. 

While the EPA’s three-year testing period is helpful to states that don’t have a testing infrastructure, New Hampshire is already ready to implement the new standards, Allen argued. And she said New Hampshire should align its standards as soon as possible, so that it can begin enforcing the new limits now. 

“We do not have to wait to phase this in. We have the testing. We know where it is.” 

Allen said that New Hampshire water utilities should have prepared for this moment.

“To me, it was irresponsible for them in the beginning, five years ago, to say, ‘Oh, we don’t have to do anything,’” she said. “They should have seen the writing on the wall and planned ahead, because these numbers are based on health.” 

Opposition from Sununu, industry

Gov. Chris Sununu has been critical of the 4 parts-per-trillion standards. 

“Maybe they look good on paper, but they’re unreasonable,” he told WMUR in March 2023, after the rule was proposed. “They’re unattainable in many ways. There’s a question not just of the science behind it but the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to even try to attain the levels they’re pushing.”

Some industry groups have also pushed back.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical manufacturers, like DuPont, has consistently fought regulations for PFAS. The ACC quickly disputed the new rule, citing costs of compliance. It also alleged the EPA’s science is outdated, pointing to competing research that questions whether exposure to the compounds significantly suppresses the immune system. That same research, though, did not address the many other serious health problems linked to PFAS exposure.

“We strongly support the establishment of a science-based drinking water standard, but this rushed, unscientific approach is unacceptable when it comes to an issue as important as access to safe drinking water,” the American Chemistry Council wrote in a statement. “We strongly oppose this rule and will be working with the broad range of concerned stakeholders to determine next steps.”

Mike McGill, who owns WaterPIO, a communications firm for utilities, opposes the new federal standards, saying the costs are too onerous for utilities. Polluters should pay, he said.

“No one in water is defending the chemicals in the water, but there is a cost/benefit affordability issue,” McGill said. “Without going after the dischargers, we have no chance.”

To Allen, in Merrimack, the new EPA rules will help one major polluter pay more of their share. Under an agreement made with the state in 2022, Saint-Gobain is required to permanently provide alternative drinking water to any of the 1,000 properties in Bedford, Hudson, Litchfield, Londonderry, and Merrimack whose water exceeds the state’s limit for PFOA and PFOS of more than 12 parts per trillion. 

Once the state aligns its limits to the federal limits, properties in those towns with 4 to 12 parts per trillion of those chemicals in their water supplies may also qualify for the alternative water provision, Allen said.

“They will be eligible for remediation and Saint-Gobain will have to take care of them and give them fresh clean water,” Allen said. “Not just bottled water, but permanent solutions for remediation. So this is really great.”

This article is republished from the New Hampshire Bulletin under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.