EPA proposed rules on 'forever chemicals' in drinking water. What does that mean for St. Louis?
A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal would tighten limits on toxic “forever chemicals” in Missouri and Illinois drinking water.
If finalized, the rule would establish the first national standard for PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in public water supplies, bringing uniformity to a patchwork of state regulations.
States like Missouri that do not have PFAS limits would have to enact regulations for PFAS in drinking water.
Though long sought by environmental and health advocates, the regulations may increase water costs in PFAS-contaminated communities, as utilities upgrade filtration technology or drill for cleaner water sources.
“We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and prevent tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.
Here’s what you need to know about the PFAS regulations and how they impact Missouri and Illinois.
What are PFAS?
PFASare a class of more than 12,000human-made compounds. They accumulate in the environment and human bodies over time and do not easily degrade, which is why some people call them “forever chemicals.” Increased testing is revealingPFAS in public drinking systems, groundwater and surface waters nationwide.
Why should I care about PFAS?
Scientists haven’t studied most PFAS deeply, but they link two of the most widely researched, PFOA and PFOS, to a range of health problems. Those include altered hormone levels, decreased birth weight, digestive inflammation and ulcers, high cholesterol, hypertension in pregnancy, kidney and testicular cancers and reduced vaccine effectiveness in children.
Where do PFAS come from?
PFAS are ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products, such as fabric stain protectors, firefighting foam, food packaging, lubricants, nonstick cookware, paints and waterproof clothing. Most Americans encounter them through the foods they eat, dust and hand-to-mouth contact with PFAS-treated products. Tap water is typically the main source of exposure for people living near contaminated sites. After they started using the chemicals in the 1940s, PFAS manufacturers learned, and concealed, the hazards for decades. Wisconsin is among a host of states suing the 3M Co., DuPont and other manufacturers of PFAS-containing materials, alleging that they failed to alert the public of the hazards.
In June 2022, the EPA released health advisories for four types of PFAS, including updated draft advisories for PFOA and PFOS. The agency warned against consuming more than 0.004 parts per trillion and 0.02 ppt of the two compounds, respectively.
That equates to about 4 drops and 20 drops of water in 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, suggesting that virtually no amount of PFAS is safe for consumption.
What does this proposed regulation require?
Public water suppliers must begin testing for the chemicals. Thedraft rule proposes maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, of 4 ppt for PFOA and PFOS — the lowest reliable threshold of detection. Those who detect more would be required to notify the public and upgrade treatment technologies or take other action. The proposal also regulates any mixture of one or more offour other PFAS: PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals.
Would the rule affect private wells?
No. Neither the EPA nor the state regulates PFAS in private water wells. Nearly 3 million Missourians use private wells, as do about 1.3 million Illinoisans. Those well users bear their own responsibility for testing and treating their water for PFAS or other contaminants.
Why is the federal government doing this?
The Safe Drinking Water Act empowers the EPA to set limits on contaminants in public water systems — utilities that serve at least 15 connections or 25 people or more. Those include 148,000-plus public water systems in the United States that provide drinking water to 90% of residents.
This would be the first time EPA has regulated a new chemicalin drinking water since the 1990s.
Why are the EPA’s proposed limits higher than its health advisories?
Health advisories are distinct from drinking water standards. For one, advisories are not regulations nor are they legally enforceable. Unlike advisories, standards consider the availability of treatment technologies and implementation costs. That is why drinking water standards often are less stringent than health advisories.
“That is how our regulations are set,” said University of Iowa professor David Cwiertny, director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination. “We define what is an acceptable level of risk, because we've developed a regulatory framework where we think it is unreasonable to eliminate all risks from a water sample.”
Why is a drinking water standard important for states?
PFAS drinking water regulations form a patchwork nationwide, withstates imposing differing standards on different kinds of PFAS. A federal standard offers water utilities regulatory certainty.
“In general, water utilities prefer to have clear standards,” said Lawrie Kobza, a Wisconsin lobbyist for the Municipal Environmental Group — Water Division. “From that perspective, it is positive that we're moving towards federal enforceable standards for PFOA and PFOS.”
How do the EPA rules differ from current regulation in Missouri and Illinois?
States may impose stricter standards than the EPA’s, but those with weaker regulations must at least match them with the federal rules. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has been testing for PFAS and publishing its findings to the public in an online map, but Missouri has not set a limit for PFAS levels.
Illinois does already have limits on PFA levels in drinking water, but the new EPA limits will be much stricter. For example, the current Illinois limit on one class of PFAs, PFOA, is 2 parts per trillion. The new EPA limit on PFOA would be just 0.004 parts per trillion.
What do we currently know about Missouri drinking water?
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources started testing for PFAS in 2013 and didn’t find widespread contamination. The department received a grant from the EPA that enabled it to do more testing on smaller systems starting in April of last year. This year, it started testing the larger water systems in the hopes of having all the water systems in the state evaluated by the end of 2025.
“We tested probably around 200 systems at this point and the results are looking promising that we're not seeing widespread contamination here in Missouri,” said Eric Medlock, monitoring sector chief of the Public Drinking Water Branch of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Medlock said that testing has identified several Missouri water systems so far that might have trouble meeting the PFAS limits set by the EPA, including Farmington Manor, Canton, La Grange and Advance.
St. Louis's water has been tested over the last decade and was found to be safe, but the EPA’s new rules are stricter than that level.
The Missouri DNR did find high concentrations of PFAS at a site near Sullivan in Franklin County and another near Elsberry in Lincoln County.
What do we currently know about Illinois drinking water?
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency began testing community water supplies for PFAs in 2020. They confirmed that 149 sites across the state had at least some level of PFA contamination, including seven sites in Madison County and two more in St. Clair County.
The Illinois EPA is tracking those sites with an interactive map.
What has the EPA done until this point?
The Biden administration previously committed to releasing draft PFOA and PFOS standards by fall 2022 and finalizing them one year later.
Critics call the delay emblematic of a broader trend within Biden’s EPA, which has missed several self-imposed deadlines targeting PFAS in waterways and air.
The agency is hostingcommunity engagement sessions to review its PFAS initiatives.
How long would utilities have to comply?
The agency will accept public comments atregulations.gov, and the final regulation could differ based on that feedback. A virtual public hearing is scheduled for May 4 (You can register to attend or speak here.) September 2024 marks EPA’s statutory deadline to finalize the rule, but Regan said he hopes to do so sooner.
If the rule is approved, utilities will have three years to comply.
“Water systems are going to need time to upgrade their treatment technology, their monitoring programs, their laboratories to be able to measure this,” Cwiertny said. “There's going to be some time before we see the actual effect.”
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources hopes that testing all water systems by the end of 2025 will give those systems with levels above the limit time to manage the problem.
“The hope is that before (the EPA rule) is actually in effect, water systems will have an idea of whether or not they've had any detections of PFAS, and we'll actually have had time to implement treatment strategies to remediate any issues that they might have before.”
In the meantime, there are ways for individuals toprotect themselves from PFAS.
How might this affect water rates?
Nationwide, the rule could cost anywhere from $772 million to $1.2 billion to implement each year, depending upon interest rates, according to EPA estimates. But it would also deliver $908 million to $1.2 billion in health and economic benefits — including avoided treatment for various ailments linked to PFAS. The agency acknowledged a range of uncertainty in estimating costs and benefits.
Systems that detect too much PFAS may need to raise rates. That happened in Wausau after the city’s utility constructed a new water treatment plant, which came online in late 2022. Wausau already planned tobuild a new facility when PFAS were discovered in all six of the city’s wells. It plans to add a $16.8 million system upgrade to remove PFAS using activated carbon. Both projects contributed to rising water rates.
Congress has allocated billions of dollars for water upgrades through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. In Wisconsin, public water utilities canapply to federally funded loan programs.
“We recognize that that’s not enough for every single water utility in the country, but it’s a shot in the arm,” Regan said.
The standards — and EPA’s calculations — are not without critics.
“We have serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop these proposed MCLs and have previously challenged the EPA based on the process used to develop that science,” said the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers. “The EPA’s misguided approach to these MCLs is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”
Some say polluters should bear treatment costs rather than taxpayers.
“It’s great to see the administration stand up and say, ‘We’ve got a PFAS problem’ and to dedicate billions of dollars toward it, but we have to remember that’s our money — that’s the victim’s money,” said attorney Rob Bilott, whose lawsuit against chemical company DuPont for PFOS dumping in rural West Virginia was the subject of the film “Dark Waters.”
“We need to be holding the people responsible who caused the problem in the first place,” he said during a February press conference.
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