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PFAS chemicals found in more Connecticut water utilities, serving thousands of residents

A researcher at the University of Connecticut performs water sampling to test for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Shashrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
A researcher at the University of Connecticut performs water sampling to test for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS chemicals are forcing some Connecticut water supplies to make million dollar upgrades — and even consider finding new sources of water. The chemicals, often called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally, have adverse health effects ranging from immunological issues to cancer.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Andrew Brown to discuss his article, “More CT towns are finding PFAS in their water supplies,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Andy, what are PFAS chemicals? And why are they now showing up in more local water supply in Connecticut?

AB: Yeah, these are a group of manmade chemicals that have been around for over 50 years at this point. They're finding them in water supplies now at these very small levels, but they are significant because water systems are finally testing for them at levels that would allow them to detect them and allow them to know how much of these chemicals are in their water supply.

The EPA at the federal level is moving forward with a rule or regulation that would require public water systems to test and sample regularly for these chemicals which were produced for a variety of things, including the manufacturing of Teflon cookware and many other manufacturing processes. And these chemicals have been found in soil, groundwater and drinking water all over the planet. And they've become a more serious concern in the United States over the past two decades. So we're now at a point where many water systems that serve communities are testing for these. And it turns out many are finding them.

WSHU: The more they're testing now, the more they're finding these chemicals. So what's been done about it? I understand a number of states got together and sued the manufacturers. What's going on with that?

AB: Yeah, there are a huge number of lawsuits. I've lost count of how many are being managed in a federal court in South Carolina, but it's in the hundreds. And there are water utilities, there are state attorneys general, there are private plaintiffs all suing several companies that were the largest manufacturers of PFAS chemicals over the past 50 years. And those companies include huge corporations like 3M and DuPont.

Most recently, there was a large national settlement that was proposed, which would compensate public water systems that have either already found these chemicals in their water supplies or may find them in the near future. DuPont, along with several companies that were related to them proposed a settlement of $1.1 billion, which has been considered. 3M, which was the largest manufacturer of these chemicals, recently proposed a settlement of $10.3 billion over 13 years that would go to public water systems that again found these chemicals in their water. That was all well and good. I think some of the plaintiffs were ready to go along with that.

But just last month, the attorneys general from over 20 states, including our Attorney General William Tong here in Connecticut filed a motion to object to those settlements, particularly the 3M settlement claiming that the settlement may impact states rights to sue those PFAS manufacturers in the future. And they also just generally argued that the settlement was not nearly enough compensation for the damage that has been done environmentally and from a public health perspective.

WSHU: What's Tong and the other attorneys general asking for?

AB: As part of a settlement — like this 3M and DuPont are proposing — the expectation is that they will be able to receive future immunity from other similar lawsuits. They want to eliminate their legal liability. Attorney General William Tong and others in a bipartisan group of attorneys general have claimed that the waiver that they are asking the federal court to approve in this case is far too broad and would potentially impact the rights of states attorneys to sue over, say, contamination of groundwater soil or just the general environment in the future. So they want to see a stricter language, kind of a tighter language around what liability 3M gets to avoid in the future as a part of the settlement.

WSHU: In the meantime, the small Connecticut water systems, how are they approaching this? Because I see that some of them are looking for new sources of water.

AB: Yeah. So if this EPA rule goes through, this new regulation, it would set a strict enforcement level for the amount of PFAS that is considered acceptable in public drinking water. There are going to be dozens of public water systems in Connecticut that are either going to have to install new treatment technology in their water treatment plants, or they are going to have to find new water wells or surface water intake locations that are free from those chemicals. More and more of these public water systems are finding these chemicals at levels that would require them to do that.

And many of these small water systems are unsure exactly, how they're going to pay for this. If a water system is going to upgrade their treatment plants, even small systems require millions of dollars in upfront capital costs to install that equipment. And then I talked to several treatment plant operators who said it's not just that it's also the ongoing maintenance cost of keeping those systems running over years or decades, PFAS doesn't come out of the environment, it doesn't break down in the environment.

WSHU: That’s why they are called forever chemicals?

AB: Yes. That's the name that many environmental groups and scientists have given these chemicals. I'm no scientist. So I can't give a perfect example. But other chemicals go into the environment and break down over time. The chemical makeup of PFAS chemicals essentially ensures that they exist in that chemical state into perpetuity, they rarely break down based on heat or being absorbed into water or existing in soil for decades. They just exist as they are. And so that's the main problem with them is that there may have been contamination four decades ago, but that contamination will continue to persist. And those chemicals will continue to exist in the environment, which is why so many water utilities are now finding them in drinking water.

WSHU: In the meantime, it's going to take a while to figure out how we're going to pay for these companies to find new sources of water that are not contaminated.

AB: Yeah, I mean, I think it'll depend on each utility. Do they have another source of water that is uncontaminated available to them? Many water utilities only have a certain number of sources that they can pull from, I think what you're likely to see is a significant number of public water utilities in Connecticut simply having to install treatment technology to pull PFAS out of the water sources that they already have.

And as my story lays out, it's going to be a very costly step for many of those water utilities. I talked to the treatment plant operator at the Manchester Water Department, which serves that town. And he was saying that they did a study, a very rough estimate last year, with a consultant that suggested that for the Manchester Water Department alone, it could cost $12 million in new technology upgrades at their treatment plant to deal with these chemicals.

WSHU: The problem, though, is who's going to pay for that?

AB: That's correct. Yes. I mean, most plant operators see only several options available to them. They're looking toward federal grants or federal loan opportunities. There's a revolving loan fund that the state operates to help water utilities to upgrade their treatment plants. Even with that, they look at it and they say, you know, with the overall cost of this, it is hard to see how essentially utility rates the rates that they make customers pay for the water usage don't go up at some point.

WSHU: So the bottom line is ratepayers might have to pay more for water going into the future.

AB: It's definitely a possibility. Yes.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.