Blindsided a month ago by intense public alarm over reports that their public drinking water showed traces of PFAS-class chemicals, officials in Watkins Glen and Montour Falls and Waterloo confirmed last week that they are in the process of checking it out.
No new tests results are in yet, but they’re said to be in the pipeline.
In early September, social media erupted briefly over a report from a non-profit citizens group, Seneca Lake Guardian, on results from lab tests for the chemicals found in Teflon, ScotchGuard and other household products.
SLG had paid a Michigan laboratory to screen for 14 PFAS chemicals in water samples from three local water systems and three private water wells near Romulus.
The results showed traces of PFAS at all six test sites, but at levels below proposed state limits in each case. Still, results for several sites were higher than contamination limits proposed by several environmental groups.
An Aug. 30 posting on WaterFront touched off the social media outburst, which many local officials saw as an overreaction.
Just to be on the safe side, Jim Bromka has ordered screenings for all 14 of the SLG-tested chemicals in tap water supplied to much of Seneca County by the Village of Waterloo Water Supply Plant, which he runs.
Bromka said he’s expecting to get test results any day now from a New York-certified lab in Ohio run by Microbac. The testing — somewhat more scientifically rigorous than SLG’s — will cost $450, he said.
Meanwhile, the villages of Watkins Glen and Montour Falls are in earlier stages of testing for two of that group of 14 chemicals — the only two New York State proposes to regulate.
“I feel this test is going to be mandatory eventually,” said Watkins Glen Mayor Luke Leszyk, who’s also chosen Microbac. “It’s coming down the pike. We might as well get it done now.”
John King, the mayor of Montour Falls, said: “We’re in the process of finding a lab to do the testing. I would assume we’re just doing the two. But if it doesn’t cost that much to do all 14, we would probably decide to do it all.”
PFAS chemicals are often found in rivers, soil, air, house dust, food and drinking water from surface water and groundwater sources, according to a recent peer-reviewed study that attempts to establish a PFAS health effects data base.
“Virtually all Americans have multiple PFAS at detectable levels in the blood serum,” the study noted.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 14 PFAS compounds most commonly found in Americans’ blood serum. That CDC list is nearly identical to the 14 chemicals SLG screened for in water systems around Seneca Lake. And all five PFAS chemicals detected in the SLG screening were on the CDC’s list.
SLG said it ordered its screening tests out of frustration with the pace at which the state Department of Health has been willing to release the results of its PFAS testing statewide.
The group chose sites to test based on their proximity to the former Seneca Army Depot, which has been identified as a PFAS hot spot, and the New York State Fire Academy in Montour Falls, which has stored PFAS-laced fire-fighting foam.
Several years ago, the DOH was politically embarrassed when dangerous levels of the PFAS compound known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) turned up in the public water supply in Hoosick Falls. The agency had to be prodded by media reports and a former federal official to order residents to stop drinking the town’s public water.
That public relations debacle was only made worse by the fact that Michael Hickey, the private citizen who had uncovered the contamination through private screening like SLG’s, blamed it for the liver cancer that killed his father.
Since then Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken several significant steps to address PFAS contamination statewide, some in public, some under the radar.
Publicly, Cuomo appointed a state Drinking Water Quality Council in 2017 and instructed it to set contamination limits for public water supply systems. This summer the DOH published proposed state limits of 10 parts per trillion for both PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common PFAS class chemicals. The rules are expected to go into effect next year.
Behind the scenes, the DOH has spot-checked several hundred sites across the state for PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonamide) contamination. It picked locations to test from lists drawn up by the state Department of Environmental Conservation of airports, fire-training centers and companies that use or store PFAS near sources of public water systems.
The DOH has acknowledged that its tests showed that 135 of those sites would fail to meet the proposed new limits on PFOA and PFOS, but the agency refuses to disclose the locations to the public. (WaterFront filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the DOH Sept. 3, but hasn’t received the data. And a FOIL request filed with the DEC in April has yet to yield any useful data.)
Beginning in June, the DOH also quietly launched a three-year $900,000 study to measure PFAS contamination in groundwater around landfills statewide and trace their pathways to human exposure. The agency has already collected data on 35 PFAS compounds at 62 inactive and 19 active landfills, with many more tests planned.
The results the landfill groundwater testing are apt to be just as difficult to pry loose as the DOH data on the spot-checked sites near drinking water sources.
The Cuomo Administration has both practical and political reasons to withhold the data sets. As soon as they become public, it will need to:
— Manage public reaction (and overreaction).
— Assure adequate laboratory testing capacity to handle the inevitable flood of screening requests.
— Work with often-grudging public officials who feel overwhelmed by compliance costs.
— Face blowback from the private interests that risk being found to be the source of PFAS contamination and, hence, legal targets.
The DOH estimates that 21 percent of all public water systems statewide — including those privately owned — will fail to meet the MCLs for the two regulated chemicals.
Fixing that will be very expensive. For water systems serving more than 10,000 people, the initial capital improvement costs will approach $15 million, while maintenance costs will will run to $725,000 a year, the agency says.
Total compliance costs statewide have been estimated at close to $1 billion.
Local officials who cannot pin all or part of compliance costs on the entities proven to have caused the contamination will have to pass the financial burden on to water ratepayers, who will no doubt sound off. State grants or loans may help ease the pain.
Hoosick Falls paid $2-3 million for a carbon filter system that was financed largely by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the alleged source of its contamination. Its tap water is now said to be safe to drink.
But how safe is the drinking water in the 21 percent of the state’s public systems that the DOH expects to flunk its PFAS screening tests?
That’s almost impossible to determine because measuring the health risks of PFAS as a class of chemicals has been an extremely complex challenge.
While studies of PFOA and PFOS have established links to multiple harmful health effects, there are roughly 5,000 other PFAS chemicals that have not been thoroughly studied.
Most industries have stopped using the two soon-to-be regulated chemicals. Instead they’ve switched to PFAS relatives that haven’t been well studied, but may be just as dangerous. So regulators face the prospect of an endless “Whack-a-Mole” challenge.
That may be one reason why the federal government has not imposed enforceable limits on any PFAS chemicals. (In response to the Hoosick Falls scandal — the nation’s PFAS wake-up call — the federal Environmental Protection Agency lowered its advisory limit for PFOA to 70 parts per trillion from 400 ppt. But it is not enforceable.)
Some tests showed that groundwater and well water in Hoosick Falls was contaminated with PFOA in the thousands of parts per trillion.
By imposing enforceable limits of 10 ppt on PFOA and PFOS, New York State is among the states leading the push to address PFAS contamination.
But groups like NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Environmental Advocates of New York and New York Public Interest Research Group have recommended an enforceable limit of 2 ppt for a combination of PFAS compounds, including PFOA and PFOS. EANY and NYPIRG have called on the state to hold public hearings on the proposed contamination limits.
The SLG screenings of the three water systems and three private wells near Seneca Lake found no detectable traces of PFOS and a only a small trace of PFOA in one case (Watkins Glen had PFOA of 3 ppt — well below the state’s proposed enforceable limit of 10 ppt).
But both Watkins Glen and Montour Falls drinking water samples showed more elevated levels of PFHxA: 11.7 ppt and 10.1 ppt, respectively.
In its analysis of PFHxA, the Environmental Working Group describes it as a “breakdown product of stain- and grease-proof coatings on food packaging and household products. Highly persistent in people and the environment.”
While mayors Leszyk and King expressed no urgency in retesting for the compound, PFHxA was listed by the CDC as one of the 14 chemicals commonly found in American’s blood serum. Germany, the United Kingdom and Finland have been debating how to regulated in the European Union.
Meanwhile, the DOH touts its own response to the crisis and discourages members of the public from seeking non-certified data on the chemicals.
The DOH said in a recent statement to WaterFront:
“New York State agencies are … undertaking what is arguably the nation’s most comprehensive investigation of potential sources of contamination by these (PFAS) chemicals.
“We work closely with communities and other stakeholders in these efforts every single day, and encourage people to contact us directly rather than relying on misleading data obtained by non-certified testing that serves only to confuse the public.”
– Reporting by Peter Mantius, Founder of Water Front Online.
WaterFront is an all-digital publication dedicated to providing coverage of important environmental politics in the Finger Lakes. He brings decades of reporting and editorial experience to his coverage, which includes frequent deep-dives into important, local topics. Send him an email at [email protected].
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Peter is a three-time Pulitzer nominated reporter covering environmental issues through his first-of-its-kind digital publication The Water Front. He’s won an array of Associated Press, UPI, and Society of Professional Journalist awards. His reporting on environmental issues continues to be featured in prominent New York publications and is available on FingerLakes1.com through an exclusive content partnership. Have a question or lead? Send it to [email protected].