Local officials managing the impact of water contaminated with PFAS called on legislators studying the issue to consider creating more unified approaches, increase funding for municipalities, and roll out more public education programs to inform residents of potentially harmful health impacts.
Town administrators, public works employees, and water management officials spoke to the Legislature's PFAS Interagency Task Force Tuesday morning and largely told state lawmakers that more help is needed in cities and towns to prevent and manage the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl contamination in water.
"We're frontline in combating this," said Barnstable Town Administrator Mark Ellis. "So working with us to manage it is critical. We're not the producers of these, for the most part," he said. "We are trying to manage them because they've been allowed, they've been commercialized, and allowed to come into our environment and on Cape Cod."
PFAS is a term used for a group of chemicals used since the 1950s to create non-stick and water- and stain-resistant products. They're most commonly found in consumer products like food packaging, outdoor clothing, and leather goods but can also be traced to certain types of firefighting foam that easily seeps into groundwater.
The chemicals do not break down easily and exposure to at least one kind of PFAS has been linked to thyroid disease, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, and testicular cancer, according to C8 Science Panel, a group of epidemiologists who studied probable links between the chemicals and various diseases in 2011 and 2012.
Some cities and towns say the challenge associated with PFAS contamination stems from point sources — picture sewage treatment plants, factories, various manufacturesr, or oil refineries. In Barnstable, Town Administrator Mark Ellis said the issue stems in part from a local fire training academy and to a lesser degree the municipal airport.
Water wells in those areas are managed by Barnstable and Yarmouth but since the wells are aligned closely, any contamination could impact not just one well but a "significant water supply for the regional center of southeastern Massachusetts," Ellis said.
Ellis said Barnstable set up several carbon filter systems on water wells initially for seasonal operations. But officials quickly realized that they were not going to be able to remove them. The city has so far invested $22 million in capital for the filtration systems, he said, which adds about $600,000 a year in operating costs.
"And this is an enterprise fund, so short of the subsidies — that we did get some assistance on low interest from the SRF and a small principal subsidy — this goes to our rates, to our users," he said during the hearing. "And the rate increases have been and will continue to be significant."
In Ayer, Public Works Superintendent Mark Wetzel said managing PFAS takes up a significant portion of his staff's time. The local water system serves about 90% of the roughly 8,000-person town with several large food and beverage operations using about 60% of the water.
At the request of the Department of Environmental Protection, Ayer sampled one local pond for PFAS in 2016 and another in 2018 and found traces of the chemical.
"Since 2016, we've kind of had a moving target. We started with the EPA health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS," he said. "And then the state has kind of evolved that. So since we discovered it, there's been four different health advisories ... which factors into how we manage the supply and trying to minimize the amount of PFAS in our water."
Managing PFAS was a learning experience, he said, and one of the biggest challenges was sending out those public notifications advising residents of wells over the state's maximum contamination level of 20 parts per trillion. The Department of Environmental Protection updated its drinking water standards in October 2020.
Wetzel said his department has sent out four public notifications over the past four years and each time residents come to his staff to ask whether or not the water is safe to drink.
"That's a really hard question to answer," he said. "I'm an engineer. I'm not a toxicologist or a health professional or a doctor. And so I kind of have to qualify it because if you read some of the PFAS information about the 20 parts per trillion, there isn't really a lot of studies that say what the bad level is for who and what it causes. So it's something that I think public water suppliers need some guidance on."
But even when town officials manage to solve PFAS problems, it can create other water quality and quantity issues in the system, Wetzel said. His Public Works Department, he said, has a limited budget, operations staff, and expertise.
"So it really sucks up a lot of our time, and effort, and budget," he said. "The Town's been really good at appropriating monies. The total cost to date for the studies, the treatment, and the plant that's under construction is $12 million. So it's a huge cost to the ratepayers."
He recommends legislators consider creating a single group within the Department of Environmental Protection focused on technical response. If one group was tracking what every municipality was doing, what the problems were, and what potential solutions are, he said, "it would be a lot more efficient and better for the small water operators."
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In Stow, the situation is a bit different. There is no town water, Town Administrator Denise Dembkoski said, and residents rely on private wells and septic systems.
Officials received a notice in December 2020 for contamination linked to a former fire station, she said. The contamination, Dembkoski said, primarily affects the center of town which includes a town hall, library, elementary and middle school, two churches, and a large residential area.
"Since everyone here is on private wells, this will include the installation of potentially hundreds of individual [point-of-entry water treatment] systems in and around this general vicinity where the testing is still being done," Dembkoski said.
An issue the town has run into as more bodies of water have been found to contain PFAS is dealing with multiple licensed site professionals — individuals working for private companies who are authorized by the state to oversee the assessment and cleanup of contamination that has been released into the environment.
"The challenges that we have here are that we receive phone calls, inquiries from a number of residents, asking about PFAS, the response, and what can be done," she said. "When we are dealing with four different LSPs in town, we're dealing with four different projects in different stages of remediation. The struggle for us is where do we send folks?"
Dembkoski recommends the creation of a state oversight committee or department that LSPs can register the projects they're working on.
"I know that's done with DEP but I feel that there should be another agency to hold these projects accountable, somewhere that has the authority to act on complaints and deal with resident frustration," she said. "... When multiple LSPs exist in one town, there should be more of collaboration and coordination of resources."