LEE COUNTY —
Water utilities across the region are reviewing processes for water testing and treatment in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement in June of revised guidelines on the levels of certain compounds in water supplies.
The new EPA interim lifetime health advisories are intended to better manage risks from a group of man-made chemicals called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances).
There are thousands of variations of these PFAS compounds, and the EPA announcement addressed four specifically: PFOA, PFOS, GenX Chemicals and PFBS. Only trace levels of PFAS have been found in limited samples taken from water sources in the Auburn-Opelika area and surrounding communities.
NEW EPA LIFETIME HEALTH ADVISORIES
According to the EPA, most people are exposed to PFAS through consumer products. These chemicals have been used in firefighting foams, industrial processes and manufacturing of carpets, cleaning and cookware products, furniture upholstery, clothing and packaging for food and other materials. Drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have entered water sources such as wells, rivers or lakes.
Lifetime health advisories are contaminant levels at which no adverse health effects are expected over a lifetime of drinking water exposure. The advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory.
There is no existing federal regulation for PFAS in drinking water supplies, and treated water in Lee County currently meets public health standards under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act as enforced by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). When a health advisory is issued, it is often the first step by the EPA in developing and setting regulatory limits, which can be a lengthy process.
The EPA’s new interim lifetime health advisory levels for the PFAS compounds are much lower than the agency’s previous recommendations (70 parts per trillion) and so microscopic that they are below current accepted laboratory detection levels. This means that it is possible for PFOA or PFOS to be present in drinking water at levels that exceed the lifetime health advisories, even if current testing technology shows no presence of these chemicals.
Although an official timeline is unknown, the EPA has stated that they could set actual regulatory limits for these compounds as early as this fall.
RESPONSE FROM THE NATIONAL WATER INDUSTRY
Water utilities and professional associations — such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) — are evaluating the national and local impacts of these advisories, and many have issued public statements in response.
“EPA’s decision to reduce these health advisory levels from 70 ppt to as low as 0.004 ppt will have a significant impact on water utilities who receive these chemicals from industry and consumers and are not generators themselves,” said WEF President Jamie Eichenberger. “We encourage EPA to continue to work towards source control to prevent these contaminants from entering our waterways in the first place and are looking forward to working with EPA to develop science-based effluent limits and drinking water standards that protect public health and the environment without placing an undue burden on our utilities and ratepayers.”
ACTIONS BY LEE COUNTY-AREA UTILITIES
Limited testing in the Lee County region has revealed water samples with trace levels of PFAS compounds that individually range from below detection limits to 12 parts per trillion. For perspective, one part per trillion is equal to one drop in 500,000 barrels of water. The lower the levels, the lower the risk.
Water utilities in the area are gathering information from regulatory agencies and experts in the national water industry to evaluate ways to identify and report the presence of these chemicals at the new recommended levels, as well as examine potential measures to limit exposure. The EPA acknowledges that water systems may not be able to eliminate all risks from PFAS, but the goal is to do what is possible to help reduce risks.
Area utilities participating in this news release are posting online data and information specific to their water sources based on the limited testing conducted to date. Below are the web addresses for each system’s provided data:
• Auburn Water Works Board Data: www.auburnalabama.org/water-resource- management/water-operations/PFAS/
• Beulah Utilities District Data: www.owwb.com/beulahResults
• Loachapoka Water Authority Data: https://www.owwb.com/loachapokaResults
• Opelika Utilities Data: www.owwb.com/news
• Smiths Water and Sewer Authority Data: www.owwb.com/smithsStationResults
• ADEM Data regarding PFAS testing results statewide: adem.alabama.gov/programs/water/drinkingwater/files/ Combined2020and2022AllResultsMRL.pdf
Following is a joint statement from area utilities for Auburn, Beulah, Loachapoka, Opelika and Smiths Station:
“Clean, safe drinking water is our top priority. Like other water utilities nationwide, we are studying the EPA lifetime health advisories and our next steps. Additional research and testing are needed to determine the levels of these compounds in area water supplies, report that information to the public, and evaluate effective and feasible options to reduce any risk to our communities.”
The EPA also announced an initial $1 billion in grant funding for 2022 through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that can be used to reduce PFAS in drinking water in underserved communities nationwide. It is unknown how much of that federal infrastructure funding will be available for our local and regional mitigation and treatment measures.
For more information on the new PFAS advisories, the EPA has posted questions and answers online at www.epa.gov/sdwa/questions-and-answers-drinking-water-health- advisories-pfoa-pfos-genx-chemicals-and-pfb.