Killingworth Seeks Solutions After EPA Issues New Limits for PFAS
As state and town officials continue to seek a solution to polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination discovered in the wells of some residents living along Route 81, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed the first federal limits on harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water, including PFAS. According to the EPA, the chemicals have been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including in nonstick pans, food packaging, and firefighting foam. While their use is now mostly phased out in the U.S., issues concerning their remediation remain, especially in Killingworth, where prior use of firefighting products has contaminated groundwater in a localized section of town near the Town Hall complex and elementary school.
The new EPA plan sets the threshold for PFAS at a limit of four parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). In addition, the EPA wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS.
However, that brings into question the reliability of testing and whether any limit or threshold parameters are feasible. According to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the Department of Public Health scientists who spoke at an informational public forum in Killingworth in February, their facilities cannot accurately test below 70 parts per trillion, making regulations and “limits” difficult to quantify and address.
Take as an example hydrogen cyanide, one of the deadliest chemicals known to science. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a human can be exposed to concentrations of 45 to 54 parts per million (ppm) for up to an hour without immediate or delayed effects but 110 to 135 ppm may be fatal, making testing in parts per trillion seemingly so minute as to call into question conclusions regarding toxicity.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents large chemical companies, took issue with the EPA’s “misguided approach” in a public statement, stating, “these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”
The group went further and stated it has “serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop” the proposed rule, adding, “It’s critical that EPA gets the science right.”
Currently, the town is providing delivered drinking water for the Town Hall campus, Killingworth Elementary School (KES), and several affected private wells close to the campus, which are also being monitored.
According to Killingworth First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski, any amount is too much, and the town needs to act quickly to find both short- and long-term solutions to the contamination.
“Until we have a plan from all three phases, it will be difficult on several fronts. Phase One is that we have to filtrate Town Hall campus and KES quickly because the continued use of water, particularly here at town campus to wash the trucks, is further impacting the groundwater with PFAS,” Gorski explained. “Phase Two, we have to come up with a long-term solution because these filtration systems aren’t the be-all and the end-all of this. We have to constantly monitor them to ensure that they are working as designed. And then there is the question of what do we do with the filters once they need to be changed out because now you have a hazard waste. So there are some challenges there…so that is an ongoing discussion. The Third Phase is really, what do we do with the soil behind Town Campus? How do we contain it so we don’t further spread contamination?”
Gorski said more data and testing will be essential in determining the best course of action for any remediation plan.
“Until we have the full order of magnitude of the problem, we simply won’t have the answers. What we really need is something that is well planned and well thought out, until we can gather more info that will be a challenge,” Gorski said.
According to Gorski, the town is likely eligible for state funding to address the problem, but those designs and their funding will take time.
“How long this will take depends on design and the bid process. And the bid process is much more onerous than a typical bid process for a town project because it has to go through a series of approvals and reviews. But every day, you have to roll that rock uphill and hope that at some point, you’ll come out the other end with some solutions. So, that’s where we’re at right now,” Gorski said.
A lingering issue behind the efforts aimed at remediation is who will pay for it. If the EPA is going to implement this new threshold, critics contend, it is conceivable that any and every test could return positive results for PFAS contamination, making for an even more difficult solution on how to contain and remove these “forever chemicals.”
In a statement released with the new EPA threshold announcement, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators called the proposal “a step in the right direction,” but said compliance will be challenging. Despite available federal money, “significant rate increases will be required for most of the systems” that must remove PFAS.
As far as what the new threshold limits might mean for Killingworth residents, Gorski said it was too soon to tell, and that she is awaiting feedback from DEEP and the State DPH for guidance.