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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Public water systems across the country to test and remove PFAS under EPA regulations announced Wednesday

West Plains residents study a map of private wells contaminated with PFAS.  (SSR)

Public water systems across the country will be required to test for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances under new federal regulations announced Wednesday.

Though testing already has begun across Washington’s water systems, the new Environmental Protection Agency regulations require initial testing to be complete by 2027 and for all water systems to be below the federal government’s maximum level of PFAS by 2029.

The “forever chemicals” are man-made and have been used in thousands of products over the decades. High levels of them have since been linked to cancers, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight and other diseases. The presence of the chemicals in West Plains residential water comes after years of runoff from firefighting foam at the Spokane International Airport and nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

In a statement, West Plains Water Coalition President John Hancock called the new federal regulations an “astonishing tipping-point” to addressing the problem in the West Plains and across the country but warned the “fine print” will show whether these regulations will create real change.

“We will continue to ask local and state officials to work together aggressively towards Washington’s share of this funding, and for urgent new help for rural homeowners with contaminated wells. EPA and WA Ecology have now moved quickly to evaluate West Plains groundwater, and we urge all well owners to take this seriously, adding home filters as needed,” Hancock said.

In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said drinking water contaminated with PFAS has “plagued communities” like the West Plains for too long.

“That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide,” Regan said.

The new PFAS rule sets a non-enforceable health-based goal at zero – meaning there is no level of exposure that is safe. Hancock pointed to this admission as “very serious news,” meaning countless Americans will feel the effects of PFAS.

Hancock noted that hundreds of homes on the West Plains already have “proven levels” above the state’s PFAS limits.

“This new EPA standard is far lower,” he said, “With this new scientific and regulatory consensus, I hope we can discover faster solutions to these serious troubles of safety and environmental stewardship.”

Enforceable contaminant levels in the federal regulations mean public water systems are not legally allowed to contain more than between 4 and 10 parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals.

These new standards are more stringent than adopted by Washington state, which cap PFAS levels between 10 and 345 parts per trillion depending on the form. According to Washington Department of Health individuals, these state standards will remain in effect until the State Board of Health adopts new federal standards.

“Our state got going early. We didn’t wait for the feds to act. And because of that, we’re well on our way to finding the water systems that have PFAS and getting the solutions started,” Department of Health toxicologist Barbara Morrissey said in a Wednesday press conference.

State Department of Health Hydrogeologist Mike Means said adopting a national standard will give those working to remove PFAS more clarity. Once approved, these more stringent standards also will be in place for current PFAS cleanup efforts across the state, he said. This includes sites such as the Spokane International Airport cleanup now in early stages.

Current state regulations already require utilities to sample for PFAS by the end of next year. More than half of water systems have completed initial testing for PFAS, Means said. Spokane began testing for PFAS in 2022 and, according to that year’s water quality report, the city found 2.75 and 4.44 parts per trillion of two different kinds of PFAS.

Both of these levels are below current state action levels, but the second is slightly above the new federal standard. In its report, Spokane characterized these as “low level detections.” The state will assist municipalities to be in compliance with federal standards by 2029, Means said Wednesday.

“We’ll be working with those utilities to start to take action now so that they will be in compliance well before the EPA requirement is in place,” he said.

The state Department of Health estimates removing excess PFAS from public waterways under the previous state standard will collectively cost the state and municipalities approximately $1.6 billion.

Along with the announcement of the new regulations, the EPA said the federal government will provide $1 billion to state governments to assist with the cost of testing. As of Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear if this is new spending or included in federal grants Washington state has already received for PFAS, Means said.

The EPA estimates between 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems being regulated must reduce PFAS to meet these new standards. The new rules will prevent future drinking water-based PFAS exposure to 100 million people across the country, according to the EPA.

Based on evaluations from initial water testing across the state, the Department of Health estimates approximately 10% of water systems in Washington exceed the new federal standards – more than 200 out of 2,400 water systems in the state.