Water Woes Inspire Greater Scrutiny of Industrial Compound

Water running through an indoor tap. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

(CN) – The Environmental Protection Agency has invited governors from across the country to a summit in D.C. this spring to develop a multistate strategy to combat pollution from perfluorinated compounds, a group of manmade chemicals linked to increased risk of cancer and developmental problems in children.

The compounds, also known as PFCs or PFOAs are found in thousands of products – everything from cosmetics to firefighting foam – in other words, in just about any manufactured good intended to be resistant to water, fire or dirt.

According to EPA data, health effects of the chemicals include changes in growth, learning and behavior in children, as well as lowering a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, interfering with the body’s natural hormones, increasing cholesterol levels, affecting the immune system, and increasing the risk of cancer.

The EPA also said the compounds don’t dissipate in the environment like other chemicals – once they’re in the ground, they there to stay unless remediation takes place. Many large companies have since stopped using them after the EPA began issuing regular warnings about them, but their inability to break down means their history of use continues to plague former manufacturing communities.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement that the upcoming conference is intended to bring stakeholders from across the country together to build on the work his agency has already undertaken, including testing over 5,000 water systems for the compound in the last few years.

“Through this event, we are providing critical national leadership, while ensuring that our state, tribal, and local partners have the opportunity to help shape our path forward,” he said.

One of the communities that had its water tested as a result of the stepped-up EPA scrutiny was Blades, Delaware, which has had other contamination issues in the past.

Tests of Blades’ drinking water found elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds, and that prompted the state to shut off the water until new filters could be installed and the water declared safe for consumption.

“People were concerned about what might have been in the water,” said Blades’ native Ray Hastings, president of the city’s volunteer fire department. After a robocall informed residents of the problem, members of the National Guard assembled at the firehouse to distribute bottled water.

The state then installed a carbon filtration system to remove the compounds, and turned the water back on two weeks later.

The outskirts of Blades, Delaware with the local water tower in the background. (Photo by Brad Kutner)

Tim Ratsep, administrator of site investigation and restoration at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, told Courthouse News that the EPA’s interest in Blades stemmed in part to the government’s past interaction with an electroplating facility located in the city, Procino Plating Inc.  In 2013, the company’s owner pleaded guilty to one count of discharging wastewater from its facility without a permit.

At the time, the wastewater — a byproduct of chrome plating — was deemed “corrosive” because of its elevated ph level.

“It was the plating operations that made us go ahead and sample the Blades well,” Ratsep said.

“We have not identified the source or sources of why the PFCs are in the towns wells,” he added, stressing that the cooperative investigation with the EPA is ongoing.

Contacted by Courthouse News on Friday morning, Procino Plating president Mike Procino declined to comment.

According to media reports published immediately after the water was turned off in February, Blades is the third location in the state in which the water was found to contain unhealthy levels of the  compound.

The two previous incidents were connected to an airport and an air force base where firefighting foam was used to battle gasoline fires.

But issues with perfluorinated compounds are not unique to Delaware.

High levels were found in Wolverine, Mich. last year, and a class action  has since been filed in federal court alleging two factories in the region allowed unsafe waste products to leach into municipal and private wells for years exposing them to the toxic chemicals. A similar scenario played out in Hoosick Falls, New York.

And last summer, Rhode Island teamed up with Brown University to test 30 smaller water systems across the state. PFC levels were found in some of those areas, but testing is ongoing. Clean water advocates hope the state-level initiative will be repeated elsewhere.

While the potential dangers associated with perfluorinated compounds have long been known, cities are still not legally required to test for them. That’s why Ratsep, among others, is happy to see the EPA taking a more active interest in them. His hope is that the agency will raise the danger classification for the compounds, a move that give states more power to regulate them.

The ripple effects of classification could impact dozens of states. A 2016 Harvard study found about 6 million Americans are regularly exposed to perfluorinated compounds through their drinking water systems.

In 2017, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental watchdog, created an interactive map showing known contamination sites across the country. The group also extended the population impact from the chemicals to about 15 million Americans.

“Because [perfluorinated compounds] are so widely used and contaminate the environment in so many ways — including through product degradation and pollution discharges — scientists and regulators have had difficulty tracing the exact routes that PFCs may take as they find their way into human blood,” a data sheet issued by the group says.

Seth Kellogg is a member of the board of scientists and engineers section of the National Groundwater Association, a nonprofit group that monitors for contamination in water supplies. She also believes the compounds have been abused and Americans are now facing the consequences.

“We get ahead of ourselves introducing new chemicals into general use without truly understanding the toxicological challenges that go along with that,” she said.

There are steps being taken at the congressional level to better understand the compound as well. Bloomberg’s environmental team reported $10 million was included in this week’s omnibus spending bill.

If President Donald Trump signs the bill, the money would be used to fund the first in-depth federal study of the health impacts from the compounds.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., pushed for the funds after thousands of her constituents, and their children, were exposed to the chemicals at a local industrial site.

“I’m glad that we can finally move forward with this study and help [this communities’] families get the answers they deserve,” she told Seacoast Online. “It is completely unacceptable that parents in our community, and those in affected communities across the nation, have to worry about the safety of their children’s drinking water because of this contamination.”

The new budget also includes over $55 million for the Navy and Air Force to fund the remediation of spills on land and in water related to fire foam use.

The May summit aims to increase communication between state actors and scientists about the breadth of the compound’s contamination, and help develop strategies to remediate damages from the chemicals.

“It is critical that responding agencies at all levels are effectively communicating and coordinating efforts to protect the public’s health,” said Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in a statement announcing the conference. “Having a national dialogue on this growing concern could be instrumental in establishing standards, protocols and best practices that will allow all state and federal partners to comprehensively address these contaminants across the country.”

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