California Water Rules Allow New Banned Chemicals 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today unveiled the first nationwide limits on dangerous “forever chemicals” in drinking water, setting standards that will have sweeping, costly effects throughout California.

Several thousand water systems around the country are expected to exceed the new limits for the chemicals, which have been linked to an array of diseases — including cancer and heart disease — and have contaminated people and animals worldwide, including newborns.

In California alone, traces of the compounds have been detected in water systems serving more than 25 million people, nearly a third in disadvantaged communities, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances have contaminated everything from Arctic ice to household dust to food. Previously used to make Teflon and found in some firefighting foam, stain-resistant coatings and other products, the chemicals leach into soil and water from industrial facilities, military bases, airports and landfills. Nearly everyone in the United States has been exposed.

A CalMatters analysis of 2023 state data found 214 water systems in California with 796 public wells that exceed the new federal drinking water standards. That’s more than half of the California systems that tested their water and reported their findings to the state.

California has state guidelines for the chemicals that are far less stringent. Now, under the new federal standards, the number of California wells that contain unacceptable levels will grow by 255% — an additional 572 wells, according to CalMatters’ analysis. The agencies with the contaminated wells provide water to millions of Californians, although not all of them drink the affected well water. Some suppliers may already have begun treatment or rely more heavily on other supplies.

Drinking water wells likely to violate the new limits are found throughout California, including in parts of Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside County, the Santa Clarita Valley, San Jose, Fremont, Visalia, Fresno and some military facilities, including Camp Pendleton.

At least 796 wells in 214 water systems in California would exceed new federal standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known as "forever chemicals," according to 2023 data from the California State Water Resources Control Board.

This amounts to 53% of tested water systems and 42% of tested wells. Under a more lax California guideline, just 224 wells in 85 water systems had excessive amounts of the chemicals.

Newly announced federal standards that determine whether water is contaminated with unsafe levels of forever chemicals would find at least 796 measured wells in violation within 214 water systems across California. This would encompass 53% of measured water systems and 42% of measured wells, according to 2023 data from the California State Water Resources Control Board. Using California standards, just 224 wells in 85 water systems would be in violation.

Water agencies nationwide must now test water for the chemicals and will have five years to comply with the new federal limits.

Utilities and cities warned that the cost of water will rise for many consumers. Those with elevated levels will have to install treatment systems, shut down wells and replace them with more expensive imported water, or blend contaminated water with other supplies.

The EPA estimates that the costs could reach $1.5 billion per year. But a water industry report last year estimated that the cost could reach between $2.5 and $3.2 billion, based on a previous EPA proposal.

Cindy Tuck of the Association of California Water Agencies said the high cost raises questions about whether the new standards are feasible. But, she added, “at the end of the day, our members are going to comply, and they need financial assistance.”

“Some money will come in from the polluters, some money will come in from low interest loans or loans in general. And then some money will have to come from the customer,” said Mike Alvord, director of operations and maintenance for the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency, which serves more than a quarter million people.

Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, announced $1 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help fund testing and treatment for public water suppliers and private well owners, part of a $9 billion package to tackle emerging contaminants.

“The only level that is truly protective would be zero,” said Jamie DeWitt, an Oregon State University professor of toxicology and member of an EPA science advisory board. But given the costs and the technology available, Dewitt said, “This is the best we’re going to get right now.”

Dewitt added, “Maybe the costs today seem really high, but if you spread those costs out over a lifetime, then it’s lower than the anticipated health care costs we may experience from higher exposure levels of those particular (chemicals).”

Health effects of ‘Forever chemicals’

 The EPA estimates that the rule will prevent 30,000 illnesses and 9,600 deaths, and save $1.5 billion from reduced cancers, heart disease, strokes and birth complications.

The health effects of the chemicals came to light with the high-profile case of a DuPont factory in West Virginia that contaminated drinking water in the Ohio River Valley. Long-term studies in the communities have reported a “probable link” between drinking the water and heart disease, colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer and pregnancy disorders. In 2017, DuPont paid $671 million to settle a class action lawsuit representing about 3,000 people in a case dramatized by the film Dark Waters.

In recent years, California has passed laws restricting “forever chemicals” in consumer products, including certain food packaging, new clothing, fabric accessories, furnishings and other textiles, and cosmetics. Lawmakers are also weighing a bill this year that would ban the sale of products that contain intentionally added perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals.

Now cities and utilities must meet new federal standards called maximum contaminant levels for five “forever chemicals.” A sixth chemical is limited when it’s found in mixtures.

Perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, known as PFOA and PFOS, each cannot exceed the new standard of 4 parts per trillion in drinking water — equivalent to four cups of the chemical in a trillion cups of water. (California’s guidelines limited PFOA to 10 parts per trillion and PFOS to 40 parts per trillion.) In addition, three other chemicals, including some used as replacements for PFOA, will be limited to 10 parts per trillion, and there’s a cap for certain mixtures, too.

Many California water agencies have already started to reckon with “forever chemicals” under the state’s guidelines. But they say that their costs will now climb steeply. In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed cutting more than $100 million from the budget of a state program aimed at cleaning up the contaminants.

Jason Dadakis of the Orange County Water District said 62 out of roughly 200 large municipal wells in the basin, which serves northern and central parts of the county, were taken offline to comply with the California guidelines.

Of those, 38 now undergo treatment and have come back online. Treatment facilities for the remaining wells are expected to be completed by early 2025 at an upfront cost of roughly $300 million, Dadakis said. He estimates that operations and maintenance are likely to climb to $700 million over the next 30 years.

Now, under the new federal limits, Dadakis estimates that another 40 wells in the basin could be affected — almost doubling construction costs and increasing yearly treatment costs to roughly $1.2 billion over 30 years.

The water district is weighing a 10% rate increase to the cities and water providers to help cover the costs.

“It’s pretty unprecedented to have an enforceable standard at that level — that very single-digit, parts-per-trillion level,” said Jason Dadakis, executive director of water quality and technical resources for the Orange County Water District. “So a lot of people are kind of grappling with that, and doing testing right now to understand what the impacts to their systems could be.”

DuPont, 3M and other manufacturers of the chemicals have agreed to multi-billion dollar settlements following nationwide, class action lawsuits. But California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who called the payout too little, too late, filed a separate lawsuit against the companies seeking water treatment as well as funds for testing, medical monitoring, replacement water and more, according to the complaint.

The Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency took out of service more than half of its 45 wells after detecting the chemicals above the state guidelines, though five are now back online with treatment. Alvord said treating the water could cost $200 million, plus yearly operation and maintenance costs — and that was before considering the new, more stringent federal guidelines.

Alvord said the agency was able to shut off the wells while installing treatment because it had other sources, unlike water suppliers with fewer resources. He expects smaller utilities to struggle even more now.

“Once you exceed a (federal standard) there’s no way out. There’s no ifs, ands or buts… You’re done.”

The Pico Water District, which serves part of Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County, has already raised customers’ rates to help cover the costs of treating wells, which are the city’s only source of drinking water, said General Manager Joe Basulto.

Though much of the $5.5 million project was covered by a grant, the district still has to come up with the remainder, plus yearly operation costs of at least $650,000.

“It’s really hitting our reserves pretty hard right now to come up with the rest. And on top of that too, we’ve got to plan to keep the treatment facilities online,” Basulto said. “It’s a tough road.”

Rachel Becker and John Osborn D’Agostino are reporters with CalMatters who wrote this article. Data journalist Jeremia Kimelman contributed to this report.


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