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Water PFAS clean-up costs could trickle down

People in states that have enacted PFAS regulations are already paying more for clean drinking water. Should the EPA’s proposed regulations pass, the rest of the country could be paying more, too.
Photo Illustration: The shadow of a woman drinking a glass of water
One water treatment plant in Massachusetts cost $16 million, four times the water utility's usual annual budget. Ratepayers will see increases of 30%.Justine Goode / NBC News / Getty Images

A new Environmental Protection Agency proposal aimed at eliminating “forever chemicals” in drinking water could cost local water utilities millions of dollars each, and some of that price tag is already being passed on to consumers.

The EPA’s regulation would limit a handful of PFAS — a label for the thousands of potentially harmful chemicals that don’t easily break down — in drinking water to the lowest detectable limits, 4 parts per trillion. Should the proposal pass, one study estimated annual costs to water utilities could exceed $3.8 billion, expenses that could trickle down to ratepayers. 

Costs are already being levied in states that are proactively cleaning up chemicals: PFAS cleanup contributed to increasing water utility rates by 18% in Hudson, Massachusetts, and by 50% in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and it’s anticipated to raise water rates at 13% this year and another 13% in 2024 in Hawthorne, New Jersey.

Whether the new EPA standards are attainable for affected water utilities remains up in the air, according to interviews with experts, state-level environmental agencies and the utilities themselves.

“Some systems may have to drill new wells or add treatment to address PFAS levels in their drinking water,” Meaghan Cibarich, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, wrote in an email, adding that new wells could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $2 million.

PFAS, an abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been found in products that are made to be resistant to water, stains and heat. These chemicals have been detected in household items such as nonstick frying pans, waterproof clothing and some fast-food wrappers and plastic containers. Exposure to PFAS is associated with organ cancers, high cholesterol and thyroid disease. 

Julia Varshavsky, an environmental scientist at Northeastern University’s PFAS Project Lab, said the EPA’s move amounted to a declaration that any level of PFAS was unsafe. 

“The proposed maximum contaminant levels that the EPA released for PFAS was a super groundbreaking move because it lowered the amount to as small as we can actually measure,” Varshavsky said. “It’s basically like saying there’s no real safe level of these legacy PFAS compounds.”

The EPA estimates that 70 million to 94 million people in the U.S. are affected by PFAS-contaminated drinking water, though Varshavsky said the estimate is likely an understatement because the tests only monitor six out of thousands of different PFAS

In the absence of national regulation, some states have taken PFAS testing into their own hands. This is done by setting a maximum contamination limit, or MCL, on a chemical and monitoring water systems for violations. In total, 10 states have enacted enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water, while another 12 may monitor but are not required to report violations to a regulatory agency.

New Jersey was the first state to enact limits on PFAS in drinking water, doing so in 2018. So far, fewer than 10% of 1,220 public water systems in New Jersey have violated the state standard of 40 parts per trillion, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna wrote in an email. Hajna estimated that “at least three to four times” as many water systems would exceed the limits under the new EPA proposal. 

The EPA’s proposed limits are up for public comment on May 4. If the limits become official, all states would have three years to comply. 

Other states have both enacted and are anticipating large changes that come with a high price tag. These prices so far have been borne by the water utilities. 

Cleaning up isn’t cheap. New Hampshire, which set a maximum limit for PFAS in drinking water, faces initial treatment costs ranging from $65 million to $143 million, not including sampling and maintenance, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Services.

In 2020, Massachusetts public water utilities were required to complete an initial round of PFAS testing. WBUR reported that a new plant for the PFAS treatment cost the water utility in Littleton, Massachusetts, $16 million — four times what the town’s annual water budget usually is. Residents will see a 30% hike in their water bill over the coming decades. Two other treatment facilities cost or are  estimated to cost $4 million each to build in Mansfield, Massachusetts.

Two of the most well-known chemicals under the PFAS umbrella, PFOA and PFOS, were phased out of production in the U.S. in the early 2000s, though they still show up in groundwater. In order to continue making nonstick products such as Teflon, the company then known as DuPont introduced another PFAS called GenX. This chemical is also on EPA’s proposal to regulate. 3M, a chemical and consumer goods giant, announced in December plans to phase out the use of all PFAS by the end of 2025. 

Apart from drinking water, Maine is working to ban PFAS in all products. Effective in 2030, any product with “intentionally added” PFAS cannot be sold in the state, unless its use is deemed “unavoidable” by the state’s environmental department. 

“Advocates are trying to push for regulating PFAS as a chemical class, but also to put the burden of paying for cleanup and testing on the industry that’s responsible for doing the polluting in the first place,” Varshavsky, of the Northeastern PFAS lab, said, adding that it’s not required for industrial companies to share what’s in their products. “That’s another area of concern, especially for uniquely exposed and contaminated communities.”