State Set To Start Testing Drinking Water Across Pa.

May 6, 2019

The state is set to begin sampling drinking water across Pennsylvania later this month in a bid to determine whether PFAS contamination is widespread. The statewide sampling plan announced by the Department of Environmental Protection in mid-April is on track to start near the end of May, DEP officials said in a Thursday. To date, the state has identified 493 public water systems in Pennsylvania that are located within half a mile of a potential source of PFAS contamination. The state’s scientists hope to gather “enough information to be able to tell whether or not we have a problem across the entire state,” said Lisa Daniels, director of DEP’s Bureau of Safe Drinking Water. The state will test about 360 drinking water systems statewide over the course of one year, targeting water suppliers near potential or known sources of contamination. But officials won’t release a list of systems they’re testing, saying the sites are potential and could change the list during the course of the program. The DEP will release results to water suppliers and the public as they go, however, likely rolling them out quarterly throughout the year, Daniels said. About 320 systems will be sampled for contamination, and about 40 that are not near likely sources of pollution will be tested for comparison as baseline sources. “As we become more aware of information, whether it’s uncovering additional contaminated sites or additional sources of PFAS contamination, we need the flexibility to adjust that list,” Daniels said. If water systems are found to have chemicals above the current EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, the DEP will notify the water supplier, require public notification for the water customers, and require remediation or treatment of the water supply. Over the past several years, PFAS contamination has caused drinking-water crises in communities from Michigan to New Hampshire. Federal and state lawmakers have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to create regulations mandating clean-up. In February, the EPA said it would take the first step toward creating a drinking-water limit, known as a maximum contaminant level, for PFAS, but drew criticism for the pace and scope of its response. The agency will not issue a final determination on whether to create the level until the end of 2020; then the process to establish the level will take “several years,” an EPA official said at an April meeting in Abington. Rather than wait for the EPA, Pennsylvania officials said, the state is moving forward with the sampling plan and creating its own maximum contaminant level. The level should be completed within two to three years, but officials hope to get it done closer to two, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said. But for now, the DEP doesn’t have authority to require cleanup of any water testing below 70 ppt. For systems found to have PFAS at levels below 70 ppt during the sampling, the DEP will notify the water suppliers, “encourage them” to notify their customers, and publicly post the testing results, Daniels said. To date, only 175 out of 3,300 drinking water systems in Pennsylvania have been tested for PFAS. Six were found to be highly contaminated. Those tests, conducted between 2012 and 2015, could not detect smaller amounts of PFAS. The new sampling will expand the number of systems tested and reveal the chemical even at lower levels, officials said. The plan targets systems that draw water from sources near airports, military installations, fire training schools, landfills, or Superfund sites. That means the state testing could reveal previously undetected contamination. Some lawmakers fighting for regulation and clean-up said they hoped it would spur their colleagues to action. If the data shows widespread contamination — and gives the DEP enough scientific data to use in establishing a safe drinking-water limit for the chemicals — the agency doesn’t anticipate further phases of testing, Daniels said. If it shows a low occurrence rate of PFAS across the state, the agency may continue sampling past the yearlong phase. For most of the 20th century, PFAS were commonly used in plastics, firefighting foam, and products like Scotchgard and Teflon. In 2006, the major U.S. manufacturers of the chemicals agreed to phase them out by 2015, but products containing PFAS are still imported from other countries. Contamination has been found in drinking water near manufacturing plants, airports, and military installations. Clamor has grown among area residents who want someone, anyone, to move more quickly to outlaw the chemical’s presence in drinking water and force the military and other polluters to do cleanup.