PFAS Water Contamination and Lawsuits

Once again, poor communities hit the hardest (financially and physically)

Santa Clarita, a comfortable suburb of around 213,000 residents about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is one of hundreds of parishes and districts in California grappling with the costly drinking water problem posed by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), Chemicals contaminated with chemicals have been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

Last year, the Santa Clarita Valley Water Authority (SCV Water) joined a lawsuit filed in South Carolina against multiple counties prosecuting chemical manufacturers and manufacturers of PFAS-laden aqueous firefighting foam. Legal observers predict that this filing, along with several lawsuits recently separated in California, will spark a spate of similar actions across the state.

However, as the vast size and complexity of the PFAS problem becomes more apparent, water quality experts, environmentalists and community advocates have become increasingly concerned about the impact on smaller drinking water systems with a lack of cash, especially in low-income communities that are already struggling with poor quality drinking water .

Because of this, some of these experts are calling on the California attorney general, his attorney general, to look after PFAS polluters like other states in order to secure vital funds for weak utilities, especially when the associated cost of PFAS pollution is astronomical to prove. How this works out quickly, if quietly, determines how seriously Sacramento takes the issue of safe drinking water.

SCV Water recently cut the ribbon on a water treatment plant valued at over $ 6 million to bring only three wells back on stream. Agency officials forecast a capital cost of $ 100 million for treatment systems and up to $ 20 million per year for operations and maintenance to recommission all 17 wells in the valley affected by PFAS. The financial burden from PFAS contamination in the Orange County Water District is projected to be $ 1 billion over a 30 year period.

“The state has the authority to exercise here,” said Steve Fleischli, senior director of water initiatives at the Defense Council for Natural Resources, of cost recovery appeal. “I don’t think you fully understand or fully appreciate the full scope of the problem.”

Until the state introduces enforceable maximum concentrations of pollutants for PFAS chemicals – a process that is expected to take years – utilities will struggle to get financial aid for this problem.

To maximize funding for utilities, any state-led approach should be independent of the lawsuit in multiple South Carolina counties, according to Robert Bowcock, founder of Integrated Resource Management water quality consultancy and drinking water expert. “What needs to happen is that the attorney general, who is not going to make a 40% cut, comes in and represents all the water companies,” Bowcock said.

However, it is unclear what type of legal plan the Attorney General’s Office has put in place for the problem. In response to a series of questions, a spokesman for the bureau wrote: “We cannot talk to a possible legal strategy.”

This answer will bring cold consolation to the affected communities. PFAS chemicals are a large family of more than 6,300 different varieties that are used in a wide variety of everyday products, including carpets, textiles, food packaging, and fire fighting products.

Researchers recently found PFAS chemicals in several common pesticides. Given how soluble PFAS compounds are, how they can be transported through the atmosphere, and the extent to which they are used, the problem is likely to worsen as the condition continues to expand surveillance.

Much of the previous research in human health has focused on two specific PFAS compounds – PFOS and PFOA – that have largely been withdrawn from the US market. However, they are still commonly found in the environment, while rapidly emerging research suggests that significant health effects similarly apply to exposures from a number of widely used substitute PFAS compounds. In addition, the researchers suspect that some of these PFAS replacements chemically convert into highly toxic PFOS and PFOA variants in the atmosphere.

As a result, many experts are frustrated that state and national efforts to test and regulate these chemicals have focused on only a tiny percentage of the compounds. Last year, for example, a new California law imposed only PFOS and PFOA notification and response levels, with a host of other common PFAS compounds largely ignored.

In 2019, California initiated a phased survey of groundwater pollution, primarily targeting areas considered most vulnerable to PFAS pollution, such as airports, landfills, and nearby public water wells. During a State Water Board meeting last October, officials summarized the results of this investigation to date to illustrate the tremendous ubiquity of these toxic chemicals in the state’s groundwater.

Among their findings: Approximately 60% of all public water systems monitored for six different PFAS variants had evidence in at least one of the sources examined for at least one PFAS compound. Virtually all of the groundwater samples taken at airports and landfills contained PFAS chemicals.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental research organization, analyzed government instruments to map the current PFAS drinking water data for Capital & Main. According to the analysis of the EWG, 108 systems report at least one well with PFOS above the new reporting level of the state, at which a water system is obliged to report “evidence” to its governing body, which then notifies the public at its own discretion or not. According to the EEC, 103 systems report at least one well with PFOA above the notification level.

Still, the overall picture is far from complete. California has nearly 3,000 municipal water systems, but only about 9% of public drinking water wells have been tested for PFOA and PFOS, according to the State Water Board.

Water companies do not need to take any other action unless the detected PFOS and PFOA exceed the new response levels, which are below the notification levels. If the response level is exceeded, a water system can immediately take the source offline, mix the water to dilute the contamination, or treat the water like SCV Water. There is also the option of continuing to use the fountain without taking mitigating measures, as long as the public is informed.

Larger city water systems are usually better equipped to handle an excess through treatment or mixing. However, many smaller utility companies do not have the infrastructure or the financial resources to take the same steps. This explains why some smaller systems are reported that make up about 80% of the municipal drinking water systems in California but have kept tainted wells operating for a much smaller percentage of the population.

“The biggest problem for these communities is that they are already facing a wide variety of issues due to their lack of financial, technical and human capacity,” said Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy for Water in the West at Stanford University, a water Sustainability project with a focus on western countries. “In addition, add [this] new challenge for which they are obviously not equipped. “

Communities served by small water systems have long been affected by a number of problems, including poor drinking water quality, rising water rates, and over-reliance on a single water source, with deprived areas often being hardest hit. And now the economic chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only added further strain on the lack of funds systems. The state’s water debt is approximately $ 1 billion.

That mismatched playbook, coupled with the high cost of monitoring and treating PFAS for utilities and customers – a single test can cost as much as $ 700, while in Orange County the cost of importing water is likely to hit monthly bills of interest payers $ 20 increase – explains why community and environmental organizations seek legal aid from the state to cover the costs of polluters.

While the attorney general’s office predominates, several other states have already filed such lawsuits. In 2018, Minnesota ruled in its lawsuit against 3M for $ 850 million. Experts familiar with the multi-county lawsuit filed in South Carolina told Capital & Main that 10 different states alone have joined the lawsuit.

According to Cristina Garcia, MP in southeast Los Angeles, a prominent voice within lawmakers on the PFAS issue, the question of who is responsible for the PFAS pollution is much clearer in some of these other states, making legal action easier for them .

Even so, Garcia said she had several conversations with CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld, both about seeking government help to resolve the state’s PFAS problem and identifying the parties responsible for litigation.

Proponents of California’s small water systems are urging them to act in a hurry. “We applaud [Garcia] for taking action, ”said Erick Orellana, political attorney at Community Water Center, a grassroots environmental justice organization. “But we need more leaders to solve these problems.”

That’s because utility companies currently have limited options for financial relief, although there are some. The Southern California water supply district has approximately $ 34 million in grants that utilities can use to build purification systems, for example. The state also offers various funding programs for water systems struggling with polluted water sources.

According to Dan Newton, deputy assistant director of the Department of Drinking Water for the State Water Board, the allocation of these government funds “can be heavily dependent on water quality violations in their prioritization and approval criteria.” In other words, until the state introduces enforceable maximum pollutant concentrations for PFAS chemicals – a process that is expected to take years – utilities will struggle to get financial aid for this problem.

“I am extremely concerned,” said Andria Ventura, Legislative and Policy Director for the “Clean Water” charity. “We approach this problem in a very provincial manner.”

Dan Ross |
Capital & Main

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