Whidbey water systems respond to state PFAS draft rules

The Washington State Board of Health is proposing new rules that may provide new protections against a prevalent family of chemicals, but also might place a significant burden on Whidbey water systems.

The Whidbey Island Water Systems Association recently submitted its informal comments to the draft rules, which include requirements for monitoring, record keeping and follow-up actions regarding poly- and perfluoroalkl substances.

The family of chemicals, known as PFAS, are found in items such as carpets, apparel and firefighting foam and are associated with negative health effects, including some cancers.

In addition to requests for further clarification in the rules, the association’s comments included a request that Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loans and other drinking water grants and loans be made available for actions required by the new rules.

The draft language is expected to be finalized some time next month, according to the state Department of Health’s website.

“Overall our member water systems are positive about the draft rule changes,” association Vice President John Lovie said in an email. “They recognize that their patrons are concerned about what is in their drinking water and want to know this information. At the same time they are concerned about the financial and administrative burden of this rule on water systems that may have as few as 15 hookups and rely on a volunteer board.”

The new rules would create standards for five different compounds in the PFAS family. The Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory limits are set at higher concentrations, as compared to the state’s proposal, and for only cover two compounds.

The state’s regulations would apply to all Group A water systems, which have 15 or more service connections or serve at least 25 people for 60 or more days per year.

Water systems would need to monitor for the chemicals once every three years. If there’s a detection of the compounds, then monitoring would need to be done quarterly, and the systems would send a public notice about the health effects of the contaminants, ways to reduce exposure and the plan to address the issue, according to a health department summary of the rules.

Water treatment for these chemicals can be costly to implement, said Jill Wood, Island County Public Health environmental division director.

“The Town of Coupeville is a perfect example of a water system that had to go through that,” she said. “But they had the Department of Defense and Navy paying the bills.”

The town’s new water treatment plant, designed to reduce PFAS to non-detectable levels, cost the Navy nearly $6 million. It was installed after water sampling found the contaminants in town water and it was determined the source was likely firefighting foam that had historically been used at Outlying Field Coupeville.

The Navy has also found several contaminated wells near the Ault Field Base of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

There are more than 200 Group A systems on Whidbey Island, according to Jim Patton, president of the Whidbey Water Systems Association. The organization represents 55 of these systems, he said.

The state Board of Health began the rule making process in 2017 in response to a petition from 10 organizations asking for state standards for the chemicals, according to the health department website. In support of the board, the department of health created draft recommendations for “state action levels” based on “high-quality recent science assessments,” according to a health department statement.

Four of the five PFAS are highly “bioaccumulative,” which means they persist inside humans and develop toxicity in laboratory animals, the statement says. The health concerns are related to reproductive, developmental, immune, liver and alterations in thyroid hormone levels, the report states, and one type of PFAS has been linked with cancer.

The health department recommends state action levels of 10 nanograms per liter for the compound PFOA, 15 for PFOS, 14 for PFNA, 70 for PFHxS and 1,300 for PFBS.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill this month to set a deadline for the EPA to implement a national drinking water standard for the compounds. The bill will need to be passed in the Senate, and President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the PFAS legislation, claiming the bill would “set problematic and unreasonable rule-making timelines” for the environmental agency, PBS NewsHour reported.

In 2018, the state Legislature restricted the use of the family of chemicals in food wrapping if safer alternatives are available. The substance is also prohibited in firefighting training. The Navy still uses foam with the compounds to extinguish petroleum-based fires.

The 2020 federal Defense Authorization Act phases out the use of these firefighting agents on military bases by 2024. The act also requires the use of state drinking water standards if they are more stringent than federal ones, according to a press release.

Lovie said he believes the association’s comments were “well received” by the health department.

“It is our hope that these comments will help DOH craft a better final rule,” Lovie said, “that strikes an appropriate balance between the public’s desire to know what is in their water and the administrative and financial burden on small water systems.”

• Information about PFAS and the state’s rulemaking process can be found at www.doh.wa.gov/pfas

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