Wis. to better understand scope of PFAS contamination in drinking water by 2024

7 Investigates
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 6:59 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - As a new year begins, nearly all -- if not all -- public water systems in Wisconsin will have results showing whether their drinking water supplies are contaminated by per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS compounds. After the state set a standard for two compounds in 2022, public water systems, of which there are about 2,000, were required to test for the contaminants.

“By the end of this year, we should have a fairly comprehensive look at what the levels are in our drinking water in Wisconsin, because of that sampling,” Steve Elmore the director of the Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said. Those data are publicly available on the DNR’s website and are updated regularly.

Many of those public water systems tested with Northern Lake Service in Crandon. Without speaking about any specific client, President RT Krueger says more communities will learn they have contamination, but there is good news.

“We have found, I guess, what I sort of expected, and that is that the vast majority of these communities have no detects; they do not have PFAS present.”

Those that do are a combination of two types. That includes ones he would have guessed would see contamination based on past land use or are near other communities with known contamination.

“We’ve got quite a history of industry in these states (in the midwest) and these are compounds that were used legitimately in those industries,” Krueger said

The second bunch that has been seeing contamination, he calls “needles in haystacks.”

“We’re going to have those odd-balls that are going to be difficult to determine exactly what the sources are. But in a lot of situations, we’re going to be able to go back to historical uses and say, yep, that’s, that’s kind of, you know, kind of what we expected.”

Krueger added that where they have found contamination with older compounds, like PFOA and PFOS, are the same places where they find newer PFAS compounds. They typically do not find newer compounds in areas where older compounds are not present.

Numbers in limbo

There are thousands of PFAS compounds. The state required testing for 18, 12 of which the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has recommended standards. PFOA and PFOS are the only compounds with approved standards, with a combined limit of 70 parts per trillion. When found at that level or above, the state requires water systems to take action to mitigate the contamination.

The DNR and DHS had originally proposed the standard to be set at 20 ppt for drinking water due to studied health impacts, but the Natural Resources Board rejected that, saying the state had not done a good enough economic cost analysis the standard would pose on public water systems. The board set the maximum contamination level standard to 70 ppt to match the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory from 2016; weeks after, and with unofficial announcements months before, the EPA lowered the health advisory to nearly zero. It is now in the process of setting a federal drinking water standard for those compounds and is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

Once finalized, the state has 30 months to update the Wisconsin Administrative Code using the administrative rulemaking process; Elmore said it takes about that amount of time to make the standard state law. When asked whether there would be any way that process could be interrupted and the standard not implemented in the state, Elmore responded, “Once it becomes federal law, it’s, it’s really going to happen one way or another.”

If it does not pass the state’s rulemaking process, that would mean the EPA rather than the DNR would be the agency in charge of implementing the law in Wisconsin. Elmore and Krueger agreed, saying the relationships between the state, labs, and communities are important to maintain and create a better workflow that works with the state system. If the EPA were put in charge, it would change the nature of those relationships and the ability to work within the systems the DNR already has in place.

“Things of just how we communicate monitoring requirements and such with the systems and, how they follow up; you know, just particulars with interactions with laboratories, you know, that do the analysis for them,” Elmore listed. “All that gets worked out in our state rules. And that’s through the process too, our stakeholders, like, laboratories that are certified to, analyze affected water systems, and the associations that represent them all have the opportunity to provide input on the proposed state rules when we go through that process.”

Krueger was not concerned that that process would be disrupted, saying both sides of the political spectrum have been waiting for federal guidance.

“It takes a little bit of the liability away from the state to say, ‘hey, we’re just doing what the feds are telling us.’”

In the meantime, the state is advising municipalities based on its recommended groundwater standard for those compounds of 20 ppt, but anticipating the change to come with the EPA’s drinking water standard. The DNR is asking public water systems to provide public notice to customers if their PFAS levels are around 20 ppt or above.

“Our base message that we tell communities is if you’ve detected PFAS in you’re drinking water, reducing the levels in the drinking water or reducing people’s consumption of that water does reduce the potential for health impacts,” Elmore explained.

Health calculations

7 Investigates

Each PFAS compound has its own set of health effects and toxicity associated with it, but Roy Irving, the hazard assessment chief at DHS said there are studies that show that some compounds can cause similar types of harm.

“There’s (sic) studies in humans and research animals that suggest that high levels of certain PFAS can do things like increase cholesterol levels, change how bodies respond to vaccines. There’s (sic) concerns about thyroid disease, fertility in women, development of fetuses. It’s also associated with a couple of types of cancer,” Irving listed. “There’s still a lot to learn, I will say, but I think the science is at a point where we can say that there is there are health concerns associated with these substances.”

The recommended standards and health advisories are created by toxicologists studying the lowest observed adverse effect level and the no observed adverse effect level. So, what is the lowest level of a particular PFAS compound in drinking water that is associated with health issues, and what is the point where there are no health impacts? Then, they factor in a level of uncertainty, which can be quantified. That is where those numbers come from based on the latest research.

“We know the numbers are changing. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but let’s let’s focus on reducing the consumption of the water and reducing the levels that are in the water so that we can reduce exposure that causes health impacts.”

Managing uncertainty

How public water systems handle all of the different recommendations depends on the levels the system is seeing, the setting, the resources, the culture, the timing, and the available funds.

“As the science advances, as the health impacts are more known, and you know, those things grow, that’s just it’s going to be a constant for us, is it looking at the test results, looking at the proposed regulations, and making sure that we’re meeting those regulations and planning for them,” Nicholas Kumm, the general manager of Marshfield Utilities noted.

A couple of years ago, Marshfield learned it had some levels of PFAS in its drinking water supply. It caused the utility to shut down two of its wells. Kumm said the community has been able to manage with a lower reserve of water by not flushing hydrants as often, but the utility looked to find a way to get those wells back online or get a new source.

“We decided after looking at the different options that a temporary PFAS system made the most sense.”

The utility announced earlier this month that it would begin installing the temporary system.

“It’s pretty simplistic,” Kumm commented. “Basically, just take the water that’s coming from the wells, bring them into a trailer, and inside the trailer is different filtration. They’ll filter out the PFAS and then put the water back into the system and distribute it to our customers.”

The filter media is an anion exchange system. It is the same system the city of Wausau is using as it waits for its granular activated carbon system. Kumm is planning for the system to get five years of use.

“The reason we decided to go temporary versus doing a permanent solution is right now there’s so much unknown,” he explained about the various regulations and proposals. “So with all that unknown we thought, going with a temporary will at least so get us so we can get the water, the wells back into service. And then hopefully the regulations will firm up so that as we designed the permanent facility, we can make sure that it meets all the regulations and that we can provide healthy and safe water to our customers.”

Kronenwetter broke ground on its new water treatment facility earlier this month. The facility is designed to address high levels of manganese and iron. The village tested for PFAS last year, but the village president, Chris Voll said PFAS is not their main contaminant of concern.

“We found out we have hardly any traces of it. So, we’re so far below the standards that I don’t think we’d ever have an issue it.”

The village received a waiver for future testing from the state, given its low levels. When 7 Investigates pressed, saying the village’s levels are above what the EPA is proposing for a standard, Voll responded.

“The system will have the ability in case PFAS ever does become an issue for us that we can add on that particular filter to that. But at the time that we were looking at designing the facility, the cost of adding the PFAS collection system was, like, another 30-40% addition to the total cost. So, given the fact that we had zero to no PFAS levels, we didn’t think it was prudent at this time to spend that kind of money.”

In Merrill, the school district had an unexpectedly high concentration at its Pine River School for Young Learners just ahead of the school year. It is now getting cooking and drinking water from elsewhere in the district.

“The school in Merrill is a really, really good example of an excellent response and excellent pivot by the administration there,” Krueger noted. “It doesn’t address it in the long term. We’re getting a little bit better game plan for if we do see these things, what are the alternatives going to be?”