Vermont Proposes Drinking Water Limits for PFA Contaminants

Published: 1/29/2019 10:27:18 PM
Modified: 1/29/2019 10:27:20 PM

State regulators are proposing the strictest drinking water standards in the country for PFAS in response to a petition from environmental advocates.

But Vermont and other states are still grappling with how to deal with the rest of the thousands of other similar chemicals.

Last Thursday, the state Agency of Natural Resources, or ANR, proposed a maximum contaminant level of a combined 20 parts per trillion for five toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals — PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA. Managers of public drinking water supplies would be required to test water and treat it if levels for those chemicals are above the limit.

Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, referred to establishing a drinking water standard as the “next step” in Vermont’s response to PFAS contamination.

“We wanted to make sure that we were in a good place with where known contamination was before we moved forward,” Walke said. “Now this is the next step in getting ahead of the curve and making sure we’re proactively testing (to) understand where PFAS may be.”

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, do not break down in the environment and are used in a wide array of manufactured products, from rain jackets to cookware to firefighting foam.

Scientists now know that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals can lead to cancer, thyroid disease, immune system damages, developmental problems in children and low birth weight.

Following the discovery in 2016 of PFAS contamination in Bennington drinking water, the state Department of Health in July set a health advisory level for drinking water at 20 parts per trillion for the five PFAS chemicals.

The state’s Agency of Natural Resources now lists those compounds as hazardous materials and adopted an emergency enforcement standard for groundwater — meaning companies that are found to have contaminated groundwater with those five chemicals would have to clean up the site.

In addition to the Bennington contamination, ANR sampling has found private wells with PFAS levels above the 20 parts per trillion in Pownal, North Clarendon, South Burlington and at an elementary school in Grafton. Residents and institutions with contaminated wells have been provided clean water. ANR does not yet know of any public drinking water supplies with elevated PFAS levels, Walke said.

The EPA set a health advisory at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, but the government shutdown delayed release of a plan to provide further federal regulation of PFAS.

“We know that these chemicals pose a health risk and that the EPA has not and is unlikely to take action in a timely manner,” Walke said.

In October, Conservation Law Foundation and other environmental groups filed a petition with ANR seeking to make it set drinking water standards for the whole PFAS family, or to at a “bare minimum” adopt the state’s health advisory as a drinking water standard.

Walke said that while ANR felt there was enough toxicity information available to set a limit for the five chemicals, the agency does not yet feel enough research has been done to regulate PFAS as a class. Vermont has been “actively working” to determine how to regulate the chemicals as a whole group, according to ANR’s response to the petition.

Jen Duggan, Vermont director of Conservation Law Foundation, said that CLF sees the drinking water standard as an “important step” and was encouraged to see the state is looking to move beyond setting limits one chemical at a time.

“We know that there are thousands of these PFAS chemicals ... and we believe that we need to set a standard for the class,” she said.

The agency plans to reach out to drinking water supply managers and other stakeholders over the next month to gather additional input on the proposed standard. The standards will then be reviewed by the Interagency Commission on Administrative Rules before they are finalized.

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