Several public water suppliers serving parts of Colchester, Cromwell and Enfield recently detected so-called “forever chemicals” in their systems, making them the latest Connecticut utilities facing multimillion-dollar treatment upgrades or the prospect of finding entirely new sources of water.
New data released last week highlights the growing scope of the problem caused by the family of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS for short.
Meanwhile, lawyers continue to battle in federal court over several proposed settlements that are meant to resolve the massive legal liability for that historic contamination that has fouled drinking water across the United States.
Detectable levels of PFAS chemicals were found in portions of seven different water utilities, which supply thousands of Connecticut customers in various corners of the state.
Some of those utilities, including several owned by Aquarion Water Company and the Connecticut Water Company, were already aware the tap water that was being piped into people’s homes contained traces of the compounds because of voluntary sampling conducted in previous years, and those customers had been notified.
Those systems were in parts of Newtown, Plainville, Southington, Farmington, Wolcott, Canton, Avon, Burlington and New Hartford.
But for the systems operated by the Colchester Sewer and Water Commission, the Cromwell Fire District Water Department and the Hazardville Water Company in Enfield, the recent test results were the first indication that the chemicals had infiltrated their treatment plants.
All three of those public water systems detected PFAS at levels that may soon require them to either find a new source of water or spend millions of dollars to treat for the chemicals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of finalizing a new rule that would, for the first time, set an enforceable limit on several of the most common types of PFAS that have been found in drinking water.
That new rule is meant to limit people’s lifetime exposure to the chemicals, which researchers have studied for potential links to developmental issues, immunological problems, thyroid disorders and kidney or testicular cancers.
The pending regulation, however, is likely to come at a steep cost for water utility operators, which will be required to invest in new treatment technology that is capable of pulling PFAS out of their water supplies.
But who should pay for those investments is still a question that is being disputed in a federal court in South Carolina.
Some of the companies that historically manufactured the man-made chemicals, including corporate giants like DuPont and 3M, were named in hundreds of lawsuits in recent years that accused the companies of contaminating public drinking water throughout the United States.
Those lawsuits recently resulted in several large settlement proposals that would provide some compensation to hundreds of water utilities in the United States, while allowing the PFAS manufacturers to resolve their potential liability for the chemicals that were used for decades in everything from non-stick cookware to industrial firefighting foam.
DuPont and several related companies agreed to contribute $1.1 billion as part of their settlement, and 3M promised to pay $10.3 billion over 13 years.
In press releases, the companies argued the settlements were an important step for their corporations and would end the lengthy and complicated litigation.
But not everyone was pleased with the proposals.
The attorneys general from 22 states filed a motion last month asking the federal judge in South Carolina to reject the proposed settlement with 3M and to force the chemical manufacturer back to the bargaining table.
The bipartisan group, including Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, said the proposed settlement was flawed, and they complained that it provided overly broad protections for the companies, potentially preventing states from suing the PFAS manufacturers over environmental and public health claims in the future.
Even more, the attorneys general argued the settlement does not provide nearly enough money to adequately compensate all of the water utilities that will need to upgrade their treatment plants. That gap, they said, meant the companies were “foisting responsibility” onto the water systems, their utility customers and, potentially, taxpayers.
“PFAS forever chemicals are a toxic threat to public health. This proposed settlement does not come close to addressing the massive burden on our public water systems,” Tong said in a press release.
“We’re worried that the proceedings, there in that court, could impact or limit the legal rights of states, and I obviously object to that strongly,” Tong said. “I also don’t think it’s a good deal. It’s not for me to say because it’s not my settlement. But I don’t think it’s a good deal.”
It’s unclear exactly how much money will be needed nationally to bring every public water system into compliance with the EPA’s proposed drinking water standards, but if the experience of some Connecticut utilities is any indication, it’s going to be a very pricey endeavor.
The Manchester Water Department is one of the systems currently exploring the possibility of installing new treatment technology to deal with the PFAS found in its supply wells after voluntary testing several years ago.
Patrick Kearney, Manchester’s Water and Sewer Administrator, said the town paid for a study last year that estimated it will need to spend roughly $12 million for the necessary upgrades at its treatment facilities, and that doesn’t include the ongoing cost of maintaining those new systems.
If that estimate holds true for Manchester, Kearney said, it is hard to believe that a little over $10 billion in settlement funds will make much a dent in the needed treatment upgrades nationwide.
“I’m one little old water utility in Manchester, and we are talking $12 million to treat it,” Kearney said. “How many little water companies are across the country?”
Dave Fillion, the chief treatment plant operator with Hazardville Water Company, said his company has just started to research what it might take to rid their tap water of the traces of PFAS that were first detected earlier this year. But he doesn’t expect it to be cheap.
The company, he said, will likely need to look to multiple sources in order to afford the necessary upgrades, including potentially a rate increase on its customers.
Fillion hasn’t followed the settlement dispute with 3M and the other chemical companies. But he said the public water utilities and their customers should not be the only ones footing the bill for the cost of removing the man-made chemicals.
“Everyone’s looking at the water companies to purify the water. Take this water out and make it safe for our customers, which is what we should be doing,” he said. “However, the people who created the problem should be held responsible also.”
Lori Mathieu, who leads the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s drinking water division, said she expects more water systems to find themselves in the same position as Manchester and Hazardville in the coming years as more testing is conducted.
As the EPA finalizes the enforceable limits for PFAS, the federal agency is requiring many large and mid-sized public water systems to test for the chemicals.
That testing, which does not include private water water wells maintained by individual homeowners, is partly meant to enable state and federal regulators to get a better estimate of how many public water systems will need to treat for the chemicals.
The widespread use of the chemicals for decades and their ability to persist in the environment for years have made them prevalent in public water supplies, Mathieu said.
Mathieu said her office will continue to work with the public water systems in Connecticut as the EPA continues to roll out the new regulations later this year.
“We certainly have worked really hard to keep the water systems involved in the information that EPA is sharing,” she said. “I believe that many of these larger public water systems are more than aware that this law is is out there.”