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What the EPA’s proposed PFAS regulations could mean for Ohio’s drinking water

A glass of ice water sits on a counter top
The EPA proposed the first federal regulations on PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Known as “forever chemicals,” they never break down in the environment and are linked to an array of serious health concerns, from development delays in kids to certain types of cancers.

The EPA proposed the first federal limits for the toxic “forever chemicals.” If they take effect, they would mean big changes for Ohio’s water utilities.

Newly proposed federal regulations on PFAS in drinking water could lead to big changes in Ohio.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed strict limits for six types of PFAS chemicals. Known as “forever chemicals,” they never break down in the environment and are linked to an array of serious health concerns, from development delays in kids to certain types of cancers.

If finalized, the EPA's proposal would constitute the first federal limits for PFAS chemicals, establishing standards that go much further than most current state laws and a previous federal PFAS advisory.

For two of the most prevalent chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, the EPA proposed limits at 4 parts per trillion – the lowest level tests can detect.

Higher levels have been detected in water sources across the state, including in the Ohio River, which provides drinking water for more than 5 million people.

“This is not a red state problem or a blue state problem or an urban problem or a rural problem,” says John Rumpler, a senior attorney for Environment Ohio and the director of Environment America’s clean water campaign. “This is a toxic threat to our drinking water that is affecting all Americans in all kinds of communities.”

Some water utilities already remove PFAS chemicals when they treat water, but not all do. And if the EPA’s limits take effect, all utilities would be required to, and compliance could be costly.

“This is a toxic threat to our drinking water that is affecting all Americans in all kinds of communities.”
John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America

The cost of clean water

The EPA estimates it will cost upwards of $772 million each year nationwide to comply with its proposed PFAS limits.

The federal government has already allocated $9 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law specifically for communities to clean contaminated water. States also have access to money from the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

But the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators warns that as utilities install expensive technology to remove PFAS from treated water, water bills will likely climb.

Rumpler says that’s not fair to taxpayers.

“That's why it's so important that we actually phase out the use of these toxic chemicals and other toxic substances,” he says, “so that we don't get stuck with billions of dollars of cleanup costs because of carelessness by chemical companies and manufacturers.”

Attorney generals from more than a dozen states are suing chemical manufacturers to help clean PFAS contaminated water.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office is involved in two lawsuits against chemical companies. Both were filed five years ago, in 2018, before the EPA had proposed federal regulations for PFAS.

One seeks compensation from DuPont for releasing chemicals from its Washington Works Plant into the Ohio River. The other is against 3M, Tyco Fire Products and Chemguard for knowingly releasing PFAS chemicals into the environment.

Meanwhile, the American Chemical Association, which represents chemical manufacturers, questions the science behind the EPA’s recommendations.

“We have serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop these proposed MCLs [maximum contaminant levels] and have previously challenged the EPA based on the process used to develop that science,” a statement from the organization reads. “The EPA’s misguided approach to these MCLs is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”

What’s next?

The EPA’s proposed rules have to go through a public comment period before they go into effect.

But some version of the proposed regulations is expected to take effect by the end of the year.

When it does, it’ll likely take water utilities several years to obtain and build the necessary technology.

In rural communities, removing PFAS from drinking water will take even longer.

“Many people in rural communities rely on groundwater and their own wells rather than a water utility that can marshal resources for cleanup,” Rumpler says.

He says the EPA’s proposal is a big step toward prioritizing public health.

“The limits that EPA has proposed are based on the best available science showing that these chemicals can impact human health even at really low levels,” he says.

The EPA estimates the country could save more than a billion dollars by averting the need for treatments from PFAS-related ailments.

“In short,” Rumpler says, “it's not worth trading convenience for cancer.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost had not yet commented on plans to join lawsuits against chemical companies. While Yost’s office had not commented on the issue or the lawsuits since the EPA proposed the regulations last Tuesday, the Ohio Attorney General’s office did filelawsuits against chemical companies in 2018 when now-Gov. Mike DeWine was in charge.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.