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Dozens of Texas water systems exceed new federal limits on 'forever chemicals'

A cascade aerator at a Texas wastewater plant. Nearly 50 water utilities around Texas have reported levels of PFAS chemicals that exceed a new federal limit.
Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
for The Texas Tribune
A cascade aerator at a Texas wastewater plant. Nearly 50 water utilities around Texas have reported levels of PFAS chemicals that exceed a new federal limit.

In Texas, 49 public water utility systems have reported surpassing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever limits for five “forever chemicals” in drinking water, according to data submitted to the federal agency.

Experts say there are likely more since not all water systems have submitted their data.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are widespread and long lasting in the environment. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don't break down and can persist in water and soil, and even human blood indefinitely. The chemicals have been used since the 1940s to repel oil and water and resist heat. They have been included in thousands of household products from nonstick cookware to industrial products like firefighting foam.

There are more than 12,000 types of individual forever chemicals, but new EPA standards announced last week set new limits for five of them: PFOA and PFOS have a limit of 4 parts per trillion while PFHxS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA have a limit of 10 parts per trillion.

One part per trillion is equivalent to a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The new standards will require water utilities to meet them within five years. The EPA estimates that the new limits, which are legally enforceable, will reduce exposure for 100 million people nationwide and help prevent thousands of deaths and illnesses, including from cancer.

One study found the chemicals in the blood of nearly 97% of all Americans. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to cancer, causing low birth rate and birth defects, damage to the liver and immune system, and other serious health problems. In 2022, the EPA issued health advisories that said the chemicals were much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought.

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release last week. “That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide.”

EPA estimates that between about 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to this rule may have to take action to reduce PFAS to meet these new standards.

The new standards will require all public water utility systems to submit PFAS data to the EPA. So far, only about 24% of them have submitted this data nationally. EPA expects all data to be submitted by 2026. In Texas, more than 420 public water systems have submitted PFAS results to the federal agency and 113 of them detected some level of PFAS in the water.

Of those, nearly 50 public water systems reported at least one exceedance of any of the five chemicals that the EPA targeted. Some of the cities on that list include Abilene, Arlington, Baytown, Deer Park, Fort Worth, Grapevine, and Dallas (the full list can be found at the end of this story).

“These are very harmful chemicals. It's even more important for [water systems] to address this in the drinking water to minimize the exposure of people in Texas,” said Maria Doa, a senior director of chemicals policy for the environmental nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, after looking at Texas’ PFAS results.

Public water systems will have three years to complete their initial monitoring for these chemicals and will be required to inform the public of the level of PFAS measured in their drinking water. Fort Worth’s water system has already done both.

Fort Worth’s water testing found three of the five newly-regulated contaminants exceeding limits. In the city’s North and South Holly water treatment plants, located on the west side near the city’s botanic garden and the zoo, PFHxS levels ranged from 12.2 to 25.8 parts per trillion, compared to the new federal limit of 10 parts per trillion. PFOA levels at both plants ranged from 4.2 to 8.3 parts per trillion, above the new limit of 4 parts per trillion.

According to the city's website, the water system serves more than 1.3 million people in Fort Worth and surrounding communities.

“Even though the rule does give us more time to come into compliance, we're not delaying our plans or anything,” said Mary Gugliuzza, a media relations and communications coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department.

Gugliuzza said that as soon as the city started seeing results come in last year it began the process of soliciting proposals for how to treat the chemicals. City officials expect to award a contract for PFAS treatment this summer.

“To be honest, there's not a lot of technologies available for [treatment] and the cost to implement the technology is going to be very expensive,” Gugliuzza said.

One method Fort Worth is considering using activated carbon, which is commonly used to filter contaminants from water. The activated carbon would attract and hold the PFAS for removal.

The EPA has approved the use of activated carbon, reverse osmosis (purifying water using pressure) and ion exchange systems (a chemical process) to remove PFAS from drinking water.

To help cities treat their water for PFAS, the EPA has allocated $9 billionthrough the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But Gugliuzza said securing funding doesn’t mean everything will be paid for and some of the cost may be passed on to city water customers.

Gage Zobell, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, has been following the EPA’s PFAS regulations closely. The firm, which has an office in Dallas, represents some Texas utilities as well as 3M, a company that has been a major contributor to the production of PFAS.

Zobell said the federal funding will not come close to covering the cost of removing PFAS from drinking water, which leaves water utilities with two options: charging their customers more to pay for upgrades required to meet the new standards, or suing the companies responsible for the PFAS in their water.

Several cities are already seeking to sue chemical manufacturers. Last year, Fort Worth and Dallas rejected two class action settlements with chemical manufacturers 3M and DuPont, which faced hundreds of legal claims by U.S water providers that the companies polluted public drinking water with the chemicals. 3M had agreed to pay $10.3 billion and DuPont agreed to pay $1.2 billion.

But the water systems in the neighboring North Texas cities said the settlements were “inadequate”and decided to opt out of the settlement so that they could file their own lawsuits against the chemical manufacturers.

“The need for easy access to water is becoming expensive,” Zobell said. “This is only going to be adding to the expense … especially [in] dry and hot states like Texas, where rates already have to be high for your water.”

The American Water Works Association released a study last year estimating the national cost for treatment systems to reduce just two of the five chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to meet the EPA standards would surpass $3.8 billion per year.

Viraj deSilva, a PFAS expert and senior treatment process leader at Freese and Nichols, a consulting and engineering firm, said Texas had been a bit slow to pursue PFAS treatment because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency, was waiting for federal limits to be finalized. He said companies that provide treatment for PFAS will now be in high demand and cities must take action now.

Texas water utilities that have reported one or more PFAS chemical exceeding the new federal standard:

  • Abilene Northeast and Grimes Water Treatment Plant
  • Town of Anthony
  • Arlington Pierce Burch Water Treatment Plant
  • Baytown Area Water Authority
  • Big Springs Water Plant
  • Clear Lake Water Authority
  • Childress Water Plant
  • Cockrell Hill Water Plant
  • Coupland: Manville Water Supply Corporation
  • Dallas Water Utility Eula Water Supply Cooperation in Clyde
  • Deer Park Surface Water Treatment Plant
  • Duncanville Water Treatment Plant
  • Edinburg Wastewater Plant
  • City of Farmers Branch
  • Town of Flower Mound Wastewater Treatment
  • Fort Bend County Municipal Utility District No. 133
  • Fort Bend County Municipal Utility District No. 41
  • Fort Worth North and South Holly Water Treatment Plant
  • Gastonia Scurry Special Utility District
  • Georgetown San Gabriel Park Water Treatment Plant
  • Grapevine Water Treatment Plant
  • Greenville Water Treatment Plant
  • Haltom City
  • Harris County Municipal Utility District No. 119
  • Harris County Municipal Utility District No. 8
  • Houston: Spencer Road Public Utility District
  • Hudson Oaks Lakeshore Plant
  • Huntsville Palm Street Water Plant
  • Irving MacArthur Pump Station
  • Katy: Big Oaks Municipal Utility District
  • Killeen: West Bell County Water Supply
  • La Feria Water Treatment Plant
  • City of Lake Worth
  • City of Livingston
  • Midland Water Purification Plant
  • Prosper Custer Pump Station
  • Port Lavaca Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority Water Treatment Plant
  • San Antonio Water System Castle Hills
  • City of Seagoville
  • Seguin: Springs Hill Water Supply Corporation
  • Temple Water Treatment Plant
  • Terrell North Texas Municipal Water District
  • City of Tye
  • Weatherford Water Treatment Plant
  • West University Place Plant 1 and 2

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/16/texas-pfas-forever-chemicals-public-water-systems-epa-limit/.

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Alejandra Martinez | The Texas Tribune