Levels of dangerous perfluorocarbon (PFCs) in drinking water continue to bedevil the Gadsden Water Works and Sewer Board.
Two recent samples from the Coosa River, where Gadsden gets its water, tested above the federally recommended long-term level for two specific PFCs, PFOA and PFOS. That prompted the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) yesterday to remind pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, formula-fed infants, and others sensitive to toxins to consider using alternate sources of drinking water.
Also, the Board has filed suit against more than 30 businesses and industries, many of them carpet mills, for damages from past and present release of toxic chemicals, including PFCs, into the Coosa River. The Coosa is Gadsden Water Board’s source of raw water for the drinking water it processes and distributes. In the filing, the Board says that its current treatment operation cannot remove the PFCs, and it would have to install a new system to do so.
ADPH’s State Environmental Toxicologist John Guarisco said the most recent samples of Coosa River Water used by Gadsden, taken by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), showed levels of 84 and 82 parts per trillion (ppt), above the 70 ppt recommended safe maximum level established in an EPA health advisory in May.
“However, the cumulative average of samples taken throughout the summer is at or under 70 ppt,” Guarisco said today. Because the health advisory is based on recommended lifetime levels of the pollutants, averaging sample results over at least a month is appropriate, he added.
“We are not sure whether these recent higher levels of PFOA and PFOS are due to seasonal drought or technical details, or just a strange blip in results,” Guarisco said. ADEM will continue to test the Gadsden water regularly, and ADPH will make additional recommendations if results change, according to an ADPH news release Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Guarisco said his department issued the news release because “concentrations confirmed to be consistently above 70 ppt are subject to the EPA recommendations listed in the health advisory.” Sampling of the Gadsden drinking water supply will continue, he said.
Report from Centre
The news release made no reference to the Centre Water Works and Sewer Board, which also has been under summer-long sampling program for PFOA and PFOS, but David Garrett, general manager, said concentrations of PFOA and PFOS have not reached the elevated levels found in the Gadsden system.
“We’ve averaged right at 70 ppt for the last few weeks,” Garrett said. He noted that drought conditions have plagued east and north Alabama in recent months, which might increase the concentration of pollutants in the river water. “The plan is to continue monitoring the levels (of PFCs) through the change in seasons and see how more rainfall will affect their concentration.”
The Centre system has hired an engineering consultancy firm to help develop a proposal for alternative filtration in case that becomes necessary, he said.
Average levels of pollutants PFOA and PFOS in the drinking water of the Gadsden and Centre water works systems were at or below the EPA-advised level in the month of July, officials of those facilities reported earlier.
Some individual samples for both Centre and Gadsden water systems exceeded the health advisory level, but the averages for the month were below the limit (of 70 parts per trillion). The advised level is for lifetime exposure so concentrations are averaged from weekly samples collected by ADEM to get a monthly measure.
Sampling of the water continued through August on a weekly basis. Sampling and testing on the two Coosa River systems “probably will go on for a year,” according to David Garrett, general manager of the Centre Water Works and Sewer Board.
PFCs are man-made chemicals that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Found in products such as nonstick cookware, carpet protection products, firefighting foams, and waterproof clothing, they have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and other health problems.
Search for Solutions
While testing continues, Garret said, officials from the Alabama Department of Environmental Protection (ADEM) have begun meeting with counterparts at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the federal Environmental Protection Agency about the concentration of PFOAs and PFOSs in the Coosa River Basin. Before they were voluntarily phased out by industry some 10 years ago, the dangerous compounds were used by carpet makers on the Coosa River in northwestern Georgia, but the agencies will also look for possible new sources, Garrett said.
Both Garrett and Mike Lankford, superintendent of environmental services of the Gadsden Water Works and Sewer Board, said their systems are evaluating possible long-term solutions to reducing the levels of the contaminants and have hired consulting engineers to help with that process. Already, both systems have altered their water treatment methods to lower the concentrations. The two water systems met August 16 with ADEM officials to discuss treatment options and next steps.
Lankford said filtration with granular, activated carbon and other, newer methods are possible options for the future that are being evaluated. “There are very few things that have the positive effect of reducing (the contaminants),” he said. “We’re running through the gamut of choices. We want to be good stewards for the water system and the environment and make sure we’re doing the right thing that fixes the problem permanently, and you can’t do that without fully vetting each option.”
The water systems have had to respond rapidly in the three months since issuance of the new EPA health advisory that set the 70 ppt standard. Previous levels advised were seven times more and were for short-term exposure.
Initially eight water systems were reported to have concentrations that were over the new advised level. Five were quickly removed from the list as they were erroneously listed or switched to another water supplier. The Gadsden and Centre systems, as well as the West Morgan-East Limestone (WMEL) Water Authority on the Tennessee River, are still dealing with this problem. WMEL plans a temporary GAC filtration fix, with plans to install a more expensive, permanent filtration system later.
A recent Harvard study found that Alabama was surpassed by only three other states in the frequency that compounds like PFOA and PFOS were detected at the level of 70ppt or higher in drinking water supplies. Only California, New Jersey, and North Carolina had more frequent detections. The study was based a nationwide EPA monitoring program from 2013-2015 that found unsafe levels of the dangerous chemicals in the drinking water of 33 states affected more than 6 million people and may be as high as 100 million, authors said.
While the toxins were once used extensively by carpet makers on the upper Coosa River, the 3M and Daikin industries in Morgan County and the BASF (formerly Olin) chemical plants in Washington County on the Tombigbee River also have been identified as origin points for the substances. These contaminants also are associated with the number of military fire training areas and the number of wastewater treatment plants in each watershed.
The WMEL Water Authority filed federal lawsuits last year against 3M and another Decatur chemical manufacturer, Daikin, alleging the companies discharged chemicals that “are not effectively treated by conventional wastewater treatment plant processes” upstream from their intake on the Wheeler Reservoir. The nonprofit environmental advocacy group Tennessee Riverkeeper also has filed suit against 3M, Decatur Utility, and others seeking remediation for landfills and disposal facilities which it says are still leaching contaminants into the river.
Mark Martin, an attorney for the Riverkeeper, said contaminated material travels on “a toxic merry-go-round.” He said “[PFCs] leaching from the landfill goes to the wastewater treatment plant. What is not released into the river as liquid waste ends up as de-watered sludge containing the chemicals. The sludge is pumped out of Decatur’s treatment plant, which does not have the means to remove the chemicals, and goes back to the landfill.”
It’s not a fully contained cycle, Martin said. The compounds escape in liquid waste discharged back into the river, the landfill liners are leaking chemicals into the groundwater supplies despite the landfill efforts to pump out the leachate, and the community is exposed to PFOAs and PFOSs that escape from trucks transporting them to and from landfills and the treatment plant, he said.