BOSTON – Communities reporting chemical compounds in their public water supply now have a definitive level to show concern over and financial support to reduce those levels.
Last Thursday, the Baker administration announced a new drinking-water standard for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that is deemed hazardous for public consumption.
The administration established a contaminant limit of 20 parts per trillion for the sum of six PFAS compounds called “PFAS6.” If any community detects levels of the compounds above 20 ppt, the state requires the public water supplier to perform further testing and take steps to eliminate the traces of PFAS from the drinking water. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants are particularly sensitive subgroups to the chemicals.
Concerns over PFAS compounds in drinking water ramped up in 2018 after traces were detected in water wells surrounding the former Fort Devens. Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been testing and sampling the groundwater in Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, eventually determining the compounds could have seeped into nearby water wells over time.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, claimed in 2019 that the compound traces came from firefighting foam that was used at the former Army base.
“Our administration is committed to ensuring that all residents have access to safe and clean drinking water,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in the release. “By setting stringent standards for PFAS in drinking water, we can ensure that all public water systems across the Commonwealth are testing for these emerging contaminant, while providing them the tools and resources they need to address any contamination.”
The administration also announced over $1.9 million in financial awards to 10 public water-supply systems in communities. Those include the Ayer, Westfield, Barnstable/Hyannis, Hudson, Barnstable/Cummaquid, Acton, Aquarion Water Company/Millbury Easton, Tri Town Water Board/Braintree, Holbrook and Randolph, and Massachusetts Development Finance Agency/Devens.
The money is meant to help those water systems address PFAS contamination by designing water treatment systems. Each system will receive $200,000, except for the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency/Devens which will receive $199,101.
“Over the last several years, the administration has supported local communities in taking aggressive action to test for PFAS contamination and to address it quickly,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. “These new standards and grant funding reinforce our commitment to ensuring that all sources of drinking water across the state are safe, clean and healthy.”
All community public water systems will be required to test for PFAS6. Under the new standards, public water suppliers serving a population of 50,000 or more will start testing Jan. 1, 2021. Public water suppliers serving populations between 10,000 and 50,000 will start testing April 1, 2021, while those serving a population of less than 10,000 will start testing Oct 1, 2021.
Laurie Nehring, president of the People of Ayer Concerned About the Environment group, said this week that she and the group are “very happy” about the new standard compared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended level of 70ppt.
“We think that the 20ppt for the six different PFAS chemicals is reasonable,” she added. “We are also delighted that our Department of Public Works Superintendent, Mark Wetzel, has been awarded one of the $200,000 grants to support the construction of the Ayer treatment facilities needed to remove PFAS from drinking water. I feel we are well ahead of the curve on addressing PFAS, thanks to the diligent work of our DPW and our Select Board, as well as the voters of Ayer who financially supported the construction projects.”
Wetzel said the town will soon have one of its two planned water-treatment plants up and running. Construction on the first plant, meant to treat wells located near Grove Pond, has been completed and startup testing has been performed. According to Wetzel, all that’s left are the results of said testing before the plant becomes full operational.
Wetzel added that the second treatment plant, meant to treat wells located near Spectacle Pond, is still under construction and is expected to take a year to complete. He noted that the $200,000 grant will go to the construction of this treatment plant, since the U.S. Army covered the costs of the Grove Pond plant.
“Now we know what our goals are and what our limits are,” Wetzel said. “If we hadn’t been proactive, we wouldn’t have been able to start testing this year.”