Littleton’s new water treatment plant is not, shall we say, a head-turning architectural marvel. It’s a large, unadorned brick building resembling a fieldhouse. Or perhaps an overgrown shed.
But when Nick Lawler looks at it, he beams.
“A thing of beauty!” Lawler, the general manager of the Littleton Electric Light and Water Departments, said. “It’s not the outside that matters — it’s what’s inside.”
What’s inside is a $16 million, state-of-the-art plant designed to treat Littleton’s drinking water for the toxic chemicals known as “PFAS.” The so-called “forever chemicals” have contaminated drinking water supplies across Massachusetts, and there’s no easy or cheap way to remove them.
For a town with only 10,000 residents, $16 million was a big price tag: the utility’s annual water budget is usually around $4 million. And with more regulations expected soon, the price of clean drinking water in the state is about to get a lot higher.
Lawler’s colleague, Water and Sewer Superintendent Corey Godfrey, stepped into the cavernous plant to point out four 24-foot-tall steel tanks — “filter vessels” that will remove PFAS from the water. They dwarfed the other tanks in the room.
“They go down into the basement,” Godfrey said, peering down a still-unfinished hole. He said each tank will be filled with 20 tons of activated charcoal. “That’s the carbon you need to remove the amount of PFAS we have.”
Littleton isn’t the only town spending millions to clean up the chemicals. Barnstable has so far invested $27 million to deal with PFAS, for example; and Cambridge recently spent $8.5 million to temporarily switch water supplies while changing its PFAS filters.
But the PFAS costs for Massachusetts communities may just be beginning. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release its own, potentially stricter, rules in March. These new regulations could cause the price of clean drinking water in the state to soar.
“Substantial investments have been made in Massachusetts to the tune of $100 million-plus already,” said Jennifer Pedersen, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association, an industry group. “I’m hoping everyone supports clean drinking water, but we know that at times when it comes up for town meeting votes, it’s been a challenge to get people to understand that they have to pay that true cost of water.”
A drop of water in a swimming pool
In 2020, Massachusetts set a limit on the amount of PFAS in public drinking water. The state limit is one of the strictest in the country: 20 parts per trillion for the sum of six PFAS chemicals. That’s like a drop of water in a swimming pool.
“All the other drinking water standards for all the other chemicals are in the concentration range of parts per billion or parts per million. …That gives you a sense of really how toxic these chemicals are,” said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a toxicologist at the Boston University School of Public Health.
PFAS chemicals were invented in the early 20th century. Because they have useful properties, companies have used them in thousands of products, from food packaging to waterproof jackets to firefighting foam. Over time the chemicals wash or flake or crumble off these products into landfills, soil, water, air and human bodies.
PFAS molecules don’t break down easily, hence the “forever chemical” nickname. And because they are so pervasive, they may as well be called “everywhere chemicals,” too. In Massachusetts, they’re widespread in ground and surface waters, rivers and even Cape Cod ponds. Studies estimate that 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood.
Heiger-Bernays, an expert on the toxicology of PFAS, advised the state on their drinking water regulations. She said she was satisfied with the rules: “I mean, as a public health professional, I would like to see the most protective approach taken,” she said.
But she said she’s also a pragmatist, and she acknowledged that getting PFAS levels down to that drop-in-a-pool level is difficult and expensive.
“The cost of doing this is enormous,” she said. “I mean, it’s absolutely mind-boggling.”
Who’s paying for PFAS cleanup?
Cleaning up PFAS in drinking water is rarely a one-and-done solution. Take Littleton, for instance. When the utility discovered PFAS contamination in its Spectacle Pond reservoir, Lawler considered expanding an existing treatment plant to add PFAS filters. But it turned out to be cheaper to build a $3.2 million pipeline and send the water to the big brick plant under construction, four miles away.
Then there was the water chemistry. Like many Massachusetts towns, Littleton’s groundwater is high in iron and manganese, elements that clog up PFAS filters. That’s why the new plant has all those giant tanks — first they have to filter out the iron, and then the manganese and then, finally, the PFAS. Operating costs at the plant are also higher: the carbon in the PFAS filters has to be swapped out yearly at a cost of $500,000.
The total cost for Littleton’s new plant, new pipeline and other PFAS-related expenses now stands at around $30 million, according to Lawler. The utility got some state grants and loan forgiveness to help pay for that. But since there’s no obvious source of the PFAS pollution — at least not yet — there’s no one to sue for more money. So the rest of the bill will be passed on to water customers as a 30% rate hike spread over decades.
“It’s a strain, especially during these economic times,” said Lawler. “People are pulling out everything to try to pay their bills. But they understand. This community’s always been willing to pay for clean water.”
To date, 170 water systems in the state have found PFAS levels over the legal limit. Almost all have found ways to mitigate the PFAS contamination, either by adding filters, finding a new water supply, or blending the polluted water with another source.
When contamination can be traced to a polluting factory or military base, towns have sometimes been able to recoup some of the cleanup costs. In Hudson, for instance, a manufacturing company that polluted drinking water supplies paid for PFAS filters and bottled water. But the costs of PFAS cleanup proved so high that the town still had to raise water rates multiple times, including, most recently, a 16% rate hike in 2022.
And in some cases, the towns themselves polluted the water, so the costs land back on the taxpayers. In Stow, for instance, an old fire station property has contaminated a handful of private wells with PFAS. So far, the town has spent half a million dollars on bottled water, testing and filters for affected homes. But Stow Town Administrator Denise Dembkoski is concerned the costs of PFAS in her town will keep climbing.
“If they say we have to remediate that site, I couldn’t even guess what that would cost,” Dembkoski said. “And we have some huge ticket items here in town, including a bridge. We have a dam that has to be replaced. We’re about to embark on a new library project. So we’ll go through the process and see what the costs are.”
‘Astronomical’ water costs ahead
Soon, the costs of PFAS cleanup in Massachusetts will likely rise.
The Environmental Protection Agency currently does not regulate PFAS in drinking water, but is expected to announce draft regulations in March. The agency has signaled the levels will be very low. Last June, the EPA issued nonbinding health advisories for two PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — setting thresholds to near zero.
If the EPA sets national regulations that low, it will likely force Massachusetts to enact stricter regulations here. That means communities across the state that thought they were in the clear will suddenly have PFAS levels above the legal limit.
“If EPA is going to lower that threshold, then you’re talking pretty much every city or town in the country is going to have PFAS readings,” said Dembkoski. “The costs are just astronomical.”
Even Littleton, with its brand-new plant, may not be out of the woods. Littleton’s water department has a smaller water supply connected to its own treatment plant on the other side of town. The PFAS levels in that water are around 10 parts per trillion, below the state limit. But if the regulations get stricter, that plant will likely need PFAS filters, too.
“Every community is going to have some sort PFAS filtration soon,” Lawler said.
The state has already allocated $170 million to PFAS cleanup, and more help may be on the way. The Legislature has proposed creating a new PFAS trust fund, and last year, then-Attorney General Maura Healey sued manufacturers of firefighting foam containing PFAS on behalf of the state. Healey said at the time that she was looking for a settlement “in the millions.”
But it’s doubtful that even millions of dollars will be enough to clean up water pollution this widespread, and in the end, the cost of safe water will be borne by residents.
And there’s another wrinkle, as water industry advocate Jennifer Pedersen pointed out: cleaning up drinking water alone won’t solve the state’s PFAS problem. Drinking water accounts for only part of the general public’s PFAS exposure — state scientists assume it’s about 20%. That means 80% of the PFAS in humans likely comes from other unregulated (or barely regulated) sources, like food, packaging and consumer products.
“This has to be more of an education on where you’re getting all of this exposure,” Pedersen said. “Because we are spending a lot of money to address drinking water.”
Many experts say the best solution is to severely restrict the manufacturers’ use of PFAS overall. Boston University toxicologist Wendy Heiger-Bernays said maybe the water-cleanup sticker shock will prod the government into action, and perhaps even prevent the next toxic chemical from making it into drinking water.
“I’m hopeful that it’s going to result in stricter regulation, and preventing the use of chemicals that have not been adequately tested,” Heiger-Bernays said. Then, she laughed. “I’m a dreamer. What can I say?”
Barbara Moran is WBUR’s climate and environment correspondent.
For more tips and information about PFAS, visit wbur.org/pfas.