PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” that have been polluting ground water and waterways around the country for decades, also resides in Doylestown Borough’s five wells.
A study to consider treatment options for the community’s drinking water is expected to be ready this fall, officials said.
While the borough’s PFAS levels remain well below the current federal guideline of 70 parts per trillion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent interim health advisory dropped those levels to 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. The agency has indicated it intends to drop the maximum containment level to zero.
“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals. The action announced today will improve transparency and advance EPA’s aggressive efforts to confront this pollution,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan, in a recent statement.
The chemicals, found in a wide variety of products such as firefighting foams, non-stick cookware, floor polishes and stain resistant products, are known to cause many serious health problems, including cancers, cardiovascular and thyroid diseases and immune system disorders.
Doylestown’s manager John Davis said the EPA announcement surprised many municipal leaders in Pennsylvania and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which had been preparing to set its own standards for the first time this year.
While the borough has been testing its wells for PFAS, the general term used for perfluoroalkyl substances, since 2016, it wasn’t until 2019 the potent pollutants were detected, as testing became more sophisticated, Davis said.
“We don’t think it’s growing,” he added. “We will meet state guidelines of 0.14 for PFOA and 0.18 for PFOS.” However, Davis stressed, “our planning is based on zero. It’s not any cheaper to treat to 0.14 than it is to zero.”
The expense to the small borough of about 8,500 residents will be extraordinary, regardless the treatment option chosen. Davis estimated the cost between $7.5 million and $10 million, with annual maintenance costs nearing $300,000. By comparison, Doylestown’s water budget today is $1.4 million.
The borough, along with many other similarly affected communities, is preparing to seek grant money from the first $1 billion of funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
As it considers current treatment technologies such as granular activated carbon, ion exchange and reverse osmosis, Davis said, engineers will be comparing operational costs, size and design. “Our wells are located in small areas,” the manager noted.
A detailed informational page on the PFAS matter will be added to Doylestown’s website in the coming weeks, Davis said.
In addition to treatment facilities, Davis said other considerations are being discussed.
“We’re exploring purchasing bulk water and buying water from other sources,” he said, noting that some surrounding municipalities buy water from the North Penn and North Wales water authorities.
One option not being considered is privatization, Davis said. “No, we are not discussing that,” he said. However, “Small water systems are facing enormous challenges. How that impacts privatization is yet to be seen.”
Aqua Pennsylvania, a subsidiary of Essential Utilities, recently offered to buy the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority’s sewer system for $1.1 billion. The potential sale has met with fierce opposition from municipalities served by BCWSA. On Tuesday, the county commissioners all recommended that the sale not proceed. A rally against that project was scheduled for Wednesday morning at the county courthouse.
While most U.S. manufacturers have phased out PFOA and PFOS, these substances still are in limited use. Studies have shown that PFOA and PFOS remain in the environment and do not degrade over time.
Bucks County is suing several manufactures for contamination of the county’s environment.