- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

EXETER, N.H. (AP) - A new group of toxic chemicals is causing headaches for state officials in New England, several whom talked of struggling to understand the health risk and find the money to clean up the compounds that are increasingly turning up in the regions drinking water.

Once used to make Teflon and other non-stick products like fast-food wrappers, the chemicals perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl have been found in high concentrations in the drinking water around military bases, factories, landfills and other sites across the country. Exposure at high levels is linked to liver damage, developmental problems and some forms of cancer, among other risks.

Prompted by the growing concern and confusion over the chemicals known as PFOA and PFAS, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing a plan to manage the chemicals. It also has started meeting with local communities - the first of which took place Monday and Tuesday in New Hampshire - to get input. Other meetings are planned for Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Carolina.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group estimated in a new study that more than 1,500 water systems serving as many as 110 million customers across the country may be contaminated. In New England, the EPA said it has found that 22 of its 123 Superfund sites have high levels of the chemical.

“We’re finding it all over the place,” said Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, referring to chemical found in high levels in wells across Bennington and North Bennington in 2016 as well as wells in Claredon.

“It’s pervasive in commercial products,” he said. “It’s showing up in people’s septic systems, in landfills and in wastewater treatment plants.”

Part of the challenge, the state officials said, is determining what is considered safe levels of the compounds in drinking water. Many follow the guidance from the EPA, which advises that up to 70 parts per trillion in drinking water is acceptable. But Vermont has set a much lower standard of 20 parts per trillion, and New York is considering lowering its standard.

Adding to the confusion was a draft report released last week by the Department of Health and Human Services’ toxicology office that suggested the industrial chemicals were much more toxic than previously thought. One White House official, in an email released under the Freedom of Information Act, referred to the findings as a “potential public relations nightmare.”

“We are just learning a lot about some of these compounds. These are a completely new and different class of compounds. They behave differently in the environment in many ways,” said George Heitzman, the director of remediation for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

The chemicals have contaminated drinking water in Hoosick Falls in Rensselaer County, as well as around an Air National Guard base in Newburgh and groundwater near another base in Southampton, Long Island. The state has spent more than $38 million to investigate and clean up contamination linked to the chemicals.

“I think it’s important for EPA to do research on a national level to come up with a consistent and enforceable maximum contaminant level for drinking water,” Heitzman said. “You are hearing from other states they are taking action independently of the federal government. But I think the federal government has a role in taking leadership on this.”

Other state officials talked of the challenges of finding the contamination, identifying those responsible for the contamination and finding ways to safely dispose of the chemical often found in soil and sludge.

The EPA is considering whether to establish a threshold for maximum allowable levels in drinking water. It also has pledged to start the process of declaring those particular versions of the chemicals as hazardous substances. The step could allow the agency to make companies pay for releasing the pollutants into ground and water.

“The fact that we are here in this community one month after Administrator (Scott) Pruitt convened a national event around these issues with multiple federal agencies shows we are taking it very seriously,” Alexandra Dunn, a regional administrator for EPA, told The Associated Press. “He (Pruitt) wanted us to go across the country and hear from communities. He did not want the activities around these chemicals to be a beltway-centric exercise.”


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