PFAS detected in 15 local public water systems over proposed EPA guidelines

At least 15 area public water systems together serving hundreds of thousands of residents have detected toxic, man-made chemicals at levels that exceed guidelines soon to go into effect from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what’s considered acceptable in drinking water, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

For years, area water departments have assured residents that in nearly all cases, contamination levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are below current EPA guidelines of 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt). But in March the U.S. EPA announced it intends to lower its standard to 4 ppt for certain types of PFAS, known by the acronyms PFOS and PFOA.

Across Ohio, PFOS and/or PFOA have been detected in at least 67 public water systems at levels exceeding 4 ppt. The state tested all water systems in Ohio and collected data in from 2020 to 2022. The Ohio EPA stopped collecting data in 2022. The Dayton Daily News analyzed Ohio EPA data to identify water systems that reported PFAS over 4 ppt.

Our analysis found:

- Montgomery, Greene and Warren counties were among the five counties in Ohio with the most water systems that detected PFAS and PFOA over the U.S. EPA’s proposed limit. Fifteen public water systems in our nine-county region reported samples over 4 ppt.

- Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Aullwood Farm Discovery Center had the third and fourth highest detected levels of these compounds in Ohio. A well tested at WPAFB on July 29, 2020 had PFOS at 236 ppt. A well tested at Aullwood on Aug. 19, 2021 had PFOA levels at 95.8 ppt. Both systems have taken steps to address the issue.

- The largest local water system with PFAS detected over 4 ppt is the city of Dayton’s. In addition to serving the city’s 140,407 customers, Dayton sells water to Montgomery County — which in turn provides it to hundreds of thousands of residents across the county — as well as parts of Greene County. The city of Dayton wouldn’t answer questions related to its plans for addressing PFAS contamination, citing “active litigation.”

- Many public water systems across Ohio weren’t able to report to the state whether they had PFAS over 4 ppt, because the tests used couldn’t detect it under 5 ppt. This means it’s unclear exactly how many water systems contain PFAS over the recommended EPA threshold of 4 ppt but under the detectable level of 5 ppt.

- Some public water systems, such as the city of Middletown, have not disclosed in their annual water quality reports to residents the amount of PFAS detected in the system’s water supply.

- Local water systems say they are working to address and remove PFAS in local water supplies, but solutions will be expensive and take years to implement. Advocates say there are things that can be done in the interim to protect the public.

Proposed limits

This is not an issue isolated to the Miami Valley: it’s estimated that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water.

PFAS are a group of powerful, toxic chemicals created to be resistant to heat and other elements. PFAS are very difficult to break down due to their chemical composition, which consists of strong bonds of fluorine and carbon atoms. For this reason, they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.”

One part per trillion is equivalent to a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. PFAS over these levels don’t represent an immediate health risk, officials say, but the standards are meant to reduce the risk from a lifetime of exposure.

“EPA expects that if fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” the EPA said in announcing the new standards.

The U.S. EPA intends to finalize the new regulations by the end of 2023. After that, public water systems will have to monitor for PFAS, notify the public of PFAS levels and reduce levels of PFAS in drinking water if they exceed the standards.

Highest levels detected

Tests reported to the Ohio EPA show some regional water systems had PFAS levels several times higher than the proposed limit.

Aullwood Farm and Discovery Center in Butler Twp. was one of few systems over the current advisory level of 70 ppt. Aullwood began using water from the city of Union in 2021 after the PFAS contamination was discovered.

Warren County’s Richard Renneker Public Water System saw PFOS levels of 49.3 ppt in September 2022. The Western Water Company — which serves parts of Brown, Clinton, Clermont and Warren counties — recorded PFOS levels of 27.5 ppt in August 2022.

Forever chemicals in local water systems      
Below are area public water systems that recorded PFOS and/or PFOA levels above the proposed U.S. EPA guidelines in the most recent data reported to the Ohio EPA. The EPA is recommending limiting such compounds to four parts-per-trillion (PPT) in drinking water. Below are reported results in ppt and the date when those results were found.       
Public water systemService areaPopulation servedPFOS level at highest most recent test*Most recent testing datePFOA level at highest most recent test*Most recent testing date
A AND R RECK MOBILE HOME PARKMiami County mobile home park community509.755/19/2021  
AULLWOOD FARM DISCOVERY CENTERBuilding at facility Non-residential17.18/19/202195.88/19/2021
BELLBROOK WATER WORKSBellbrook community9,4008.719/8/20224.769/8/2022
DAYTON PUBLIC WATER SYSTEMDayton, Montgomery and Greene county communityMore than 200,000 (including city and county customers)7.4711/9/2020**  
FAIRBORN PUBLIC WATER SYSTEMFairborn, Greene County communityMore than 33,000 (including city and county)8.023/10/2021  
KINGS ISLAND PWSPark visitors and employeesNon-residential25.28/10/2022  
MIDDLETOWN CITY PWSMiddletown community48,7955.27/2/2020  
MORROW VILLAGE PWSMorrow village community3,36015.78/31/2022  
PHILLIPSBURG VILLAGE PWSPhillipsburg community49020.68/25/20223.668/25/2022
POSSUM ELEMENTARY SCHOOL NORTH PWSClosed school0  8.953/30/2021
URBANA CITY PWSUrbana community11,428  5.98/19/2020
WARREN CO. RICHARD RENNEKER PWSLebanon and parts of Warren County39,00949.39/27/202249/27/2022
WESTERN WATER COMPANYParts of Brown, Clinton, Clermont, and Warren Counties40,00027.58/17/2022  
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB AREA A PWSWright-Patterson Air Force Base Area A16,5515.785/4/20215.263/18/2021
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB AREA B PWSWright-Patterson Air Force Base Area B11,03413.25/4/20217.745/4/2021
* If multiple wells were tested the same day, the highest result is shown      
** This is the most recent data reported to the Ohio EPA. Dayton also lists PFAS levels on its website. The most recent test where PFAS was May 1, 2023, when it was detected at 7.9 PPT.       
Source: Ohio Environmental Protection Agency     

Kings Island’s public water system had 25 ppt during its most recent test recorded by the Ohio EPA, recorded on Aug. 10, 2022.

“We are aware of proposed regulations regarding PFAS contaminants that are expected to go into effect later this year,” said Kings Island in a statement.

“Over the past year, the EPA has begun testing for PFAS levels in local municipalities and private water treatment facilities. Kings Island is currently in compliance with EPA requirements and is diligently working towards solutions to comply with any new regulations regarding PFAS levels. Kings Island will always keep the safety of our guests and associates a top priority.”

Residents react, agencies don’t

A July 2, 2020 test of the city of Middletown’s water supply found 5.2 ppt of PFOS. No mention is made of this in the annual water quality reports sent to residents, though the city did start adding a generic overview of what PFAS is in the 2021 report.

Middletown spokesman Byron McCauley said Middletown’s water treatment plant draws water from 13 production wells that collect groundwater from both a deep and shallow aquifer. The raw water is treated using a lime-softening process, dual-media filtration, and disinfection before being pumped into the distribution system. He said the Ohio EPA tested the city’s raw and treated water for PFAS in 2020, detecting the PFOS in the city’s raw water; the sampling results for the finished water entering the distribution were below what their testing method could detect.

“Per the Ohio EPA, Consumer Confidence Reports are required to include a table of detected contaminants in the public water system’s finished water. In 2020, the Ohio EPA included specific requirements for the PFAS sampling that was conducted. For public water systems with no detections for PFAS in the finished water, there was no requirement to provide information related to the sampling,” McCauley said.

Read the whole project:

- PFAS detected in 15 local public water systems over proposed EPA guidelines

- Experts discuss how PFAS got into our water, and efforts to eliminate ‘forever chemicals’

- Dayton says they’re working to address PFAS, but won’t go into detail

- Concerned about PFAS contamination? Here’s 5 things you can do at home

- Health, infrastructure costs of PFAS in the billions; Who should pay for it?

Several water systems refused to comment for this story, including Dayton and the city of Urbana. Others did not return calls and emails seeking comment, including Phillipsburg, Morrow and a mobile home park in Miami County.

A test on Aug. 25, 2022 detected PFOS in Phillipsburg’s water at 20.6 ppt — five times the proposed U.S. EPA threshold.

A Dayton Daily News reporter talked about water quality with nearly a dozen people in Phillipsburg during the Aug. 8 election as they walked out of their polling location. Only three individuals indicated they knew of PFAS’ existence, but almost all people who stopped to talk to the reporter said they had concerns about what was in their drinking water — whether PFAS or other contaminants.

Darryl and Debra Phipps live in the Phillipsburg area and have a well for their water, which their son tests for them regularly. As far as the couple knows, there isn’t PFAS in their water, but they pointed to PFAS contamination’s effect on the community’s health.

“You think about your grandkids,” said Debra Phipps. “The kind of impact this could have on future generations is concerning.”

The couple said that local governments testing often for PFAS would be a good starting point for addressing the issue, but long-term solutions need to be planned.

Warren County systems implement changes

Warren County’s Richard Renneker water system in 2021 was tested for PFAS, showing levels nearly as high as 50 ppt.

Warren County water department deputy director Chris Wojnicz said since the water department completed a $21 million water filtering upgrade last fall and made other changes, PFAS is now undetectable in its water. This means tests typically come back with less than 5 ppt of PFAS chemicals.

Wojnicz said the groundwater coming from the Richard Renneker plant is pulled from the Little Miami aquifer and then processed through a sand filtration system. Water then travels through a membrane system packed with activated carbon.

PFAS researchers have found that granulated activated carbon is efficient in filtering out the chemicals from drinking water.

Wojnicz said the water department also tested the wells at the Richard Renneker plant: two that were testing higher for PFAS were put out of commission and are now only used on hot days when demand is higher.

Western Water Company, which serves roughly 40,000 people living in parts of Brown, Warren, Clermont and Clinton counties, is also planning a large redesign of its water filtration system, opting too for a granulated activated carbon system. Initial costs for the installation will be more than $2 million, said Scott Kirk of Western Water Company.

The multi-county water provider is a non-profit and not eligible for certain government PFAS program funds, Kirk said.

WPAFB water system

A major contributor to groundwater contamination from PFAS in this area is runoff from firefighting foam used over decades at WPAFB and the Dayton International Airport because of its ability to extinguish jet fuel fires. This is one reason PFAS levels are particularly high under the base.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has also implemented big-dollar changes to address PFAS.

Its two water systems that tested higher than the proposed limit for PFOS and PFOA were in Areas A and B of the base. Water from those systems is used in on-base dormitories, fitness centers and hundreds of other housing units used by some base employees. According to the Ohio EPA, more than 27,000 people are served by these systems.

Since 2015, the Department of the Air Force has provided $44 million to address PFAS at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 2017, the Air Force installed a PFAS treatment system consisting of granular activated carbon at the base, according to a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base spokesperson.

The Department of the Air Force also committed another $6 million in 2020 to conduct a remedial investigation at 26 foam release sites across the base.

Another $29 million was committed to the construction of PFAS treatment systems at the base in 2024, and a Department of Air Force-wide project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is being conducted to evaluate potential sources of PFAS that are not related to firefighting foam.

Bellbrook, Fairborn settle with 3M

Public water systems in Bellbrook and Fairborn were recently named in a $10.3 billion settlement with PFAS manufacturer 3M that will help them upgrade systems to improve water quality.

Attorney Brandon Taylor, who is representing the city of Fairborn in its settlement with 3M Co., a company that produced and distributed firefighting foam with PFAS for decades, said it’s unclear how much the city will be receiving in the settlement.

Taylor said this settlement only covers public water systems, not owners of private wells that may be impacted by PFAS. Money received from the settlement will be used to meet compliance with the proposed EPA standards. Taylor said water departments will have a few years to come into compliance with the new standard once it goes into effect.

“The point of this money is to allow water providers to begin to collect money that they can use to determine whatever system it is they need to clean their water of these chemicals,” Taylor said. “It’s not a cookie cutter approach in the sense that you have to have this (or) that. Engineers or experts will look at the best fit for their particular communities.”

Bellbrook city manager Rob Schommer said the city is also in very preliminary stages of its 3M settlement, but it expects there will be requirements on their end for additional testing for PFAS.

“The city of Bellbrook is remaining proactive in setting up additional test,” he said.

Once the settlement is finalized, however, money awarded to Bellbrook will be used for the removal and abatement of PFAS levels in the water supply, as well as ongoing monitoring, he said.

A reporter talked to a dozen Bellbrook residents walking out of their local library earlier this month about what they expect of their local governments in addressing PFAS.

Although more than half of Bellbrook residents who stopped to talk said they were not aware of PFAS, several stated that they expected their governments to use settlement money to up their testing for the substances and take action to bring down the contamination levels of PFAS.

Jerry Hayden has been a Bellbrook resident for 20 years. He and his wife use Bellbrook’s water for some purposes, but they typically purchase gallon water jugs for drinking water — his wife isn’t a fan of the taste of tap water.

Hayden said he wasn’t familiar with PFAS itself but knew sometimes drinking water is contaminated by harmful substances.

In terms of solutions toward addressing PFAS, he wasn’t sure how the government could help aside from testing and looking into how to filter out the chemicals. He worried the cost of remediation, though, would come out of the pocket of taxpayers.

“Gosh, are we going to be paying for that?” he asked.

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