Ohio’s health and environmental officials have been tasked with determining how much PFAS chemicals are in the state’s drinking water, a process experts said will likely be expensive and lengthy.
Gov. Mike DeWine this month ordered state agencies to analyze chemicals found in Ohio's water called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Studies have linked at least two types of PFAS to several health problems, including low birth-weights and various cancers.
The chemicals also have been found in the drinking water in Dayton and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, prompting the city to shut down some wells and the base to add a $2.7 million filtration system.
The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions for the most pressing issues facing the community, including protecting the region's drinking water that serves more than 400,000 people in Montgomery County. This story digs into what other states have learned about PFAS and how those lessons could be applied in Ohio.
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“It’s an endurance test,” said John Linc Stine, the former commissioner of Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency.“Don’t come to a conclusion quickly. Every time we learned one thing, we learned 10 things.”
Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein welcomed the DeWine’s leadership on PFAS, saying it positions him to advocate to the federal government on what will be needed going forward.
“It will certainly cost the cities, and then the rate payers, as those improvements have to be made,” she said. “It’s not going to be an easy nor inexpensive fix, to try and filter out (PFAS), let alone completely remove, because we’ve been dumping PFAS into the environment for 60, 70 years.”
When the Dayton Daily News asked DeWine’s office how the governor planned to pay for the analysis and future remediation efforts, his spokesman said it was “premature to speculate on this.”
Minnesota relied on large settlement
Minnesota began learning about these compounds in the water early in the 2000s, Stine said.
The state legislature took action by providing clean-up funds and establishing enforceable limits for the chemicals in drinking water.
“Science was the foundation of all the conversations,” Stine said. “Without good science and without credible scientists, this would not have moved forward like it did in Minnesota.”
But it also wouldn't be possible without money. Last year, Minnesota's attorney general reached a settlement with the state's largest, most iconic manufacturer, 3M Company, for an $850 million grant to pay for systems needed to ensure safe drinking water and clean up contamination.
Minnesota’s attorney general sued 3M in 2010 alleging the company’s production of chemicals had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the southeast Twin Cities metro area. After legal expenses, about $720 million will be invested in a court-approved agreement.
The agreement’s first priority is to pay for projects ensuring clean drinking water, including alternative sources of drinking water, treating dmrinking water from existing wells, or connecting homes served by private wells to municipal drinking water systems.
The second priority will be projects to protect fish and wildlife, and build boat ramps and fishing piers near water supplies unaffected by the chemicals.
3M has denied wrongdoing related to PFAS and has said it will defend against lawsuits, including from the city of Dayton and state of Ohio.
Michigan analysis cost $3.2 million
Michigan has tested 1,114 public water systems, 461 schools and 17 tribal water systems, an effort state leadersy there said is the first of its kind in the nation.
That analysis cost $1.7 million last year. The second phase of that project, carried out this year, has cost another $1.5 million.
“What getting these results have done for us is given us a good foundation for moving forward with state drinking water sta ndards,” said Steve Sliver, who oversees the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team.
PFAS wasn’t found in most of the supplies tested by Michigan. Two water systems — an elementary school and a city water system — were above federal suggested guidelines for PFAS exposure in water and faced immediate clean up.
RELATED: Bill would stop Ohio firefighters from training with PFAS-based foam
The federal standard, which is a recommendation and not enforceable, sets a PFAS guideline of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. Michigan has been working on its own limits, first by introducing far lower, non-enforceable health-based standards to serve as a guideline for health officials.
Now, Michigan is on track to establish enforceable limits as low as 6 parts per trillion for certain PFAS by spring.
“These actions will move us a step closer toward finding real and permanent solutions to ensuring that all Michiganders know that they can trust their drinking water,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said earlier this year.
Michigan's proposed rules limit a certain type of PFAS called PFOS at 8 parts per trillion. In June, the Dayton Daily News reported PFOS in Dayton's treated water in September 2018 measured 13.7 parts per trillion.
Some environmental advocates say the standard for PFAS in drinking water should be zero across the U.S.
“If we’re going to be intentional of protecting our citizens, especially the most vulnerable communities, we want a maximum contaminant level that is actually going to protect people’s health,” said Jeremy Orr, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“NRDC proposes levels of zero,” said Orr, who also sits on the Michigan committee considering the rules.
If Michigan’s limits successfully kick-in next year, some cities, schools and private water systems there could be faced with tough choices on how to remove PFAS. The state has suggested exploring carbon filtering technology, something that has already been installed in Wright-Patt’s on-base drinking water system in 2017, at $2.7 million to install.
“At the end of the day, (water) suppliers are going to shoulder the burden of doing treatment, doing monitoring, finding alternate water supplies if necessary,” Sliver said.
Team utilized to work across departments
Slivers’ team was launched in 2017 under Michigan’s former Republican governor Rick Snyder. The team was designed to bring together different departments within the state government to communicate about PFAS and work toward regulation.
“To safeguard Michiganders from this emerging contaminant, it’s critical that responding agencies at all levels are effectively communicating and coordinating efforts,” Snyder said when the initiative launched. “This team will be instrumental in establishing protocols and best practices that will allow all partners to comprehensively address these contaminants across Michigan.”
RELATED: Ohio to test for PFAS chemicals in Dayton
The effort was made permanent by Whitmer, a Democrat. Sliver said the initiative has received buy-in from the state legislature, controlled by Republicans.
“In Michigan’s case, we think we have a really successful program that we started last year,” Sliver said. “Over the past several years, and in this current budget that just made it through … we’ve had bipartisan and bicameral support for PFAS initiatives.”
Sliver encouraged Ohio’s government to address the issues through a “multi-agency approach,” to lay out plans for testing ahead of time and let local governments know what their options for remediation are.
Ohio also should decide before testing how to share and explain the results to the public, Sliver said.
“Once the results come in, especially if you find a location where there’s an exceedance, the public is going to demand transparency,” Sliver said.
Read more Dayton Daily News water coverage:
» City: ‘We do not need’ more generators for water system, would cost $45M
» Dayton blames county contractor for February water outage
» Understanding Dayton’s drinking water issues
» Progress slow in addressing chemicals in local water systems
About the Path Forward
Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by investigating the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. Follow our work at DaytonDailyNews.com/PathForward or join one of our Facebook Groups.