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Water Infrastructure Bill Requires Smaller Communities To Test For PFAS Chemicals

Photo of a faucet
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Photo of a faucet

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed into law a wide-ranging bill called America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. The bill authorizes specific projects across the country and also includes language to protect people from so-called “emerging contaminants.”

As part of the massive bill, smaller communities will be required to test their water systems for chemicals like PFOA and PFOS.

Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York’s 20th District, worked on legislation that was included in the bill. He spoke on the House floor in September in favor a provision that would require water systems that service between 3,300 and 10,000 customers to test for emerging contaminants.

“This would mean that thousands of communities, communities like Hoosick Falls, New York, and similarly sized systems would no longer have emerging contaminants go undetected, potentially threatening their residents for years,” said Tonko.

Until now, only water systems with more than 10,000 customers were required to test for PFAS chemicals.

But critics say testing is pointless if the federal government continues to keep its current action level for PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to ill health effects including forms of cancer.

Rob Hayes, of Environmental Advocates of New York, supports increased testing. But he is also seeking maximum contaminant levels for PFAS chemicals from state and federal agencies. 

“The EPA action level for these chemicals of 70 parts per trillion is far too high to protect human health. And so many communities may be exposed to dangerous levels of these chemicals and not even know it because they are below that unsafe action level that EPA has set,” said Hayes.

New York’s Drinking Water Quality Council has yet to agree on setting MCLs on PFAS chemicals — a goal sought by leaders in communities affected by contamination.  

The board met on October 17th in Albany after missing an October 2nd deadline.

During the meeting, Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Public Health at the New York State Department of Health Brad Hutton pushed for action by the next Council meeting.

“And it’s our intention that we would schedule that next meeting, once again, a shorter special meeting, to get your recommendation to the commissioner on an MCL for 1,4-Dioxane, PFOA and PFOS,” Hutton said. “The thinking is that there’s some new information that we really want to focus on today to put you in the best position to make that recommendation but we are going to be moving quickly to get your availability and get that meeting on the calendar and get that recommendation.”

As the list of PFAS chemicals that could affect human health grows, Hutton said there was a need to “conceive of a broader approach for them as opposed to one at a time.”

The next Drinking Water Quality Council meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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