‘Forever chemicals’ trigger widespread closures of water wells

The state lowered the acceptable levels for two PFAS toxins in drinking water on Thursday, triggering the closure of wells throughout the California — including 33 in Orange County, which has been particularly plagued by the so-called “forever chemical.”

The new closures are in addition to nine contaminated wells that were closed last year in Orange County, and four closed in Los Angeles County, where it was not immediately known how many more will be taken offline.

As many as 29 more could be shut down this year in Orange County as the state expands its testing. If those are taken offline, that would total 71 closed wells of the 200 in Orange County Water District’s service area of 2.5 million residents.

As research on the PFAS family of chemicals grows, regulators have been lowering acceptable levels to ever more miniscule levels. The chemicals have been linked to cancer, liver and kidney damage, low birth weight and other health problems, although the tiny amounts identified in area wells could take decades — or even a lifetime — before accumulating to dangerous levels in the body.

“It’s an emerging topic and we’re learning more about the toxicity by the month,” said Jason Dadakis, Orange County Water District’s executive director of water quality. “These (new state) standards are based on long-term effects of drinking two liters a day for 70 years.”

Exposure to the chemicals goes beyond drinking water. They have been widely used to stain-proof rugs and furniture, to make pans stick-proof, and to water-proof clothes, among other uses.

The state’s new “response level” standard requires water districts with wells exceeding the benchmarks to either shut those wells, treat the water to remove the chemicals, or notify customers in writing of the levels in their drinking water. Water officials contacted by the Southern California News Group anticipate that most wells with excessive levels will be shuttered at least until treatment plants can be developed.

“The vast majority may not be comfortable with serving water over the response level and would shut down immediately,” Dadakis said.

In Orange County, the lost water is being replaced temporarily with more costly imported water. A $1.4 million pilot treatment project has been underway since December and officials anticipate plants to remove PFAS from all Orange County water will be in place within two years.

Orange County’s Yorba Linda Water District, among the hardest hit, has begun the process to close all 11 of its wells and officials say that water will be processed out of the district’s distribution system by Feb. 12.

“It is not as simple as flipping a switch,” said district General Manager Marc Marcantonio. “I would describe it as a systematic process in which we gradually throttle down individual wells in such a manner that allows import water to merge with existing groundwater already in the distribution system and reservoirs.”

Marcantonio’s district is one of 19 that use the groundwater basin managed by the Orange County Water District. Nine of those have wells that have tested positive for the two PFAS chemicals for which the state has issued standards.

In an initial round of testing year, Los Angeles County had 39 wells with reportable levels of the chemicals, Riverside County had 13 and San Bernardino County had none. At the time, the response level recommended for shutting down wells — higher than reportable levels — resulted in four wells being shut down in Los Angeles County and none in Riverside.

It was not immediately known how many wells in those counties would be closed because of the new, stricter standards.

Growing scrutiny
Of the nearly 5000 chemicals in the PFAS family, the two singled out by the state so far are Pefluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluoroctane Sulfonate (PFOS). Those are also the two that have attracted the most attention nationwide and are no longer manufactured in the United States.

The chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down in nature.

“To provide Americans with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water, EPA has established the health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion” for a combination of the two, according to the U.S. EPA website. The same combined 70 parts per trillion was used as the state response level until Thursday.

The new state response level has been set at 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and 40 parts per trillion for PFOS. One part per trillion is equivalent to four grains of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

The new levels are based on updated health recommendations from the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, according to the state announcement of the revised standards.

The announcement also noted that the state Water Resources Control Board has identified seven other PFAS chemicals in wells and has requested recommendations for standards to apply to those toxins as well.

Testing was ordered by the water board last year for wells most likely to be contaminated. That included wells near landfills and airports. Some PFAS chemicals are ingredients in flame retardants used to put out aircraft fires — and during airport firefighting drills.

It is suspected that Orange County’s unusually high number of contaminated wells is a result of treated wastewater from the Inland Empire containing PFAS and being released in the Santa Ana River. Some of that water settles into the local groundwater aquifer that serves portions of north and central Orange County, and some continues into the Pacific Ocean.

The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority is studying the location and extent of PFAS contaminants in the river watershed.

Costs to customers
The Orange County Water District, which is operating a pilot treatment project in Anaheim to determine the best products to filter PFAS chemicals out of drinking water, is working with its nine member agencies affected by the chemical to identify locations for plants and arrangements for funding them.

Construction costs, estimated at $180 million to $200 million, initially will be covered by the Orange County Water District, with construction-related increases in water costs likely to be shared by customers in all 19 member agencies — including the eight that aren’t expecting to find any PFAS in their wells.

Operation and maintenance costs will be split between Orange County Water District and each agency with a treatment facility. Orange County Water District General Manager Michael Markus estimated the average home in a district with PFAS treatment will pay $3 more a month for water, while the average home in a non-PFAS district will pay $1 more a month.

But a bigger — and shorter — financial hit will come in the two years or so until those treatment facilities are up and running, as PFAS contaminated water is replaced by costlier imported water.

For water districts that have shut down or will shut down all of their wells, the increase could hit $20 more a month for the average residence, according to the Orange County Water District. It would be less for districts that close only some of their wells.

However, consumers may not be hit with all of that cost. Some districts are deferring other projects and dipping into rainy day funds.

“It is likely that we will utilize reserves to absorb initial impacts of importing water,” Yorba Linda Water District’s Marcantonio said. “This allows us time to narrow down the cost impact and allow customers to not realize a sudden jump in their water rates.”

Marcantonio said smaller rate increases could occur in coming months for unrelated costs. “The first PFAS cost impact would likely come in January 2021,” he said. He also noted that in addition to working with the Orange County Water District’s pilot project, his district is operating its own pilot.