EPA warning on ‘forever chemicals’ causes confusion in Ascutney

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-04-2024 7:55 PM

ASCUTNEY — Customers of the Ascutney Water District found an alarming federal letter in their mailboxes last month referring to their community water system.

In bold print, the flier from the Environmental Protection Agency read: “Your system has detections of PFOA/PFAS.”

Several studies link PFAS — an umbrella acronym for thousands of chemicals related to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — to serious health effects.

Dubbed “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment, PFAS are ubiquitous. They’re found in a wide range of manufactured products, from dental floss to nonstick cookware, and can turn up in drinking water.

But by state regulations, the water in Ascutney wasn’t an urgent problem.

“I think the biggest concern for residents is, ‘Hey, can we drink the water or not?’ ” said Weathersfield Town Manager Brandon Gulnick, who also manages the water district. The EPA flier “didn’t really give much guidance, and it was a pretty tight turnaround time from when we tested for PFAS and when we had to send out that notice.”

In the uncertainty, Weathersfield School, which uses water from the Ascutney Water District, “erred on the side of caution,” said Principal Brian Martes. The students drank bottled water in the days after the notice.

But after having been sufficiently informed by town officials on the non-imminent danger of the water at the school, they went back to their taps.

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Since Vermont mandated PFAS testing for water systems in 2019, the Ascutney Water District — which provides water to over 200 residents of the village — has continually monitored for the substance and was aware of PFAS levels that were within compliance of state regulations.

But results from the most recent round of tests clocked in above more stringent levels proposed by the EPA last March and triggered the flier.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation set a maximum contamination level of 20 parts per trillion for the combination of five different types of PFAS. The state’s maximum level is still five times greater than the EPA suggestions.

“While levels detected in your water system are below the state drinking water standard, new EPA health advisories mean health effects could occur at levels close to zero,” the flier reads, continuing on to list pregnancy and postnatal development issues, cancer “(for example testicular, kidney)” and liver maladies.

Information about PFAS continues to emerge and evolve.

A chain of reactions from the federal to local levels can leave residents digesting new, and sometimes vague, warnings.

Having different state and federal levels doesn’t make things easier, Gulnick said. Gulnick wished the town had more time to gather supplementary information about what the notice meant for residents.

The DEC refers to the chemicals as “emerging contaminants,” said Matt Chapman, director of the department’s waste management and prevention division. “We’re still trying to understand exactly how we deal with and address them as regulatory agencies.”

Chapman was one of the lead authors on the “PFAS Roadmap,” updated by the DEC last month.

The document is meant to help Vermonters make strides toward continued monitoring and remediation, as well as navigate the stringent federal PFAS proposal, which could become legally binding within just weeks.

“We’ve had standards in place for PFAS since 2019 and have multiple rounds of sample results from water systems to give us an appreciation of what the impacts are,” Chapman said.

He added that if the EPA’s final rule resembles its draft, the DEC already has an idea of which public community water systems — around 30 out of over 400 — will have to do work to meet the new standards.

In a list of state goals related to PFAS in the DEC document, the final reads: “Encourage EPA to provide national leadership on the management of PFAS.”

“There are lots of areas where we’ve been waiting on EPA for a long time to develop chemical tests for different parts of the environment,” Chapman said. “We’re really good at testing in drinking water, but it gets more complicated when you deal with soil, for example.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.