I took the summer off from PFAS. Did anything change, besides the date?
For a year, I worked extensively on PFAS (per- and poly fluorinated alkyl substances, aka ‘Forever Chemicals’) in drinking water, supported by a grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology. At the end of the grant period in June, I decided to take the summer off from PFAS. For a change of pace, I wrote about community and travel. I’m back on the PFAS beat, and I’m curious about what’s changed.
Here’s the story so far. In 2016, the EPA found PFAS in larger drinking water systems around military facilities, airports, manufacturing and other industrial sites. As smaller, primarily rural, water systems began to test for PFAS, they found it around community fire stations and fire sites. Meanwhile, the EPA released drastically lower health advisory levels for some of the PFAS compounds and has proposed new enforceable maximum contaminant levels for PFAS. For a general background on PFAS, the EPA PFAS page is a great place to start. You can catch up with all my previous posts about PFAS here.
Note while the examples in this post are in Washington State, most of it is applicable to all of the US, and much of it worldwide.
My first involvement with PFAS was in 2016 at an open house to discuss the discovery of PFAS in drinking water around Naval Air Station Whidbey. The Navy has done some good things. They built a new treatment plant for the Town of Coupeville, whose wells were affected, connected some private well owners to the town system, continue to provide bottled water to others, and started a cleanup under CERCLA (the “Superfund” law). The problem with the Navy response is that they, along with the Army and Air Force, are still using the 2016 EPA lifetime health advisory levels as a cut off for action and are refusing to recognize the much lower State Action Levels or EPA proposed maximum contaminant levels, leaving many people drinking water recognized as being unsafe. The Pentagon makes these decisions. The Department of Defense is failing to budget a sufficient amount for cleanup.
This week I attended a meeting of the NAS Whidbey Restoration Advisory Board, which is supposed to act as a conduit for information between the Navy and the community. The Navy co-chairs ran the meeting and sidelined community questions, for example one from a farmer whose water source is contaminated. “I can see that’s emotional for you. Let’s talk after the meeting.”
Nevertheless, the Navy’s efforts look good compared to the Army’s and Air Force’s response to contamination around their facilites. A friend in East Selah impacted by the Yakima Training Center is still drinking bottled water and taking showers at the YMCA. Another friend near Fairchild Airforce Base in Spokane is meeting similar resistance.
The following day, I sat for an interview with Department of Defense staff and contractors to give my opinion on the Navy’s communication. I was polite, but blunt. They will roll up my answers with others into a report for the Top Brass, who won’t change policy until the other shoe drops in the form of the EPA limits becoming law. The best we can hope for is that the DoD is using the time to prepare for what may be a tenfold increase in the number of people recognized as affected, but the Pentagon’s budget requests don’t encourage optimism there.
A poisoned paradise
Later that day, I called my friend Paul on San Juan Island, Washington. Paul lives on the west side of the island, looking out over pods of orcas to Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. His community water system tested for PFAS in April and found the highest levels ever seen in drinking water in Washington. A poisoned paradise. There’s little doubt that the PFAS is coming from the local community fire station which leases property from the HOA, and which is close to its drinking water wells.
Congress created our federal and state environmental laws in the early 1970s in response to outrage over major contamination events such as Love Canal and enshrined the principle that “the polluter pays”. The unfortunate corollary is that if there’s no polluter, there’s no one to pay. The way this plays out in practice is that if there’s no “potentially responsible party”, then the Washington State Department of Ecology can’t even do testing. But who wants to call the local fire department a potentially responsible party, when they are using a product according to the manufacturer’s directions to save lives, and then coming home to drink the same contaminated water?
Paul’s water system is buying water by the truck load. They found a grant to cover the first 2000 gallons a month, but some larger families who use more than that are facing monthly bills of $700. The island is rocky, with few alternative sources, so Paul is looking at how to fund a treatment system. The poster child for between a rock and a hard place.
The stress is taking its toll on the community. While there are millionaires in the view properties, there are also retirees on fixed incomes. Although some members have blood PFAS levels of 500 to 1000 times the national average, some want the pumps turned back on. Others are unsympathetic to those facing larger waters bills. “They chose to have that many kids” and “they didn’t have to move here.” But now they’re here, they can’t leave. Realtors won’t list their properties for fear of getting sued, leaving the only option sale by owner at a fire sale price.
A bizarre paradox here is that if a military facility had been responsible for the contamination on San Juan Island, they would have taken care of the community.
While the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law made money available to deal with PFAS contamination, there’s no mechanism in place to get it to where it’s needed. It’s pushing on a rope.
The politicians, national, state, and county, are nowhere to be seen in any of these cases.
I want to give a shout out to our federal, state, and county agency staff, many of whom read this newsletter. Don’t worry, I’m not going to blow your cover! At every level, they are underappreciated, underpaid, and understaffed. They are stuck with working within the confines of our laws the way they are written and are constantly subject to political interference. Like Cassandra, they see these problems brewing years ahead; like Cassandra, they’re cursed to have no one believe them.
As a species, we’re wired to react more to minor near-term threats to our “freedom” than to more serious long-term threats to our very existence. We have a political and media ecosystem that amplifies that, as I’ve written about here. We wrote our environmental laws that way. Grounded in outrage at critical environmental disasters, they deal better with literal train wrecks like East Palestine, Ohio, than with slow-motion train wrecks like PFAS. The same factors inhibit our ability to respond to climate change and to public health issues like the opioid epidemic or COVID. Our politicians respond to the loudest voices, lurching from crisis to crisis while in permanent election mode.
A couple of years ago, I realized that I could help best by writing past the distractions and outrage to bring attention to these issues and public pressure to bear on the political class. After a year in the trenches with the grant, that’s what I’m back trying to do. Thanks for joining me.