EPA looks to limit toxic ‘forever chemicals.’ Here’s what New Mexicans should know
After months of delays, federal officials released a proposed rule last week that would curb the levels of toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water nationwide.
The toxic, persistent chemicals have already impacted New Mexico’s water, although state officials are still unsure how many communities are affected. New Mexico taxpayers have already spent millions of dollars identifying and remediating PFAS contamination in groundwater from two air force bases in Eastern and Southern New Mexico. A Clovis dairy farmer had to euthanize 3,665 cows last year after they consumed water from contaminated wells.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to release the final rule in September 2024, but there remains a lengthy process to get there. Once the agency publishes the new rule in the Federal Register, that starts a 60-day clock for public input. In that period, the agency can tweak or change the rules based on comments from industry, regulators and the public.
Typically, when a new rule is put on the books, agencies and municipalities have a two-year period to adjust, said John Rhoderick, the director of the Water Protection Division at the New Mexico Environment Department.
Rhoderick called on New Mexico’s water systems to apply for federal funding and upgrade filtration, which would put the state “in a good position” when the rule goes into effect. More than $32 million is available this year to rebuild or replace water treatment processes so they can handle PFAS, or test for the compounds.
“We’re treating it like we have a two-year window to make this happen,” Rhoderick said. “So by the time that window closes and enforcement comes into play, we want to be ahead of the curve, and our communities would not be feeling drastic impacts from it.”
What is the change?
The EPA is specifically limiting six types of synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS. Those are PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals.
There are more than 9,000 identified PFAS in thousands of commercial products around the world. The human-made chemicals are used in manufacturing, non-stick cookware, carpeting, household cleaning supplies, take-out containers, firefighting foams, papers, paints and waterproof fabrics.
These chemicals resist decay, and they don’t break down from exposure to the sun, water or microorganisms. Instead, PFAS accumulate in soil and water — and also in the bodies of animals and humans. They pose health risks, even in extremely small doses. They’ve been linked to lower birth weights, cancers and reproductive harm, among other health problems. Research into health impacts and how much of the chemicals ever leave the human body is ongoing. Blood tests in 2000 showed that 98% of subjects in the U.S. had measurable amounts of PFAS in their bloodstream.
Two of the most well-known compounds — PFOA and PFOS — would be limited to a proposed 4 parts per trillion. Think four drops in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water. This “maximum contaminant level” standard is a harder rule and much tougher than the previous recommendations of 70 parts per trillion. The proposed rule also creates a “hazard index,” a tool used to calculate potential health risks for the other four compounds — whether alone or mixed.
Under the proposed rule, public systems would be responsible for monitoring PFAS, telling the public how much of the chemicals are in drinking water and treating the water if PFAS concentrations exceed the standards.
One important note is that the standard applies to the water flowing into your home, not just a well the water system is using. If one well has higher levels of contaminants, it is standard practice for utilities to blend water from multiple wells.
This rule would only impact public water systems, which have at least 15 connections or serve at least 25 people. Private well water quality is unregulated in New Mexico. The state has a resource guide to private well filtration here. Boiling water will not remove the compounds from water.
The proposed rule at 4 parts per trillion is “a manageable level that labs can actually test to,” said Joe Martinez, the drinking water bureau chief at NMED. He expects water systems may have to take samples every three months for PFAS.
Are PFAS in my drinking water?
PFAS are widespread, with international studies finding measurable amounts even in raindrops, but Martinez said NMED is still trying to determine how widespread PFAS are in New Mexicans’ drinking water.
“We don’t know the full extent at this point, because we haven’t been able to sample every public water system source out there,” he said.
NMED found PFAS in at least 15 water systems in New Mexico, according to tests performed with federal assistance in 2021. The communities most impacted are in Curry County and Otero County, according to that data. That’s also where PFAS plumes infiltrated the groundwater thanks to decades of nearby military bases using firefighting foam.
The state tests for 28 compounds, and only six have the proposed limits.
“We have a better understanding today than maybe we did five years ago,” Martinez said.
PFAS testing is ongoing in other communities, and another round of sampling should be complete at the end of June, said NMED spokesperson Matthew Maez.
In addition to water systems, tests found PFAS levels exceeding the proposed standard in the Rio Grande, Canadian, San Juan, Animas and Pecos Rivers. The highest concentration was found at the Valle de Oro gage on the Rio Grande. In one test, a mix of eight PFAS concentrations were 156 parts per trillion.
What happens next?
Many of New Mexico’s systems are small — under 10,000 connections — and most of those serve rural spaces, said Bill Conner, the executive director at the New Mexico Rural Water Association.
The professional organization lends technical assistance to water systems around the state, and he said PFAS is one of the top concerns.
There’s a limited number of engineers and contractors who can install new and expensive upgrades to water systems, he predicted, and small systems may have to compete with larger cities to contract for improvements.
“To treat and remediate for PFAS is going to be very expensive,” Collins said. “Even if they get the funding to get the proper treatment process or equipment, it’s not only the cost — it may also increase the certification level to operate that equipment.”
Water systems across the country are facing an operator shortage, making it difficult to replace an aging workforce, he said.
NMED officials agreed limited engineering firms and contractors pose a challenge but urged systems to consider upgrading sooner.
“If communities come forward for the funding now, then that puts them ahead of the curve,” Martinez said. “You may get one of these treatment plants installed by the time that this rule becomes effective.”
Without the final rule in place, there remains a lot of unanswered questions. One of the biggest is what penalties will look like when water systems aren’t compliant with PFAS rules.
Rhoderick said while he doesn’t know, but he expects the EPA to offer exceptions for small water systems dealing with PFAS.
“We think they’d target the generators of the PFAS,”Rhoderick said, “rather than the unintended victims.”