Even with new legislation, it could be years before drinking water in West Virginia is free of toxic forever chemicals
Chuck Crookshanks stands in front of his house, which he estimated is about 200 yards away from the Ohio River. Photo by Allen Siegler.
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In the 1990s, when Chuck Crookshanks worked as a teacher at Parkersburg High, a student told him about her family’s farm and how dozens of their animals had grown physical deformities.
“Not only the livestock, but also other animals near it,” Crookshanks recalled. “Deer, frogs and anything else that was around it. It was pretty remarkable.”
He said she was one of the first people he remembers raising concerns with the Washington Works plant in Parkersburg; a few years later, these concerns led to a mid-2000s high-profile lawsuit against chemical company DuPont, a lawsuit which linked the factory’s hazardous chemical pollution to diseases like kidney and testicular cancer.
Those chemicals are now often grouped with a broader group of cancerous, man-made concoctions called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. And PFAS, from both past and present polluters, continue to concern Crookshanks.
His house, between Ravenswood and the unincorporated town of Murraysville, is about 25 miles down the Ohio River from Washington Works. Crookshanks said his wife, Tammy, worries often about what invisible chemicals are present in the water from their well.
“She brought it up probably in the last couple of weeks, wanting to get the water tested,” Crookshanks said.
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had reached a deal under the Clean Water Act for the plant, now owned by the Chemours Company, to address PFAS pollution. But the so-called “forever chemicals” have already been found in drinking water systems around the state.
While state lawmakers passed a bill in March to take steps toward identifying and contemplating action for affected public water systems, the bill does not require the state’s Department of Environmental Protection or any other group to remove the chemicals from drinking water yet. As a consequence, experts believe it could be years before many West Virginians can drink tap water and be assured that it won’t increase their risk of diseases like cancer.
“Why do you need another year or two years to figure that out when that’s been known for 22 years?” said Robert Bilott, an attorney with Taft Stettinius & Hollister who has led many lawsuits related to the chemicals.
Some monitoring, and some prolonged unknowns
Although there is scientific consensus that they increase health risks, PFAS are still used ubiquitously by manufacturing companies. The chemicals are effective at keeping liquids from seeping through material, and they are commonly used in products like candy bar wrappers and waterproof clothes.
When manufacturing plants use PFAS in their products, they can release them into the soil, water and air. All three methods risk contaminating people’s drinking sources, as chemicals released into the air can be absorbed by rain clouds and solid waste can seep into groundwater.
While the amount of PFAS in water is often highest at sites near polluting factories, it’s not uncommon for the chemicals to contaminate places far from the original source, meaning even West Virginians who live away from factories could still have the chemicals in their water.
“The thing about these forever chemicals is that they don’t break down,” said Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “They accumulate in our bodies and accumulate in the food chain.”
The state’s new PFAS Protection Act intends to focus on contamination identified by a 2022 U.S. Geological Survey study of the state’s water treatment facilities. That study found nearly half of the facilities, many along the Ohio River or in the Eastern Panhandle, had at least one hazardous chemical above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s recently-proposed regulations in their untreated water.
For the sites with documented contamination, the bill tasks the DEP with coming up with action plans that identify the source of the pollution and propose ways to limit West Virginians’ exposure. It also lays out plans for the government agency to test the sites’ water after treatment.
To combat future pollution, the bill requires West Virginia factories that discharge any PFAS into surface water to report that action to the DEP. It will limit the factories’ amount of pollution to the standards set by the federal government, and no more stringent, once they’re proposed and finalized.
While the Legislature did not designate money for the effort, DEP Deputy Director for External Affairs Scott Mandirola said the department is applying for federal grants, like funds from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to develop the action plans.
“Our focus is on doing what the Legislature is telling us to do,” Mandirola said.
In the present, the bill doesn’t mandate any cleanup of PFAS in public drinking water. Some of that will likely come in the next two years, after the federal government finalizes its first-ever standards for the chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Rosser worries about whether the action plans will prepare the DEP to enforce the EPA’s future PFAS limits, but she thinks the bill will generate crucial data.
“I would characterize it as a measured step,” she said.
Others are concerned the step is too measured, missing key information about the ways in which PFAS can endanger West Virginians’ drinking water. While the bill will provide more information about public water sources, it won’t monitor private wells that many, like Crookshanks, depend on. In an email, bill lead sponsor Clay Riley, R-Harrison, said if the state was to test private water, it would have required an additional bill that involved the Department of Health and Human Resources.
For Dr. Alan Ducatman, a WVU professor emeritus who has spent decades studying PFAS, that’s a big omission, as it’s how hundreds of thousands of West Virginians access water in their homes.
“It’s hard to be confident that you know what’s going on if you’re worried about your personal water supply and can’t find that information,” Ducatman said.
Aileen Curfman lives in Berkeley County and also uses well water in her home. As the co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Eastern Panhandle group, she’s aware of the impacts PFAS can have and of the high levels recorded near her. As such, Curfman recently paid hundreds of dollars to test her water for the poisons.
“There would be a lot of folks who could not afford it,” Curfman said.
It came back free from the hazardous chemicals. But if it hadn’t, she thinks she would have had to pay around $5,000 for a filter — something she thinks would have been necessary to ensure her water was safe to drink.
‘Getting the stuff out of the water’
From Rosser’s understanding of the bill, the earliest that maximum PFAS drinking water contaminant levels would be enforced by the state’s DEP is 2025, meaning many West Virginians’ water will likely continue to be hazardous for the time being.
Bilott, the attorney who has litigated many PFAS-related cases, believes West Virginia’s continued-prolonging of any chemical cleanup to be unnecessary and inhumane.
“DEP was notified that these chemicals were getting into drinking water supplies 22 years ago,” he said. “They should already have been doing this.”
Harry Deitzler, another attorney who has represented West Virginians harmed by PFAS, was dismayed that the state’s new oversight is limited to PFAS discharged directly into rivers and streams. From his experience in lawsuits he’s litigated, a major way the chemicals enter people’s drinking water is when they’re released into the air and enter the water cycle.
Riley didn’t answer why the PFAS Protection Act didn’t address airborne pollution, instead responding that most air regulation comes from the federal government.
When asked what state residents should do until enforcement takes effect, he said the “EPA is still trying to understand the science and impact related to PFAS. I recommend people educate themselves about the topic.”
Bilott rejected the premise that the EPA is still trying to figure out the health impact of the chemicals, and he pointed to their health guidelines released last summer as evidence. He thinks rather than calling for West Virginians to educate themselves, the onus should be on the companies that caused the health hazards.
“It shouldn’t be the burden of the impacted community to address that contamination,” Bilott said.
To Ducatman, the professor emeritus with the WVU School of Public Health, there are many more steps both the DEP and the state Legislature could take to protect residents’ health. Those include creating a robust effort to test private wells, prohibiting factories in the state from using PFAS unless the chemicals are essential and monitoring industrial pollution beyond self-reporting.
Ducatman realizes that this type of effort could be costly, time-consuming and resource-intensive. But, from a public health standpoint, he sees it as crucial for West Virginians.
“People’s health will improve,” Ducatman said. “Have no doubt about that. Getting the stuff out of the water is good for people.”