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Forever chemicals detected in Kalispell water, leading to surprise and action

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Forever chemicals detected in Kalispell water, leading to surprise and action

Feb 26, 2024 | 12:46 pm ET
By Alex Mitchell
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Forever chemicals detected in Kalispell water, leading to surprise and action
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A view of U.S. Highway 93 in Kalispell taken in 2007 (Photo by Katie Brady via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

In recent tests, the Environmental Protection Agency detected cancer-linked PFAS contaminants in Kalispell’s drinking water. It’s among the first detections of the chemicals in Montana’s public water supplies, with one well in the city recording contaminants at 330 times current EPA health advisory levels. 

That well detected PFOS or perfluorooctane sulfonate in its water. PFOS is one of six “forever chemicals” the EPA plans to begin regulating this year after emerging health impacts observed from ingestion of the substances. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are referred to as forever chemicals because of their properties that can result in them lasting in the environment for thousands of years.

PFAS can also build up in the bloodstream. After studies on humans exposed to these chemicals, PFOS was found to adversely impact the immune system, the cardiovascular system, child development and cancer risks, according to an EPA health advisory

Kalispell is now working with the DEQ to consider actions to address the newly found chemicals. The results make Kalispell the first PFAS water system project in Montana, according to Public Water Supply Chief Greg Olsen with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Kalispell Public Works Director Susie Turner said finding the chemicals in their water came as a complete shock.

“It’s a new type of contaminant and a new sort of discussion really,” Turner said in an interview with the Daily Montanan. “I’ve been telling people we’re blown out of the water to have detected it in our system.”

In July tests, one of the Kalispell Grandview Wells tested at 6.6 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS. The other well at the same location tested for PFOS at 5 ppt. The other contaminated site, the Armory Well, tested for PFHxS or Perfluorohexane sulfonate at 5 ppt. A part per trillion is equivalent to a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. 

PFOS interim health advisory levels were determined at .02 ppt in 2022 following studies showing ingestion at that level could cause negative health effects. 

Kalispell’s public water system is one of two Montana towns testing positive for PFAS in the tests led nationwide by the EPA. The other town where PFAS contaminants were detected, Hamilton, recorded well below EPA health advisory levels, as reported by the Ravalli Republic. With more tests planned nationwide through 2025, the first round of EPA tests surveyed the largest Montana public water systems including Billings, Missoula, Great Falls, Butte, Helena, and some smaller towns and universities. 

Kalispell plans to sample its water again this winter and later this summer to reconfirm the contaminants because of the initial surprise detection. In the meantime, the public works department is seeking funding to construct new wells to replace the two contaminated groundwater wells. 

Replacing those wells could take more than a year, Turner said. While shutting off one of the contaminated wells was considered as an option early on, the public works department decided the wells will have to stay active. 

“If we shut them off, we would fall behind other requirements,” Turner said. “Grandview and Armory are significant parts of our source water and we couldn’t keep up with demand without them.” 

With the water system serving roughly 26,000 people, the contaminated wells make up almost 30% of Kalispell’s total pumping capacity according to well production rates in the city. Turner noted the contaminants are diluted with other well water before they leave the tap.

The source of Kalispell’s forever chemicals is currently unknown. Before being largely phased out of consumer products in the early 2000’s, PFAS was often used in food packaging, carpets, upholstery, and other industrial processes for its properties that made products resistant to stains, grease, soil and water. Additionally, PFAS was utilized in fire-fighting foams. Montana does not have manufacturing that produces or heavily uses these chemicals, contributing to relatively low detection rates in Montana.

The Grandview Wells that detected PFOS is located next to a residential subdivision, a park and the Flathead Valley Community College. The other contaminated well is next to a former armory and is currently near Kalispell’s airport. Turner said her department is considering investigating origins of the contaminants, but plans on prioritizing replacing the wells.

Previous tests for PFAS in 2021 organized by the DEQ found low or non-detectable results in sampled Montana public water systems, according to DEQ Public Water Supply Technical Section Supervisor Libby Henrikson. Still, a 2021 monitoring report found forever chemicals in two thirds of Montana sites tested, with the DEQ having recognized various military bases and airports as sites of concern.

The same DEQ tests years ago detected PFAS in one of Kalispell’s currently contaminated wells, but it was below EPA’s proposed limits that have since been tightened. The DEQ tests detected PFHxS in the Armory Well at 3.3 ppt. The contaminated Grandview Wells weren’t surveyed at the time. 

Turner presented the DEQ results to the Kalispell City Council in November 2022. She told councilors about the upcoming EPA testing and that the public will be informed of the sampling results when they come out. Results have not been presented to the public yet. Later this year, Kalispell will advertise its annual consumer report showing detection of PFAS in its water supply. That report will be published in May. 

Turner said she expects to have conversations with residents as the results become more public and plans to update the community with project timelines. If residents are concerned about the contaminants, she refers them to EPA guidance online. PFOS can be removed by some of the most common treatment methods, including water filters, according to the EPA.

“And if they’re very sensitive to the health advisories and they don’t want to drink the water, I direct them to talk with their physician because I’m not a doctor myself,” Turner said. “They can get an assessment through their own health care provider on what they should do or to be aware of what they can do.”

In a statement from an EPA Region 8 spokesperson, the agency said they currently don’t know what long-term health effects might be to Kalispell residents consuming the PFAS-contaminated water.

The ongoing nationwide EPA tests for PFAS will be used to determine future regulations and related actions to protect public health under the Safe Water Drinking Act. 

Although 10 other states have established standards around PFAS, Montana has not. According to Olsen with the DEQ, the agency is waiting on federal standards to be established by the EPA. Montana will then have a two-year period to adopt those standards. After the adoption, all public water systems will be required to sample for PFAS.

An EPA roadmap published in December states enforceable drinking water standards for PFOS and other PFAS contaminants will be finalized early this year. The proposed standards do not include PFHxS, one of Kalispell’s detected contaminants, although the chemical could be regulated in the future.

“The standards would set a national floor of protection for every person served by public water systems, regardless of their income or ZIP code,” the roadmap stated. “This rule, when finalized, will save thousands of lives and prevent tens of thousands of avoidable illnesses, including in small, rural, and disadvantaged communities.”