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State making progress on PFAS studies, sampling but funding still not secured

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State making progress on PFAS studies, sampling but funding still not secured

Sep 12, 2023 | 4:49 pm ET
By Caity Coyne
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State making progress on PFAS studies, sampling but funding still not secured
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Scott Mandirola, deputy secretary for executive affairs at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, answers a question from Delegate Clay Riley, R-Harrison, co-chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Water Resources, while presenting to lawmakers at a Tuesday meeting. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is slated to start sampling next month on more than 100 sites across the state to identify levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, in raw water, but a majority of funding for the undertaking has yet to be secured.

The testing at 106 sites is necessary to comply with proposed federal regulations for maximum concentration levels in drinking water systems and also a state law passed earlier this year to document PFAS across the state. 

The sampling will cost the state $446,000, according to Scott Mandirola, deputy secretary for external affairs at the West Virginia DEP, who presented to lawmakers on the Legislative Oversight Committee on Water Resources on Tuesday.

The U.S. Geological Survey has committed $45,000 for the undertaking, and the DEP will be on the hook for the remaining $401,000, Mandirola said. There is no money set aside for the sampling and analysis in the state budget at this time.

“We know we can get some [money] from the [federal Environmental Protection Agency] for drinking water testing, but we’re going to have to scramble together the rest of it,” Mandirola said. “When [House Bill 3189] was passed, we did not get any funding to help pay for these requirements.”

PFAS — often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down once they are in your body — are man-made chemicals commonly linked to different types of cancers, thyroid issues, weakened immune systems and other diseases. They are often present in industrial processes — where runoff can contaminate water sources —  and have become widely used in a number of consumer products.

In drinking water especially, PFAS can pose serious health risks for individuals who may not even know they are consuming the chemicals.

The sampling and analysis that is about to start by the DEP is one of several steps the agency is taking to comply with new federal regulations being proposed in an effort to protect individuals and limit exposure to PFAS.

Another part of the law requires the agency to create action plans to identify and address sources of PFAS in the state that could be responsible for contaminating raw water sources. Funding to compile those action plans, however, has also yet to be secured and the research involved in forming them will be cumbersome, Mandirola said.

The DEP — with help from the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and about 20 non-governmental organizations — has applied for a $1 million grant to help organize public outreach efforts to inform the plans. Notification for the grant is expected to come in October, but Mandirola said the money — if granted to West Virginia — likely won’t be available until at least December.

“If we get the grant that will be tremendously helpful, but we will have to start [planning] before the money becomes available,” Mandirola said.

Part of the difficulty in formulating the plans is understanding where PFAS have been sourced and used in the state. Paper records are often incomplete and, historically, the chemicals went undocumented because, until recently, there were no reporting requirements for industries that utilize them.

Because of this, outreach and community meetings are going to be integral to learning about the sources of PFAS, Mandirola said.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the Rivers Coalition, said there are some areas that have been flagged for high levels of PFAS without an obvious source.

“When you look at the map of detections there are some that weren’t surprising — military bases, fire training areas, industrial zones, airports — but some are really mysterious,” Rosser said. “There are a number of places that haven’t been industrialized, and a lot of sources that haven’t been investigated. It is an urgent public health concern, and quite honestly, there’s a lot right now we don’t know.”

Getting the action plans in order, Rosser said, is where “the rubber is going to start hitting the road” in regards to HB 3189. Rosser said the Rivers Coalition was pleased to see the bill passed and for legislators to start recognizing the importance of understanding, monitoring and — hopefully — regulating West Virginia’s water sources, but there is still a lot of work to be done before it is considered more than just lip service.

Rosser’s “biggest concern” is the lack of funding that’s been made available by the state to meet these federal requirements. Historically, she said, polluters have been given a free pass when it comes to taking accountability for the issues they’ve caused, and taking on regulation of PFAS is an opportunity to change that. Adequate funding, however, is necessary to even begin to understand the impact these chemicals are having on West Virginians.

“If our legislators, our state leaders, are serious about having clean drinking water available across West Virginia, this is one of many things we need them to invest in,” Rosser said. “Universal access to clean drinking water is certainly on the minds of the people living here. I do sense a disconnect between them and our leaders when we can’t get funding for something as important as limiting and studying PFAS in our communities.”

Identifying where the chemicals are present is the first step in confronting the contamination. Rosser worries that the state is over-relying on the water treatment aspect of keeping PFAS out of systems instead of keying in to the sources of the contamination.

By doing the former, she said, the monetary burden of providing clean drinking water will likely fall on ratepayers who may see their bills increase to cover fees associated with treating the water. If the state is able to go to the source, however, companies and industries responsible for the contamination could be made to pay for mitigation efforts, including clean up and water treatment.

As of 2019, West Virginians pay the highest average water bill than any other state in the nation, at about $91 per a month, according to data from the National Association of Water Companies. Those rates will likely increase in coming years as the state’s water infrastructure continues to age and a majority of funding for upgrades comes through burdensome, often high-interest loans instead of grants. 

“The more that we’re able to identify and act on sources of PFAS contaminating the water, the less the burden will fall on consumers like us,” Rosser said. “We need to get to the root of the problem, and if we’re able to do that everybody wins. We’ll have a better quality of life, better health outcomes. We’ll be able to get more people, more businesses, to move here. That’s what everyone wants.”