Utilities across South Carolina face hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to cleanse drinking water of harmful “forever chemicals’’ now that the federal government has finalized a rule to make water safe from the potentially cancer-causing toxins.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule, issued this past week, will for the first time restrict the level of certain forever chemicals in drinking water. The drinking water limits are expected to reduce forever chemical exposure for about 100 million people across the country, prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses, the agency said.

Proposed last year, the EPA measure establishes individual limits on five types of forever chemicals, including the most common ones that are showing up in water systems nationally and in South Carolina.

Forever chemicals, used widely by industries for decades, are a class of compounds of increasing concern because of their health threats. Studies have linked exposure to the chemicals to some types of cancer, thyroid disease, birth defects and depressed immune systems, a condition that can make people more susceptible to illnesses.

People are also reading…

The chemicals have a variety of uses, including as ingredients in non-stick frying pans, waterproof jackets and stain resistant carpets. They are called forever chemicals because they linger in the environment and do not break down easily. An array of sources, including industrial plants, are the suspected causes of PFAS pollution in rivers and groundwater that supply drinking water.

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a news release. “That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide.’’

Under the proposal by the EPA, drinking water systems would have to keep the level of the most common forever chemicals at below four parts per trillion. The EPA says the limits are needed to safeguard the public from long-term exposure to the chemicals, also known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

HOLLY HILL – Orangeburg and Berkeley county officials are celebrating the start of a project designed to bring clean drinking water to rural residents and promote economic development.

The most common forever chemicals are known as PFOA and PFOS. Three other types of forever chemicals — Gen X, PFNA and PFHxS — must be kept below 10 parts per trillion, according to the final federal rule.

All told, more than 50 South Carolina utilities that draw water from the ground or from rivers and lakes exceeded one or both of the limits on PFOA and PFOS, according to data released last year by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Those included drinking water systems in Columbia, Cayce and West Columbia, as well as Camden, Charleston, Greenwood, Florence, Georgetown, Gaffney and Myrtle Beach. Most of the readings were between the four parts per trillion standard and 10 parts per trillion, although Gaffney’s was higher, at 12 parts per trillion for PFOA and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS, according to charts provided by DHEC.

While the goal of the rule is to protect public health, the cost of complying with the EPA’s standard has many utility officials and politicians worried about the expense. Columbia’s costs alone could top $150 million to $200 million, city officials have estimated.

The American Waterworks Association has said the cost nationally of removing the two most common types of forever chemicals could top $3.8 billion annually. Lawyers representing water systems have won a settlement with the manufacturers of PFOA and PFOS that tops $13 billion, attorneys say.

Big costs for Columbia

But cities like Columbia, which could have earned $12 million from the settlement, say that won’t be enough to serve local needs because so many water systems will be seeking a piece of the pie. Federal money is also limited, officials say.

The city decided not to take money from the $13 billion settlement and is considering filing its own lawsuit against the manufacturers for damages after hiring outside legal counsel. City officials have expressed worries that they would have to raise water rates to help pay for the federal requirement.

The Lake Marion Regional Water Agency has voted to pursue a significant expansion of its water treatment plant on Lake Marion just east of Santee.

“We opted out because we are looking at the bigger picture,” Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann said via email Tuesday. “We are ready to look at the real costs of the finalized PFAS rules and then go on to take our own legal action soon.”

The city of West Columbia, another major drinking water supplier in the area, also faces higher costs. Unlike Columbia, West Columbia has not opted out of the $13 billion legal settlement, a spokeswoman said. The city of Cayce, adjacent to West Columbia, has previously said it would not opt out of the settlement.

Columbia, which has one of the state’s largest water systems, says it faces potentially millions of dollars in annual costs to clean up its water, in addition to the estimated $150 million to install filters on Columbia’s water.

In March, the city approved a $185,300 contract with the Black and Veatch Corp. to conduct a study on “treatment alternatives” to comply with the EPA’s rules. That study may last up to 36 weeks.

Rickenmann called the federal limit on forever chemicals an “unfunded mandate’’ that will test cities like Columbia.

“The costs researchers are anticipating are prohibitive,’’ he said. “From estimates, the costs would equal our entire general budget for water. Yeah, there are a lot of mayors and water systems concerned.’’

Support local journalism by becoming a member at www.TheTandD.com. View our latest offer at TheTandD.com/subscribe

Rickenmann recently spoke out against the federal rule, saying it needed more study because of the projected expense of complying with the strict standards.

A DHEC chart released last year shows Columbia’s PFAS levels between four and five parts per trillion at its canal drinking water plant. More recent testing by the city in October 2023 found PFOS and PFOA coming into the canal plant on the Broad River at almost seven parts per trillion. Treated water was registering at 4.9 parts per trillion for PFOS and 6.3 parts per trillion for PFOA.

Despite Rickenmann’s concerns, the EPA says it will provide time and financial assistance to help water systems test for PFAS and clean up the water. Water systems would have access to $9 billion to address PFAS contamination. Part of the $9 billion also could be used to help owners with private wells polluted by PFAS. The agency said it has another $12 billion available for general drinking water improvements through the federal bipartisan infrastructure law that could go toward PFAS cleanup.

Public water systems will have three years to conduct monitoring for the chemicals. Utilities have five years to install measures to reduce PFAS in drinking water, the EPA said.

Military bases and sewer sludge

Officials at the Environmental Working Group, which has called for PFAS controls for nearly a quarter century, said the PFAS drinking water limits are needed to protect public health.

“Water utilities have known about this for years and the proposal has been out for more than a year,’’ said Melanie Benesh, the group’s vice president for government affairs. “What comes next is implementation.’’

EPA Administrator Regan was traveling to Fayetteville, N.C., this week to announce the forever chemical limits. The Cape Fear River, a major drinking water source in eastern North Carolina, was found to have been contaminated heavily by forever chemicals in 2017 from a manufacturing plant.

Forever chemical pollution in public water systems is part of a larger concern in South Carolina and across the country. The hazardous compounds have been found in virtually every river and creek checked by state regulators, in addition to many private wells.

Some of the major suspected sources are industrial plants, particularly old textile factories, as well as military bases that used foam to fight fires; leaking landfills; and farm fields fertilized with sewer sludge.

Relatively little was known publicly for decades about PFAS, even though the chemicals had been developed in the 1940s. Manufacturers and distributors did not reveal the results of in house studies. Only when a West Virginia farmer’s cows began to die in the late 1990s, did forever chemicals gain wider attention nationally, in part because of the efforts of a diligent lawyer.

“Today, we can celebrate a huge and long overdue victory for public health in this country,’’ lawyer Rob Bilott said in a statement. Bilott’s story inspired the movie “Dark Waters.’’

Sewer sludge has been a potential source of PFAS in South Carolina, as well as pollution from industrial plants.

The State reported last year on the plight of families and farmers in Darlington County, whose water was polluted with PFAS. Many private wells were near farm fields that once used PFAS-tainted sludge from a local industrial plant as a low-cost fertilizer, and some of those who drank the water for years complained of illnesses, the newspaper reported in its series “Toxic Deals.’’ Farm fields across the state have relied on sewer sludge through the years, the newspaper reported.

PFAS from Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter also is suspected of polluting wells at surrounding mobile home parks.

#lee-rev-content { margin:0 -5px; } #lee-rev-content h3 { font-family: inherit!important; font-weight: 700!important; border-left: 8px solid var(–lee-blox-link-color); text-indent: 7px; font-size: 24px!important; line-height: 24px; } #lee-rev-content .rc-provider { font-family: inherit!important; } #lee-rev-content h4 { line-height: 24px!important; font-family: “serif-ds”,Times,”Times New Roman”,serif!important; margin-top: 10px!important; } @media (max-width: 991px) { #lee-rev-content h3 { font-size: 18px!important; line-height: 18px; } } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article { clear: both; background-color: #fff; color: #222; background-position: bottom; background-repeat: no-repeat; padding: 15px 0 20px; margin-bottom: 40px; border-top: 4px solid rgba(0,0,0,.8); border-bottom: 1px solid rgba(0,0,0,.2); display: none; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article, #pu-email-form-daily-email-article p { font-family: -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, “Segoe UI”, Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif, “Apple Color Emoji”, “Segoe UI Emoji”, “Segoe UI Symbol”; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article h2 { font-size: 24px; margin: 15px 0 5px 0; font-family: “serif-ds”, Times, “Times New Roman”, serif; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article .lead { margin-bottom: 5px; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article .email-desc { font-size: 16px; line-height: 20px; margin-bottom: 5px; opacity: 0.7; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article form { padding: 10px 30px 5px 30px; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article .disclaimer { opacity: 0.5; margin-bottom: 0; line-height: 100%; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article .disclaimer a { color: #222; text-decoration: underline; } #pu-email-form-daily-email-article .email-hammer { border-bottom: 3px solid #222; opacity: .5; display: inline-block; padding: 0 10px 5px 10px; margin-bottom: -5px; font-size: 16px; } @media (max-width: 991px) { #pu-email-form-daily-email-article form { padding: 10px 0 5px 0; } } .grecaptcha-badge { visibility: hidden; }

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>