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Water Companies Act on Chemical Concerns as Rulemaking Process Drags on

Some private purveyors have already deployed the requisite filtering technology and are passing costs on to customers

water quality test

Some New Jersey water companies aren’t waiting for scientists and state officials to decide whether to regulate certain chemicals in drinking water, and are taking their own steps to ensure that customers’ water won’t damage their health, a senior water company official told a state advisory panel on Monday.

Anthony Matarazzo of New Jersey American Water told the Drinking Water Quality Institute that companies like his have already installed the technology to remove chemicals like PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) in many locations even though the Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t yet decided whether to adopt a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) for the chemical.

“As a community, water purveyors don’t wait for MCLs,” Matarazzo said, after complaints from environmentalists that residents in some parts of New Jersey are being exposed to potentially harmful levels of PFNA and related chemicals that have been studied by the institute.

Matarazzo, the company’s senior director of water quality and environmental management, said the cost of installing granular activated carbon filters on most of his company’s plants has been passed on to customers in the form of higher water rates. But he said not all purveyors, particularly those that are publicly owned, can afford the technology, and so there are some water systems that contain chemicals like PFNA at above health-advisory levels.

DEP officials were accused by members of the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network of failing to act on a recommendation by the institute that the department should establish a MCL of 0.013 parts per billion (ppb) for PFNA, which has been linked with cancer and other illnesses.

The DWQI made its recommendation in July 2015 but the DEP has yet to complete a lengthy process of consultation and evaluation that could eventually allow it to set a formal health limit for the chemical in drinking water.

“Each delay means more people are drinking water that they shouldn’t be drinking, which directly impacts public health,” Toni Granato of the New Jersey Sierra Club told the meeting. “So far, the Christie administration has failed to adopt one new standard to protect our drinking water.”

The recommendation for PFNA was the first by the institute — a panel of scientists that advises the DEP — since it restarted work in 2014 after a four-year hiatus that environmentalists called a shutdown by the Christie administration. Last month, the panel recommended that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a related chemical, should also be subject to a tough new limit.

DEP scientists at the meeting defended their protocol, saying that they are required to submit the panel’s recommendation to a multistage review process while also deciding whether to include recommended chemicals in an amended rule implementing a law that governs the testing of private water wells.

Keith Cooper, chairman of the DWQI, said he was frustrated that the panel’s first recommendation under his leadership has still not become a regulation almost two years after it was made, but predicted that the DEP’s evaluation of the institute’s recommendations would speed up as the department deals with more such proposals.

“I understand that it’s taking them time to get the different components together but once they’ve got these components together, I expect it to move a lot smoother,” Cooper said after the meeting.

Even though the DEP will still have to allow a set time for public comment, the early stages of its evaluation will be faster because it will have an existing body of knowledge to work from, said Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist. Its research into PFNA, for example, can be applied to the related chemical PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), which DWQI scientists are now working on, he said.

The PFC family of chemicals, which has been linked to illnesses including cancer, developmental disorders, and thyroid problems, has been found at various parts of New Jersey at levels that exceed a federal health advisory. PFCs are manufactured chemicals that were used in products such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, and flame retardants. They have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers but traces persist in some places, especially in New Jersey, where they have been found at higher levels than in many other states.

The latest tests for the chemicals have been in several townships near the McGuire-Fort Dix-Lakehurst military base where PFOA and PFOS were found in a creek at 16 times the EPA’s recommended limit.

While DEP officials observe due process, purveyors like New Jersey American Water are taking their own actions based on the DWQI’s recommendation, said Matarazzo, whose company supplies water to about 2 million people.

“We don’t wait for the regulations to hit the books before strategizing on how we’re going to treat different emerging contaminants,” he said. “In many cases where we can use conventional or common treatment and it’s a key facility for us, we will go ahead and make that investment because I can get it back in my rates.”

He said there are a few facilities among the company’s system where PFNA is about equal to the health limit proposed by the institute, and that the company is working on how to bring those levels down.

For the water companies that have not yet installed the technology that removes PFCs, Matarazzo said it’s only a matter of time until they are required to.

“Those purveyors that are sitting on the fence, waiting for this rule, eventually they are going to have to make that investment,” he said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water and other environmental issues.

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