Elmont and Franklin Square residents serviced by the Water Authority of Western Nassau County were surprised last week to receive a letter from the New York State Department of Health stating that potentially harmful chemicals had been found in the utility’s wells at rates higher than the state’s standards.
The rates of 1,4-dioxane, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFAs) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOAs) varied from well to well, according to water authority Superintendent Mike Tierney, who said that the utility tests its water supply for these harmful chemicals each month, and officials were already working to remove all traces of them when state officials lowered their maximum allowable levels over the summer.
“This letter is basically a heads-up,” Tierney said, adding that the water authority is just one of more than 20 suppliers on Long Island to have levels higher than the new standards.
Under state law, public water systems like the Water Authority of Western Nassau County cannot have more than 10 parts per trillion of PFOAs and PFAs in their wells, and 1 part per billion of dioxane. The state government adopted these standards — which are some of the strictest in the country — last July.
“While the federal government continues to leave emerging contaminants like 1,4-dioxane, PFOAs and PFAs unregulated,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement at the time, “New York is leading the way by setting new national standards that help ensure drinking water quality and safeguard New Yorkers health from these chemicals.”
The standards are set “well below levels known or estimated to cause health effects,” according to the Health Department, and consuming drinking water with PFOAs, PFAs or dioxane “at or above” the maximum levels “does not pose a significant health risk.”
The available information on the health effects associated with PFOAs and PFAs — which have caused liver and immune system issues, and impaired fetal growth and development in animals — comes from studies on high-level exposure, the letter residents received says, and the Environmental Protection Agency considers dioxane a likely carcinogen based on studies of animals exposed to high levels of the chemical over the course of their lifetimes. Nonetheless, the EPA estimates that the risk of contracting cancer from drinking two liters of water with a dioxane level of .35 parts per billion every day for 70 years is about one in a million.
“There was no standard for these chemicals” before Cuomo signed the new standards into law over the summer, Tierney said, and now all of the water suppliers in New York are struggling to remove them.
PFOAs have historically been used to make nonstick, stain-repellent and water-repellent products, and PFAs have been used in fire-fighting foam. Dioxane was used as a stabilizer for industrial solvents in the 1950s and 1960s. It has also been used in small concentrations in inks, adhesives and pharmaceuticals, and the EPA has stated that trace amounts of the chemical can be found in some foods.
Now, officials at the water authority have two years to install equipment to remove these chemicals before they face fines from the State Health Department. The utility is required to update the state and county health departments each quarter on the status of its projects, and if it does not meet the agreed-on deadlines for these mitigation efforts, the state department can resume enforcement.
But the water authority has already remedied five of its 24 wells, and hopes to have two more sites, containing three wells each, up and running by the summer.
It is working closely with the Health Department, engineers and equipment manufacturers “to ensure that the treatment process and equipment needed to meet those standards are available as quickly and safely as practicable,” according to the utility’s website. The authority has already completed a pilot study for its wells in New Hyde Park, the website notes, and will install advanced oxidation process systems to effectively remove the dioxane.
“Right now we are doing everything we can to ensure that treatment systems are developed, approved, tested and implemented as quickly as practicable,” the Frequently Asked Questions section of the site says.
These treatment systems could cost millions of dollars, however, because the water authority would have to cover the upfront capital costs for the new treatments and technology; infrastructure and property costs; monitoring and testing; and operations, maintenance and periodic costs.
As a result, the water authority estimates that advanced oxidation process systems would cost an estimated $17 million to $20 million per well over the next few decades, which would have to be passed on to ratepayers.
To help mitigate those costs, the water authority is involved in a lawsuit against various Long Island-based manufacturers that “knew or should have known” that their solvents could pollute the groundwater, intended to make them pay for the treatment and removal costs. The suit is currently making its way through the state court system.