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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    Drinking water testing requires vigilance ― and skipping the hair gel

    Joseph Lanzafame, utilities director for New London, talks about water quality analyzers Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant in Waterford. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    View of a dam at Lake Konomoc on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, from the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Electrician Charlie Carroll, a subcontractor with ACDC Industrial Electric, checks for heat and vibrations before using a meter Tuesday, April 16, 2024, while in the Raw Water Pump room, that draws water from Lake Konomoc, at the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant in Waterford. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Joseph Lanzafame, utilities director for New London, talks about the tanks that hold coagulant Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant in Waterford. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    The water filters Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant in Waterford. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    View of a section of Lake Konomoc on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant in Waterford. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Four times a year, James Burton wakes up early, skips his morning swipe of deodorant and heads to the Lake Konomoc Water Treatment Plant off Hartford Turnpike in Waterford, the treatment facility he’s worked at for four years.

    Once inside the plant, which takes in and filters millions of gallons of water before piping it to customer taps in New London, Waterford and East Lyme, Burton, a plant operator, grabs a sterile 200-ml bottle and fills it with water previously extracted from the nearby reservoir.

    That water specimen gets sent to a lab where it’s tested for a variety of PFAS, those prevalent, durable and possibly carcinogenic “forever chemicals” found in everything from cookware, food packaging and hygiene products ― including the deodorant Burton might apply.

    “Because those tests are so sensitive, whoever takes those samples can’t have used hair gel that morning, put on lip balm or perfume or be wearing anything but cotton clothing, because that could lead to a particle hit,” said New London Director of Utilities Joe Lanzafame. “The irony is those water tests are looking at PFAS levels of part per trillion when the average person has enough materials on them to trigger a hit.”

    In the two years since New London has been testing for the presence of per- and polyfluoroalklys, or PFAS, all tests have come back with “undetectable” levels of the chemicals,” Lanzafame said.

    He called that especially good news in the wake of new federal regulations that for the first time lay out specific limits on the amounts of common types of PFAS allowed in public drinking water systems.

    New federal rules, but little local impact

    The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month declared drinking water concentrations of two of the most studied PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – are capped at 4 parts per trillion, with three other types of the synthetic chemicals limited to 10 parts per trillion.

    The state Department of Public Health previously set acceptable levels of PFOA and PFOS up to 16 parts per trillion and 10 parts per trillion, respectively. Each part per trillion is equivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

    The EPA’s decision represents the first national and enforceable drinking water standard, a reaction to the prevalent and sturdy nature of the chemicals, which experts found could be linked to a host of negative health outcomes over time, from kidney and testicular cancers to immunological and fetal development issues.

    Lanzafame said new federal standards won’t have any immediate effect on operations at the New London water treatment facility, which serves roughly 52,000 New London and Waterford residents, along with a smaller number of East Lyme summer customers.

    “Because we’ve never detected PFAS at any level, we don’t need to upgrade,” he said.

    Lanzafame attributes the lack of PFAS to the facility’s sources, clean surface water pulled from the 6,442-acre Lake Konomoc Reservoir watershed system consisting of the large reservoir next to the plant and several upstream sources in Salem, Montville and Waterford.

    “It’s a quality source of water without the kind of industry around it that could cause a PFAS hit,” Lanzafame said. “Raw groundwater sources can be trickier since those chemicals tend to percolate down.”

    In January, low levels of PFAS, though higher than now allowed under the 4-parts-per-trillion federal standard, were detected in two of East Lyme’s seven wells ― Flanders and Niantic ― that pump water into above-ground storage tanks and, eventually, into residents’ homes.

    PFOA levels were found in the Flanders well at 4.5 parts per trillion and in the Niantic well at 9.2 parts per trillion. PFOS levels came in at 5.8 parts per trillion in the Flanders well and 3 parts per trillion in the Niantic well.

    Ben North, the town’s utilities’ engineer, described the water system as a “blended” one with all seven wells feeding into a central filtration site before distribution. He said that configuration means no customers are being served directly from a contaminated well.

    “I’m confident that, once blended, the (PFAS) levels are below the 4-parts-per-trillion level,” North said.

    North said upgrade work being conducted on two other wells ― ones without elevated PFAS levels ― meant the two contaminated wells were not taken off-line. He said a preliminary engineering report laying out recommended fixes to the system is expected to be ready by July.

    “We’re expecting the cost for that could run between $8 million to $10 million,” North said, noting he’s hoping the project would eligible for priority state funding.

    From recommendations to rules

    The state Department of Public Health lists 489 community water systems in Connecticut, feeding customers through a mix of ground and surface water sources. The number of people served by a particular system varies wildly from just more than a dozen to tens of thousands.

    Up to now, the only requirements for public water systems to test for PFAS were through the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, used solely to collect contaminant data, said state DPH spokesman Chris Boyle.

    During a 2013-15 UCMR testing round searching for six PFAS, there were “no reportable results” from the community and other water systems serving more than 10,000 individuals and eight smaller systems that took part in the testing.

    Boyle said his agency since 2018 has recommended all public water systems test for PFAS and some have voluntary complied with that request.

    In addition to laying out the new PFAS limitations, the EPA’s edict also requires public water systems to comply within three years with new monitoring and reporting requirements.

    Surface water system operators must conduct quarterly testing of their water sources for a year. If no PFAS is detected over a period of time, the testing frequency can be decreased to once every three years ―a less stringent schedule already in place in New London and Norwich.

    Norwich Public Utilities, which treats and distributes more than 1.6 billion gallons of potable water to its 11,000 customers, has for years been checking its raw water sources in Lebanon and Montville for PFAS.

    NPU General Manager Chris LaRose said the company began testing its reservoirs quarterly for PFAS in 2016 with results reported to the state. He said all tests at the two main water sources came back with “non-detectable” PFAS findings.

    He said a rarely used emergency well in Norwich, which is tested twice a year, recently showed the presence of a single PFAS compound slightly above the state’s action levels. That well was taken off-line to address the issue, LaRose said.

    NPU spokesman Chris Riley said the company has not yet identified the cause of the PFAS hit, though the well where it was found is fed by a “very old reservoir.”

    Both New London and Norwich water officials said they don’t expect the new federal regulations to change their operating methods as PFAS detection is a reactionary issue.

    “Our system and others like it, is considered by the federal government a ‘passive receiver,’ or one that doesn’t generate PFAS, but has to deal with it,” said Lanzafame.

    Connecticut is taking steps to attack the PFAS issue at its production and distribution sources. A 2021 statute banning any food packaging that contains the chemicals went into effect earlier this year. The state in 2021 prohibited the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS.

    Riley said NPU will continue to be vigilant with its testing.

    “The EPA at some point may change those new requirements, maybe add in a different class of PFAS to test for,” he said. “So we’ll remain diligent.”

    PFAS an expensive fix

    And the detection of PFAS in a main local water source would mean a costly fix, Lanzafame said.

    If an exceeded limit result comes back, it will likely require reconfiguring one of the Waterford facility’s pool-sized filtration troughs into an “absorption” area designed to scrub the particles from the water using granulated activate carbon filters.

    “That’s a fix that could cost up to $4 million and only work for a couple of years,” Lanzafame said.

    Elevated PFAS levels in Norwich would also mean a “major upgrade” to NPU’s infrastructure, LaRose said.

    On Wednesday, the Veolia Water company, which owns or staffs 200 water and wastewater facilities in the United States, hosted a corporate forum in New York during which company CEO Estelle Brachlianoff estimated PFAS remediation in the U.S. represented a $200 billion market.

    The New London water treatment plant, while owned by the city, employs four Veolia workers to run the facility.

    The new federal requirements do come with $1 billion in funding via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law ― Congress previously approved $21 billion for drinking water system upgrades ― to help states and private well owners test for and clean any contamination.

    States have until 2027 to meet the new monitoring and reporting requirements and comply with the PFAS level rules by 2029.

    j.penney@theday.com

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