Philly-area water providers grapple with potential costs of reducing toxic ‘forever chemicals’

Drinking water providers are seeking funding to cover the costs of eliminating toxic PFAS from its water supplies.

Listen 1:15
A worker is seen next to a water filtration system

Drinking water providers must test and treat its water for PFAS over the next five years. (Courtesy of New Jersey American Water)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Drinking water providers in the Philadelphia region are preparing to test and treat its water supplies for PFAS to meet the nation’s first federal limits on the toxic “forever chemicals.” 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring water providers to monitor and treat its water over the next five years to reduce PFAS levels to almost zero. Providers must inform customers if their drinking water does not meet federal standards.

The goal of reducing PFAS levels in drinking water is to prevent a variety of illnesses that have been linked to the class of chemicals, including some cancers.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

But doing so is a significant and costly undertaking. Almost half of drinking water in the U.S. contains PFAS, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Filtration systems that remove the chemicals cost millions of dollars, and the burden could fall on customers.

To offset some of these expenses, President Joe Biden’s administration has set aside billions of dollars to address PFAS. However, water providers say additional financial support is needed.

“These upgrades do not come without a price,” said the Philadelphia Water Department in a statement, adding its supplies meet current state regulations. “PWD insists that our customers do not foot the bill. PFAS producers and manufacturers must be held accountable … While recent legislation provided invaluable financial support for infrastructure, we feel strongly that additional state and federal funding will be needed to meet these regulations.”

Footing the bill for removing PFAS

The EPA estimates at least 6% to 10% of water providers in the U.S. currently do not comply with the new regulations.

Officials in New Jersey, one of the first states to implement PFAS regulations, estimate at least 360 of its more than 3,000 water systems currently exceed the new federal MCLs. In addition, 101 water systems have exceeded the state’s own PFAS regulations to date, said Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

New Jersey American Water said its supplies meet current state regulations for PFAS, and the company currently is working to determine whether it meets the new federal standards.

The company’s president, Mark McDonough, said he hopes settlement money from state lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers will help pay for the expensive undertaking of meeting the new federal regulations.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We feel that we will be capable of handling it, whatever it is,” McDonough said. “But ultimately, we feel that the folks that put this substance into the environment, the polluters, effectively, involved in the multidistrict litigation, should be responsible for paying for its cleanup.”

New Jersey American Water is seeking grants to fund water infrastructure, but McDonough said customer rates likely will still be impacted.

Commissioner LaTourette said the New Jersey Water Bank uses federal, state and private funding to support water infrastructure to help reduce water rates in communities. He added the state is prioritizing its water infrastructure dollars to small and disadvantaged communities.

Water provider Aqua Pennsylvania currently treats many of its water supplies for PFAS. However, the company said it could cost at least another $250 million dollars to get 36 of its water systems compliant with the new federal rules.

Though the company is seeking funding from grants and lawsuit settlements, customer rates will likely increase, said Marc Lucca, president of Aqua Pennsylvania.

“We know that this is going to require considerable effort. It requires water professionals to quickly engage and respond to this new regulation,” Lucca said. “But I would also tell you that we don’t believe that this can be done part-time, that it requires dedicated professionals like we have here at Aqua, Pennsylvania. And I would say to our customers that, ‘We’ve got this, we can do this and we will comply with this regulation.’”

Not only is the installation of filtration systems expensive, but so is the upkeep.

One of the mainstays of PFAS filtration is granular activated carbon because it’s effective and cost-effective. The technology, in the most simplest terms, works when the unwanted compounds are absorbed by the carbon.

However, the materials must be replaced to ensure continued efficacy. Experts say the technology must work harder to achieve the lowest PFAS levels. That means the more strict the regulation, the more frequent the replacement — and that means added costs.

New Jersey American Water’s McDonough said those higher operating costs will impact smaller towns.

“It’s one thing to be given money by the federal government to build a treatment process. It’s another thing to then have the personnel and ongoing expense of treating, replacing the filter media and dealing with it,” he said.

The Municipal Services Commission in New Castle, Del., currently uses carbon filtration, but plans to implement a technology called ion exchange, which officials say doesn’t need replacing as frequently.

Jay Guyer, the commission’s water utility manager, understands all too well the challenges small municipalities must face to meet the new regulations. When high levels of PFAS, caused by historic firefighting foam use at the New Castle Airport, were discovered in its drinking water supplies, the commission worked to install a $1.4 million filtration system.

The initial costs do not account for ongoing maintenance and testing, Guyer said. He recommends water systems addressing PFAS for the first time must educate themselves about the various treatment technologies available and seek out a highly qualified engineering firm.

“There’s a lot of things to take into consideration in getting these systems up and running. And it’s one of the good things that the law that was drafted did give some flexibility for the implementation time,” Guyer said. “That is a very big benefit because you’re going to have a lot of systems that don’t have anything in place right now. I can imagine that supply chain issues, and availability of equipment, and contractors, and engineers, is going to become a challenge as they continue to work through this process.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal