President’s Message ― OCWD Hosts Congressional PFAS Briefing

I am never surprised but am always full of pride when the board and staff members of the Orange County Water District (OCWD; the District) demonstrate leadership to take on the big water issues.

Last Thursday, OCWD hosted a congressional Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) briefing with Congressman Harley Rouda (D-CA) and staff from Orange County’s congressional delegation. Nearly 75 guests were in attendance including local Groundwater Producers and other interested parties. I was honored to moderate the event. The reason for the briefing was to discuss what Orange County is doing and how federal representatives can help advance effective regulations and laws pertaining to PFAS and other contaminants of emerging concern. 

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. Of them, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public’s health.  PFAS have been found both in the environment and in blood samples of the general U.S. population. Most people have been exposed to these chemicals for decades through consumer products, but drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have entered water supplies.  PFOA and PFOS chemicals have been banned from being manufactured or used in the U.S. since 2015, but the chemicals persist in the environment because they don’t degrade.

Only in recent years, have the methods for detection been created and refined.

At the afternoon briefing held at the District’s headquarters in Fountain Valley, OCWD Executive Director of Water Quality & Technical Resources Jason Dadakis gave an overview that included current California Notification and Response Levels and the state’s PFAS investigation, which affects more than 200 water systems, including 12 OCWD Producers.

One of those Producers is the city of Fullerton. Director of Public Works Meg McWade provided a compelling presentation about the significant additional operational and financial impacts that new PFAS treatment requirements or recommendations would have on her city and its residents. These impacts result from the Producers’ priority to provide safe, reliable and high-quality drinking water and to protect public health.

“We’re just beginning to understand how bad this problem is,” said Congressman Rouda. According to the congressman, PFAS contamination could become a huge national concern on an unprecedented scale.

I was encouraged at the Congressman’s enthusiasm to get to the heart of the issue, to find viable resolutions to remove PFAS from drinking water and to seek bipartisan support in doing so. The Congressman is chair of the Subcommittee on Environment and is on the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. He is in the process of convening a congressional delegation on the PFAS matter.

OCWD’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory is the first and only public agency laboratory in California to achieve state certification to analyze for PFAS in drinking water. OCWD has invested more than $1 million in equipment to support the lab in performing this analysis and is proactively working with federal, state and local agencies to test, identify and monitor PFAS. OCWD has begun the second round of testing for PFAS at locations within its service area that received monitoring orders from the state. The current monitoring orders require four quarters of testing, which will continue through March 2020. 

To assist local water retailers to ensure that their drinking water meets requirements for PFOA and PFOS established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Division of Drinking Water (DDW), OCWD’s board will consider hiring a second consultant to review the PFAS treatment implementation needs for each affected Producer. Earlier this month, the District hired Jacobs Engineering to assist with a lab- and pilot-scale PFAS treatment assessment project. OCWD will also be moving forward with 3D visualization and water quality modeling of the basin to get a better visual understanding of the extent of PFAS impacts basin wide.

On Aug. 23, the DDW announced a new Notification Level for PFOA and PFOS: 5.1 parts per trillion (ppt) and 6.5 ppt, respectively. The Response Level for PFOA and PFOS will remain at the current level of 70 ppt for both contaminants for the time being. DDW also indicated that it is formally requesting that the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) develop a draft Public Health Goal (PHG), the first step in establishing a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS—an action that OCWD supports for its transparent review process leading to an enforceable standard.

We do have a strong interest as to how the new lower Notification Levels were determined by OEHHA and DDW.  Depending on what levels state or federal drinking water standards for PFAS are set, preliminary estimates of financial impacts range from $20 million to $850 million over the next 30 years for the Orange County region alone.

We are asking state legislators to do the following regarding PFAS:

  • Compel DDW to base new levels on sound science and provide sufficient time for stakeholders and the public to review the science, respond and provide input.
  • Compel DDW to establish a federal MCL within two years through a transparent process that is based on peer-reviewed, sound science.
  • Provide funding in the form of grants and low-interest loans to water agencies to treat PFAS and to DDW to accelerate the approval process for treatment permit applications.
  • Like other states, such as New York and Vermont, explore cost recovery from PFAS manufacturers to help pay for cleanups in California.

Both the U.S. House and Senate approved different plans to address PFAS in drinking water. Lawmakers are now working to have a deal in place on PFAS legislation sometime this fall. We have requested the following of Congress:

  • Compel the EPA to establish a federal MCL within two years through a transparent process that is based on peer-reviewed, sound science.
  • Exempt water and wastewater entities from any liability of PFAS cleanup costs if PFAS is listed under CERCLA as a hazardous waste. A water utility that properly disposes of treatment residuals containing PFAS, in a manner consistent with applicable laws, must not be held liable for future costs associated with PFAS cleanup.
  • Provide federal funding through grants and low-interest loans for PFAS treatment.
  • Provide funding for cleanup costs from the manufacturers of PFAS, as proposed in H.R. 2570 Rep. Harley Rouda.

OCWD and the 19 water retail agencies we serve can’t do it alone. We respectfully request that our state and federal legislators advocate for these measures to help ensure safe drinking water for the region.

Vicente Sarmiento, Esq.