Analysis by Waterkeepers Shows Shocking Level of PFAS Contamination in Local Rivers & Streams

This year, a total of 113 local Waterkeepers, including 16 Waterkeepers in our region, collected samples from 114 waterways across 34 states and the District of Columbia. Independent analysis indicates a shocking level of contamination, with 94 participating Waterkeeper groups confirming the presence of PFAS – dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are widely linked to serious public health and environmental impacts – in their waterways. Waterways in 29 states and D.C. were found to be contaminated by at least one, but most frequently, multiple PFAS compounds; many tests revealed the presence of up to 35 different PFAS compounds.  

Since at least the 1950s, PFAS compounds have been widely used in manufacturing and are found in many consumer, commercial, and industrial products. These multiple PFAS compounds are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down over time. Instead, these dangerous chemicals accumulate in people, wildlife, and the environment. As a result, PFAS have been found in surface water, air, soil, food, and many commercial materials. Scientific studies increasingly link these toxic chemicals to serious health conditions such as cancer, liver and kidney disease, reproductive issues, immunodeficiencies, and hormonal disruptions.

On the Clean Water Act’s 50th Anniversary on October 18, Waterkeeper Alliance released Invisible, Unbreakable, Unnatural, a groundbreaking new analysis of American waterways that sounds the alarm on a PFAS pollution emergency. 83% of waterways tested were found to contain at least one type of PFAS. In the Chesapeake Bay region, 39 samples were taken in rivers and streams. In 100% of the samples, levels of PFAS were found. To make matters worse, the level for PFOA and PFOS detected in this study is significantly higher than EPA’s Drinking Water Health Advisory Limits for those substances (0.004 parts per trillion (ppt) and 0.02 ppt, respectively). This leaves open the possibility that even waterways in other parts of the US with non-detect results are in fact contaminated with these PFAS compounds at levels below the detection limits but above EPA’s interim Health Advisory Limits. [See Table 4 below for results in Bay region states.]

These findings are an important step toward filling in a major data gap, and they validate Waterkeeper Alliance’s call to EPA for increased and widespread monitoring to gain a complete picture of PFAS contamination in all watersheds across the country. 

In some places, like creeks connected to the Potomac River in Maryland, the Lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and the Niagara River in New York, the level of contamination is thousands to hundreds of thousands times higher than what experts say is safe for drinking water. This is of particular concern as an estimated 65% of Americans source their drinking water from surface waters similar to those sampled. Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis sampled Kreutz Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. The highest total PFAS concentration (6,510.3 ppt) for all detections across the nation was found in the downstream sample he collected. For just one type of compound, PFBS, the detention level was 2083.3 ppt. This is thousands to hundreds of thousands times higher than the EPA guidance levels. Modern Landfill discharges leachate into Kreutz Creek and has dramatically degraded water quality throughout Kreutz Creek by discharging pollutants above their permit limits. Ted is sampling Kreutz Creek on a monthly basis and is assessing levels of PFAS in individual residents’ wells throughout Lower Windsor Township, York County, PA.

“Modern Landfill has taken away the constitutional right for residents and the public to safely recreate and fish around Kreutz Creek. The owners of the Landfill must be held accountable to the highest standards in effectively treating their wastewater to remove PFAS and other harmful pollutants,” said Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis.

Just last month, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper filed a notice of intent to sue Republic Services of Pennsylvania LLC, sending a letter notifying it that its Modern Landfill has repeatedly violated its water quality based permit limits under the federal Clean Water Act. After the 60-day notice period expires (which began November 3rd), Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper intends to file a citizen suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to require Republic to comply with Clean Water Act requirements at its Modern Landfill.

Elsewhere in our Watershed, Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks sampled Piscataway Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the upstream sample, he found PFOS detected at 1364.7 ppt, the highest detection in all samples across the nation for PFOS.

I am glad Prince George County is suing the producers of these forever chemicals for creating an environmental and public health issue in Piscataway Creek. We need local and state governments everywhere to take a similar course of action against Dupont and other producers of PFAS,” said Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks.

In the Upper Potomac, since 2017, the Martinsburg Water Treatment plant has had levels greater than 70 ppt from decades of firefighting foam use at the Air National Guard base just a few miles away. Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls has been documenting PFAS, sampling streams and at wastewater plants. Waterkeepers in Maryland and Virginia have been pushing the states to fully investigate the magnitude of PFAS pollution to our water resources.

Despite serious health risks, there are currently no universal, science-based limits on the various PFAS chemicals in the United States. For many PFAS chemicals, the EPA has not even set a health advisory limit that would give the public a baseline to determine what amount of PFAS is unhealthy in drinking water. In most cases, the EPA is not doing adequate monitoring for these chemicals, which is why these findings are so unique and important.

Just this month, the EPA proposed a rule that would improve reporting on PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) by eliminating an exemption that allows facilities to avoid reporting information on PFAS. Due to fewer facilities reporting PFAS to TRI than expected, the EPA conducted outreach, and many facilities contacted claimed the de minimis exemption, or “small concentrations,” as a reason for not reporting. The proposed rule would list PFAS as “chemicals of special concern,” which would make them ineligible for the de minimis exemption. Also this month, the EPA released guidance outlining how states can monitor for PFAS discharges and take steps to reduce them where they are detected. This guidance provides recommendations to NPDES permit writers and pretreatment coordinators on monitoring provisions, analytical methods, the use of pollution prevention, and best management practices.

In December 2022, 3M announced that by the end of 2025 it will stop manufacturing the toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” and work to discontinue their use. But as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says, it’s too little, too late, because 3M has known for more than 50 years that PFAS chemicals are toxic. 3M has engaged in decades of deception, knowing its PFAS products were toxic but hiding that information from the public. EWG estimates there may be more than 40,000 industrial polluters of PFAS in the U.S. More than 200 million Americans could be drinking water contaminated with PFAS. 3M should be held accountable by Congress and the courts for the decades of ever-lasting harm they have caused millions of people. 3M cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

The cost of mitigating this contamination should not fall solely on utilities and, by extension, everyday people who pay their rates to water utilities for clean water. A federal bill has been introduced, the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act, that would set deadlines for EPA action on industrial discharges.

“It’s not fair that water rate payers will have to bear the cost of cleaner water but that polluters can continue to discharge PFAS into drinking water supplies,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “The water samples from our region clearly show that sources of our drinking water could be threatened by PFAS contamination.”

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