Your Local News | Allentown, Bethlehem & Easton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Environment & Science

'Forever chemicals' mitigation could cost this Lehigh Valley municipality $12 million

A pitcher is filled with tap water at a sink
Adobe Stock
Seven sites in each Lehigh and Northampton county were tested for PFAS, according to the results of the DEP’s 2020-2021 sampling plan. While none in Northampton County showed the presence of PFAS, in Lehigh County, sites in Emmaus and Lehigh County Authority’s Allentown Division tested positive.

EMMAUS, Pa. — There’s no cheap answer to get the forever chemicals out of residents’ drinking water, said Shane Pepe, Emmaus borough manager.

After two of the borough’s wells tested positive for high levels of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, almost two years ago, officials estimated it would cost $400,000 to mitigate one well.

  • The EPA last week announced a proposal to limit the concentration of "forever chemicals" in drinking water nation-wide
  • Pennsylvania in January set regulations, but the EPA's are much lower
  • Emmaus is faced with two costly options — pay to have wells mitigated, or find water elsewhere

“That has significantly changed,” Pepe said. “Because of the plumbing requirements that are going to need to be changed to get the levels down to undetectable, with the size of the tanks that we're going to need, and the buildings we’re going to have to build, to mitigate those two tanks is about $4.5 million.”
And now the regulations are changing again.

Federal vs. state rules

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to set nationwide maximum levels of PFAS allowable in public drinking water. The announcement comes about three months after Pennsylvania adopted new regulations, but the EPA’s are almost four times lower. With state and federal agencies at odds over the acceptable levels, it’s become an expensive and frustrating process for at least one Lehigh Valley municipality trying to clean up its drinking water.

“Our position is we're taking responsibility — we need to fix the problem,” Pepe said. “Our concern is the new EPA levels are such a low level that we've seen our wells testing at fluctuating levels, but they're what I guess are considered very low levels. But now, at this point, we're on the verge of two other wells, probably, at some point, not being within that range.”

It could cost the borough — and its taxpayers — upwards of $12 million if all the wells need to be mitigated, he said.

Asked for comment on the EPA’s announcement, Lehigh County Authority spokesperson Susan Sampson deferred to a prepared statement.

“Lehigh County Authority (LCA) is reviewing the proposed rule issued by EPA to determine the impact on its water systems, which supply safe drinking water to more than 200,000 people in the Allentown and surrounding communities,” according to the statement. “LCA regularly tests our water sources to ensure our water quality meets or exceeds all EPA regulations and guidelines.”

There are people in Pennsylvania that are drinking water that's contaminated with PFAS today, and we need to make sure, because we know that there are very serious diseases, including cancer, associated with drinking water exposure to various PFAS compounds.
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Pepe said the borough recently submitted a feasibility study to the state Department of Environmental Protection and are waiting on feedback to mitigate the issue. The new EPA proposal could cause that plan to change.

“There are so many, so many more questions and concerns coming out of this the more the DEP and EPA have weighed in and changed acceptable levels,” Pepe said. “And water suppliers, mostly the municipal water suppliers, that haven't gotten into this yet have no idea what's coming in front of them.

“We've obviously been learning as we go, and there's a lot more to it than just slapping on a treatment system.”

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a type of manufactured chemical that have been used in consumer products since the 1940s, according to the EPA. They have been used in food packaging, outdoor clothing, dental floss, nonstick pans, stain-resistant coatings and firefighting foam, among other products.

They’re nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they are incredibly slow to break down once introduced into the environment, and can contaminate groundwater.

While officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note scientists are still learning about the potential health effects of PFAS, research involving humans suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, small decreases in infant birth weight, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

“There are people in Pennsylvania that are drinking water that's contaminated with PFAS today, and we need to make sure, because we know that there are very serious diseases, including cancer, associated with drinking water exposure to various PFAS compounds,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “It's very important that we get those toxic compounds out of people's drinking water immediately.”

Because PFAS have been so common, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has said “most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood, especially perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid.”

PFAS in the Lehigh Valley

Pepe has been dealing with PFAS testing and regulations for almost two years. In October 2021, the state Department of Environmental Protection took water samples at two of the borough’s four wells.

Testing showed one well had 111 parts per trillion and the second well had 436 parts per trillion, both well above the state’s acceptable levels. The former is still in use, while the latter was shut down and remains so while the borough undergoes mitigation planning. The latest quarterly reading on the second well showed PFAS at 100 parts per trillion. Pepe said it’s “still not acceptable by any means.”

“We know how our wells got contaminated,” Pepe said. “We know that it was the firefighter foam.”

In April, the borough filed a lawsuit against 3M Co., DuPont and a slew of other PFAS manufacturers, alleging that the companies knew about the link between their firefighting foam and the dangers of PFAS since the 1950s, but continued to sell them anyway. In Emmaus, the foam was used for decades at the Klines Lane firefighting training grounds, as well as other locations.

“They're in no hurry to settle that,” Pepe said, noting it has become part of a federal class action lawsuit that includes municipalities and states across the U.S., including Philadelphia. “And it might be 10 years before we see results.”

At the end of last year, 3M officials announced they would stop manufacturing PFAS and “discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025.”

"This is a moment that demands the kind of innovation 3M is known for," said Mike Roman, 3M’s chairman and CEO, in a news release announcing the change. "While PFAS can be safely made and used, we also see an opportunity to lead in a rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape to make the greatest impact for those we serve.”

As part of Emmaus’ feasibility study, Pepe has been exploring other options, including tapping into another municipal water source, he said. But that could also cost the borough millions of dollars, as the borough would have to add additional infrastructure and negotiate the cost of water.

“Then, how long is it before they test positive for PFAS?” Pepe asked, adding that borough officials are planning a public meeting after the DEP approves the feasibility study.

“We want them to know that there are different options out there and we need to navigate them, because it's going to be expensive no matter what we do,” he said.

Emmaus might appear to be the only municipality in the Lehigh Valley dealing with PFAS, but that could be attributed to a lack of widespread testing, Pepe said.

“I have a feeling that all the water suppliers in Pennsylvania are going to be in the same situation,” Pepe said. “And not just here, but I think across the country, as more and more places start testing for it.

“And that's the other issue. Over half the wells in Pennsylvania haven't been tested for PFAS yet.”

Only a fraction of the 3,117 water systems in the state have so far been tested, according to a recent Associated Press report. Of the more than 400 sites tested across the commonwealth, about one-third were found to contain one of the chemicals.

DEP officials have not returned requests seeking comment on the EPA’s announcement or updates on testing throughout the Valley and the rest of the state.

Seven sites in Lehigh and Northampton counties were tested, according to the results of the DEP’s 2020-2021 sampling plan. While none in Northampton County showed the presence of PFAS, in Lehigh County, sites in Emmaus and Lehigh County Authority’s Allentown Division tested positive.

“Preliminary monitoring has shown limited presence of PFAS compounds in some LCA water sources,” Sampson said when asked for comment on past testing. “Because EPA’s proposed rule is significantly more stringent than previously published health advisories, more analysis and repeated water quality monitoring is required to determine the impact on LCA’s systems.”

In the news release after the EPA’s recent announcement, the authority said it “will conduct additional water testing to understand how the proposed regulation may impact LCA systems.”

“This will help us determine any additional actions that will be necessary if the rule is finalized later this year,” officials said. “As more information is generated from LCA’s water quality monitoring or regulatory reviews, it will be posted on our website at www.lehighcountyauthority.org.”

Evolving regulations

There’s cause for frustration, as regulations surrounding PFAS have changed drastically in the past decade following more research showing the dangers of consuming the contaminants.

“There's a lot happening on PFAS right now after nothing happening,” Carluccio said.

While the EPA first published provisional health advisories for PFAS in 2009, that guidance was updated again in 2016, when officials set health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion.

In January, Pennsylvania set a much lower maximum contaminant level for two forms of PFAS, 14 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and 18 parts per trillion for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, PFOS. The following month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman announced the state would get more than $75 million in federal funding to help address PFAS in residential drinking water across the state.

PFOA and PFOS are the most commonly found PFAS compounds in Pennsylvania, and they're highly toxic, Carluccio said.

The latest proposed EPA regulations would push the maximums even lower - down to 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS and would include four other chemicals to the mix of PFAS compounds that would be regulated.

“EPA expects that if fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” according to the EPA’s website.

If the EPA’s proposal is accepted, it would create consistent standards across the entire country, superseding the commonwealth’s regulations.

“It's really important that EPA moves ahead with a federal standard, because that will apply to the entire nation,” Carluccio said. “And that is really the only fair way to apply drinking water standards nationally.”

The agency is holding a public hearing May 4 to get feedback from residents on the proposal, with plans to finalize it by the end of this year. Asked what comments she’ll be submitting, Carluccio said, “Speed it up.”

“This is enough already,” she said. “Everyday that goes by that people are drinking water contaminated with PFAS compounds is another day that they have increased their risk of developing a disease linked to them. So it's wrong to delay this. They've already delayed it for decades.”

Not everyone is sold on the EPA’s new proposed standards.

“Four parts per trillion is an easy fluctuation,” Pepe said. “We've seen that with our testing. Our levels on those two wells have gone up, down, up, down, up, down — they fluctuate every time.”

Are there PFAS in your water?

Residents can reach out directly to their water supplier to inquire about PFAS, but some systems won’t have any information, according to the EPA. Residents can also get their water tested, but should use a state-certified laboratory using EPA-developed testing methods.

If concerns persist, the EPA recommends residents contact their state environmental agency or health department to find out what actions they recommend, use an alternate water source for drinking or preparing food, or install an in-home water treatment system that is certified to lower PFAS levels.

Self-advocacy is key, Carluccio said, especially for those with private wells.

“At this point, it's really, really important that people realize that they probably have to step forward and not only advocate at the local level, if they have a water well in a small borough, for instance, or a water system that's small,” she said. “Or, if they have an individual well, they're probably going to have to advocate at the local level for there be sampling done on a voluntary basis, or they have to try to test their water themselves.”