A carbon filtering system that cleans drinking water at the Spring Hollow reservoir is starting to wear down, elevating levels of a chemical contaminant above the federal government’s health advisory.
Recent test results show that treated water from the Roanoke County reservoir had levels of GenX from between 17 and 37 parts per trillion from late-October to mid-December — exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-term recommendation of no more than 10 parts per trillion.
Carbon replacements, due to arrive in mid-March, are expected to bring the concentration back down.
The Western Virginia Water Authority, which operates Spring Hollow as part of a system that provides drinking water to the Roanoke Valley, is continuing to distribute water from the reservoir, although at reduced levels.
Michael McEvoy, executive director of the authority, said the risk to an average customer is low, because the EPA’s health advisory is based on a lifetime of consuming two liters of water a day. Levels of GenX are neither excessively high nor prolonged, he said.
But Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University who has done extensive research on the issue, questioned that rationale.
“I don’t believe that really aligns with the spirit of a lifetime health advisory,” DeWitt said. “The concentration in the water should be consistently below the health advisory. Not occasionally below, or sometimes below, but consistently below.”
GenX, the trade name for one of more than 6,000 so-called “forever chemicals,” was first detected in Spring Hollow in early 2020.
Also called PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, forever chemicals repel heat and water, making them popular in the manufacture of a wide variety of consumer products. But there’s a drastic downside: The manufactured compounds can remain in the environment for generations, and there is growing concern about the health risks they pose.
Last summer, at about the time the EPA health advisory was issued, the water authority began using a granulated active carbon system. The treatment entails running water from Spring Hollow through a filtering process before it is distributed to about 12,800 customers, most of them in Roanoke County.
The contaminant bonds to the carbon, which at first reduced its levels significantly. Tests of the treated water, which in January 2022 had a GenX concentration of 55 parts per trillion, showed a decrease to as low as 1 part per trillion in August.
But the numbers gradually began to rise again, as the carbon lost its ability over time to capture the GenX.
Once able to remove the chemical nearly completely from reservoir water, the filtering system currently has an efficiency rate of about 35%. The most recent test results, from samples taken Dec. 16, showed the level was up to 37 parts per trillion.
The carbon filtering system is just one of several steps the water authority has taken since GenX was first detected.
Since last September, the authority has stopped pumping water into the reservoir from the adjacent Roanoke River, which in recent years has carried GenX-tainted wastewater that was released from an industry about five miles upstream.
And the output from Spring Hollow has been cut by about half, with more water coming from Carvins Cove, a second reservoir that tests show is free of GenX and other forever chemicals.
Some portions of authority’s territory, which includes about 69,000 homes and businesses, can only be served by Spring Hollow.
“We want to get the levels below the health advisory,” McEvoy said. “We just can’t right now.”
Awareness, concern expand
As Roanoke officials began to deal with the worst contamination in the water authority’s history, they quickly realized they were not alone.
Increased demand for laboratory tests and treatment equipment, created by a growing number of localities across the United States that are encountering PFAS problems of their own, has led to shortages and delays.
“The labs are just slammed with people trying to get data and answers to these questions,” McEvoy said.
Last October, the water authority ordered replacement carbon units that have yet to arrive. They are expected to be installed in mid-March, and several backups ordered at the same time should last for about a year.
The replacements are seen as a short-term fix to what it considered a rudimentary filtering system. The authority is planning to spend $13.5 million to upgrade the process, which it expects will be needed for the next four years before the GenX levels in the reservoir’s untreated water fall below 10 parts per trillion.
Efforts to measure progress have been slowed. Test results of water samples from laboratories, which used to be available in about a month, are now taking twice as long.
Another challenge is figuring out just how much GenX is too much.
While the EPA’s health advisory states that exposure to less than 10 parts per trillion does not put people in danger, it does not quantify the risks posed by higher levels.
Safety factors calculated into the recommendation take into account people who might be more susceptible to health problems. And the EPA does not recommend the use of bottled water for those exposed to more than 10 parts per trillion.
“Collectively, this suggests that short term consumption is not as relevant as lifetime consumption,” McEvoy said.
But when someone is exposed to three or more times the health advisory, as people in the Roanoke region have been, that carries an assumption of increased risk, according to DeWitt, who has published studies on the effects of forever chemicals and served as an external reviewer for the EPA and other government agencies.
Research is ongoing to learn more about the health risks posed by PFAS.
According to the EPA, peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown an increased risk in a number of areas: liver complications; prostate, kidney and testicular cancers; damage to immune systems; increased cholesterol levels; and impacts to pregnant women that include decreased fertility and high blood pressure.
One complicating factor in determining risk is the large number of PFAS and the variety of ways people can be exposed to them.
Since the 1950s, the chemicals have been used in the manufacture of a wide range of products that include nonstick cook wear, waterproof clothing, fast food containers, upholstery, carpets, firefighting foams, paints, cosmetics and dental floss.
It seems to be taking forever for the federal government to get serious about forever chemicals, critics say.
The EPA currently does not have any enforceable regulations to govern the release of GenX and other PFAS — a move that would add gravitas to its nonbinding health advisories.
More than a year ago, the Biden administration announced plans to impose standards to protect drinking water.
But the government is falling behind on its promises, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes legislation and regulatory action to protect the health of humans and the earth.
“Industries will continue to use these chemicals and toxic poisons until we tell them they can’t,” Scott Faber, the group’s vice president of government affairs, said at a press briefing last week.
EWG estimates that more than 200 million Americans are drinking PFAS-contaminated water.
The EPA has said it plans to propose rules as soon as possible. Draft regulations are currently being reviewed internally, and a public comment session will be held after the Office of Management and Budget signs off on the plan. Final rules are expected to be in effect by year’s end.
Meanwhile, the agency is facing industry pushback.
The Chemours Co., which manufactures GenX and was the source of the contamination in the Roanoke River, has filed a lawsuit that takes issue with the EPA’s health advisory.
The case, pending before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asserts that the EPA’s analysis was flawed. “The agency disregarded relevant data and incorporated grossly incorrect and overstated exposure assumptions in devising the health advisory,” Chemours said in a news release when the case was filed last summer.
The company has declined to comment on the situation in Roanoke, other than to say it is cooperating in an investigation by the water authority and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Last November, the water authority identified the source of pollution as ProChem, a company in Elliston that services industrial water treatment equipment. ProChem was working for Chemours, which was sending equipment from its plant in West Virginia to be cleaned and returned for future use.
ProChem said it was not aware that its process was allowing the chemical to enter a sanitary sewer, which eventually led to its release into the South Fork of the Roanoke River. As soon as it suspected a problem, ProChem terminated its contract with Chemours.
The company says that its subsequent tests at its Elliston facility showed no evidence of GenX that exceed the health advisory.
Levels in the river have also decreased in recent weeks, the authority says, although GenX is still present in water just upstream of the Spring Hollow intake and downstream of a Montgomery County wastewater treatment plant where the effluent entered the river.
Once tests show the river is completely GenX-free, pumping to Spring Hollow will resume.
While calling out the federal government for its slow action in the fight against PFAS, officials with the Environmental Working Group praised some states for implementing their own rules.
In Virginia, a Department of Health workgroup has been in place since 2020, overseeing tests of public water systems across the state and studying ways to impose maximum contaminant levels.
A report from the group published in late 2021 showed that concentrations of GenX at Spring Hollow — which were measured at 57 parts per trillion the previous year — were the highest of any forever chemical detected in Virginia.
After the EPA issued its health advisory in June 2022, and following tests later that year that that showed the contaminant was also in the Roanoke River, concerns grew at the local level.
Two Democratic lawmakers from Roanoke, Del. Sam Rasoul and Sen. John Edwards, introduced bills in the General Assembly.
Rasoul’s legislation, which would require industries like ProChem to test for forever chemicals when they suspect they may be present in their operations, passed the House and Senate unanimously and now goes to the governor for signing.
A bill from Edwards, which would have required water authorities to promptly notify their customers when a chemical is detected, was tabled by a House subcommittee.
Mark Barker with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, who has followed the GenX contamination issue closely, says he hopes legislative and regulatory moves will shed more light on the dangers.
GenX was created by Chemours as a replacement for a harmful chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, that is now being phased out, Barker said.
“Will we find out one day that GenX is just as bad as PFOA?” he asked. “Time will tell.”
(Source: The Roanoke Times)