As the EPA’s proposal to regulate six polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) inches closer to approval, many municipalities are wondering how contaminants of emerging concern will affect their budgets, water treatment facilities and public trust in their drinking water systems. Everyone wants clean water for their community’s health, economic growth and regulatory compliance. And with the help of water contamination professionals, city officials can anticipate and act to manage potential water quality issues in their community with a robust plan of action.
Upcoming water regulations
You may have noticed headlines in the news or social media about a host of contaminants that have caught the attention of regulators, the public and environmental scientists. A new generation of water contaminants have appeared in drinking water across the United States along with their health and ecological effects. Chemicals like 1,4 Dioxane, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or pharmaceutical compounds are currently unregulated and are commonly referred to as contaminants of emerging concern. In the case of PFAS, this chemical family has been produced and discharged into bodies of water for 80 years, resulting in widespread contamination. Their health effects include vaccine resistance, increased kidney and testicular cancer risk, and high blood pressure. Among pregnant people, it has been shown to increase the risk of hypertension and reduce newborn birth weight.
To begin combatting these harmful chemicals and how we consume them, the EPA has proposed that PFAS be placed on the Safe Drinking Water Act’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations by the end of 2023. If approved, this would require most water-providing entities to monitor, report and potentially treat for a new set of pollutants that conventional water treatment solutions may not be equipped to effectively remove. This means cities now face potential public mistrust from fear of exposure and emergency capital projects that may disrupt the existing capital planning cycle.
PFAS is just one emerging contaminant that the EPA is in the process of regulating, and no matter how the EPA regulates the next generation of pollutants, their decisions will ultimately make municipalities responsible for solving water contamination issues. Considering the wave of new contaminants and their impact on public trust, health, and the cost of water treatment, proactively preparing for contamination pays monetary and social dividends.
Although they are challenging and complicated, water quality risks can be adequately approached and managed. In fact, many water providers have accomplished this feat in the past. By following their example and the guidance of regulators and water contamination experts, more towns and cities can prepare for the upcoming changes to water quality regulations.
How cities can prepare
Before a city can successfully manage a shift in water quality perception, it’s critical to have a plan in place. While we can’t anticipate everything, we can walk through the steps of building a water contamination action plan to buffer the associated risks.
The first step to anticipating new water quality regulations is sampling for them along with your water utility’s current sampling and reporting protocol. Cities can request one-time tests for PFAS substances, 1,4-dioxane and other emerging contaminants to affordably understand what they’re up against. If you receive negative results, you’ve paid for the peace of mind that your community will not be obligated to change its treatment process once regulations go into effect. However, if you do find a contaminant of emerging concern at high enough levels your city can begin crafting an action plan to prepare for regulations like the ones the EPA has proposed for PFAS and are expected to be enacted in early 2024.
If emerging contaminants impact your water source and drinking water system, the next step for cities is managing the potential health, economic and perception risks. This involves working with state officials, consulting engineers and other water professionals to decide which treatment technology, public communication strategy and source mitigation steps are necessary to maintain your ratepayer’s trust in their tap water. By being proactive in the face of new regulatory requirements, you’ll be ready to address your constituents’ concerns about the emerging contaminants while maintaining your authority on the issue. For instance, developing an action plan for PFAS now will make sure you’re prepared to communicate it to the public when the proposed PFAS regulations go into effect.
As part of the action plan, cities must have a communication strategy to transparently update ratepayers and maintain public trust. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Emergency Communication Guide can simplify crafting an effective communications plan and has proved useful for towns that have experienced their own water contamination events. The CDC’s six principles for an effective emergency communications plan are:
- Be first: The first source of information often becomes the preferred source.
- Be accurate: Accuracy establishes credibility. Inform the public on what is and isn’t known and what actions are being taken.
- Be credible: Honesty and truthfulness shouldn’t be compromised.
- Be empathetic: Acknowledge the potential harm and suffering the public feels when receiving news of water contamination.
- Promote action: Give action items to calm anxiety, restore order, and sense of control.
- Show respect: Respectful communication promotes cooperation and rapport.
Once your team has crafted an action plan to combat water contamination, the next step is to find the resources to make it happen.
After a contamination is detected in your water supply, consulting engineers and water treatment staff are great resources to guide your next steps, whether it’s treatment solutions, risk mitigation or finding a new water source. However, once you have a plan in place, funding it can be difficult.
As you work through your action plan, it’s worth asking stakeholders, “How did this contaminant reach our water source?” Emerging contaminants are often artificial chemicals that typically stem from industrial waste. Identifying contamination sources can help determine the best treatment solution and how the contamination will affect your water sources moving forward. If you share a water source with an industrial site, consider including them in strategy conversations to mitigate their effect on water quality. If it’s discovered that an industrial plant is the contamination source, holding discussions about accountability, mitigation and revising their waste management policy can be a win-win as both parties prepare for the EPA’s proposed regulations.
In the event of a big-name polluter discharging PFAS into a city’s water source, partnering with a law firm that has experience in water contamination litigation may be the best approach to devising a cost recovery action plan. Working with a team that handles water contamination litigation every day can be a solution to funding your clean-up costs to meet the new compliance standards instead of pushing the additional costs onto innocent ratepayers. Across the country, water systems are increasingly placing the financial responsibility of treatment costs on the commercial manufacturers who discharge these toxic chemicals.
As a testament to PFAS contamination litigation’s momentum, in June 2023, 3M and DuPont proposed settlements of claims by public water suppliers affected by PFAS contamination. Essentially, the majority of public water systems that detect PFAS in their water sources are eligible to participate in the settlements and receive funds to recover costs. This historic settlement is a sign that polluters can be held accountable in contamination lawsuits as awareness and regulations around emerging contaminants increase in the coming years.
Navigating water contamination
While everything listed in this article is critical to building a water contamination action plan, many American cities and municipalities need additional resources to put themselves ahead. For that reason, many municipalities choose to rely on water contamination litigators who can offer their experience and guidance to help them overcome this barrier.
If you suspect that your water sources may be contaminated, you may want to seek help from a legal professional with experience in water contamination litigation to explore whether your municipality can hold polluters accountable for water treatment costs. Feel free to contact our team or schedule a free consultation to discuss your specific situation.