Protecting California's Water From Forever Chemical Contamination


This article was originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune

While tap water in California is considered safe by most standards, specific contaminants are finding their way into the drinking water supply. Take per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”) for example, which have been shown to have serious adverse effects on human health, including cancer, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, infertility. The list goes on. In fact, tap water in urban areas in Southern and Central California appears to be a hot spot for contamination by these chemicals, according to new U.S. Geological Survey research.

Extent of Contamination

Pollution involving “forever chemicals” is widespread. These man-made chemicals have been used in industry and consumer products for decades and today can be found in nearly half of the tap water in the U.S. In California, out of the 248 active public water systems tested, 65 percent had these contaminants in their drinking water. As a result of the hazard that they pose to health, regulators nationwide have been actively working on setting and tightening the maximum levels allowed in public water supplies.

Regulatory Response

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently took a notable step to protect public health by proposing to establish legally enforceable levels for six “forever chemicals” known to occur in drinking water, which would introduce the first-ever national standard to address them in drinking water. If finalized, the standard will require public water systems to monitor and treat for these chemicals.

Beyond Drinking Water: Addressing the Source

To date, such regulation has mainly affected drinking water utilities. However, getting these chemicals out of our drinking water can’t stop at drinking water treatment. To be effective, contaminant remediation must include addressing water pollution at the source.

The problem, of course, is that the “source” of “forever chemicals” is everywhere. They come not just from industrial wastewater because of their use in manufacturing, but in municipal wastewater, where the chemicals are showing up in the human waste stream. They are around us, and they are in us. All wastewater contains some concentration of these chemicals in almost every region of the country. Thus, should regulators expand their focus beyond drinking water and onto wastewater, such regulation could have a significant impact.

The rapidly changing regulatory environment, both at the federal and state level, and the public attention that this problem is garnering as of late are creating uncertainties around who will pay for the cleanup.

The Challenge of Cleanup

Early estimates of the cost of removing “forever chemicals” from drinking water nationwide are about $400 billion. And these costs — which cover only the cost of drinking water treatment, not wastewater treatment — are expected to rise as the hazards of become clearer and more regulators set removal requirements.

Unfortunately, the burden to cover the costs of this cleanup falls on state and local governments, which ultimately trickles down to taxpayers in the form of rate hikes. California already ranks second among states with the highest water prices (average water bill of $77 per month), and rates will likely continue to climb unless those responsible for this pollution are held accountable.

Legal Action as a Solution

More than a dozen states and over 400 municipalities and water systems have filed lawsuits based on these chemicals’ contamination of drinking water or natural resources such as lakes and groundwater. More state agencies and municipalities are expected to continue pursuing litigation against the responsible manufacturers to recover mitigation costs. In California, many water agencies and municipalities have already filed lawsuits against the manufacturers of these chemicals, seeking to protect ratepayers and ensure that the companies that developed and manufactured them help pay the cleanup costs.

Positive Outcomes from Litigation

Such litigation is yielding results. This year has seen landmark, billion-dollar settlements in multi-district litigation between the manufacturers of “forever chemicals” and municipal water suppliers that are forcing polluters to pay for cleanup costs. Taking legal action is thus one way that municipalities and water agencies can use to address this environmental and public health crisis and ensure that all Californians have access to clean water at an affordable rate.

If you would like to explore litigation as a potential solution for your affected water system, we are happy to discuss in-depth. Please feel free to reach out to our team and schedule a free consultation and we can dive into the specifics surrounding your situation.