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Akron water system raises concerns over cost of meeting new PFAS drinking water standards

Close up image of a tap filling up a glass of water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set federal limits on harmful chemicals called PFAS, commonly known as forever chemicals, in drinking water. The rule is the first of its kind in the nation, but has raised questions from water utilities about the cost to implement, and if the EPA's funding will be enough to support newly mandated testing and treatment.

Public Water Systems across Ohio will soon be tasked with testing and treating drinking water for chemicals called PFAS, but some water systems are raising concerns about cost of removing so-called forever chemicals.

The Akron Water Supply Bureau is considering using granular activated carbon filter beds to remove PFAS from its drinking water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced $1 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding last week to support both testing and treatment system upgrades, but the water supply's manager, Jeffery Bronowski, said that may not be enough money to go around.

"It's every utility in the state of Ohio and in the country that is at risk, and the cost to to treat it is significantly high," he said. "So, I would imagine that it's not going to be enough money to cover all of the needed investment in the future."

Granular activated carbon beds would cost the bureau as much as $40 million to install and $7 million a year to operate nearly doubling the system’s operating costs, Bronowski said. He said Akron is still weighing all of its options.

The U.S. EPA expects between 6% and 10% of public water systems to be effected by the regulation and require some sort of PFAS treatment upgrades, according to the news release, but that figure could change depending on the results of mandatory PFAS testing.

The Akron Water Supply Bureau began testing for PFAS, specifically PFOA and PFOS in 2014, and detected the chemicals on two occasions in 2023 at levels that exceed the EPA's new standards.

"At this time, we don't have any concern or reason to be alarmed with regards to PFAS, but we are closely paying attention," Bronowski said.

The EPA's regulation limits PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at 4 parts per trillion, and 10 parts per trillion for PFNA, PFHxS and GenX chemicals. Separate limits will be set for mixtures of PFAS in drinking water.

Public water systems have three years to conduct mandatory testing, and two additional years to implement treatment if PFAS are detected at levels that exceed the federal limits.

"[We] are glad that rules have actually finally come out because that made it very difficult for a lot of utilities really not knowing what the rules were or going to be, and a lot of speculation at what the levels were going to be," Bronowski said. "Now a lot of that is concrete, and so we can kind of prepare and plan."

The Akron Water Supply Bureau sources its water from the upper Cuyahoga River and from Lake Rockwell. The bureau owns 20,000 acres of land in Portage and Geauga counties intended to protect the watershed from contamination from ongoing development, Bronowski said, but it may not be foolproof.

"There's significant concern that ... we could be at risk simply because of the variability that exists in a surface water situation," he said. "They talk about firefighting foam, being an issue. You could have chemical spills. You could have train derailments."

Even with PFAS detections in 2023, the water bureau wouldn't have been in violation of the EPA's new drinking water standards, Bronowski said, as the rule aims to target chronic violations over a year a longer.

"It's almost as if they don't want just a single test to result in a violation," he said. "They want to see that ... this is a consistent problem for a utility."

The bureau plans to conduct additional testing, Bronowski said outside of the testing mandated by the EPA prior to the 2027 federal deadline. Though they haven't identified a PFAS treatment option yet, Bronowski said they plan to implement one in the event the watershed is compromised in the future.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.