The Madison Water Utility has issued their annual water quality report for 2021. The report shows that higher than advised quantities of PFAS were found in 11 of the city’s 21 active wells. PFAS are a family of “forever chemicals” that have been linked to higher rates of cancer, decreased fertility and developmental issues in children.
Joe Grande is the water quality manager of the Madison Water Utility, where he leads the utility’s response to drinking water contaminants. He cautions that detection doesn’t necessarily mean health concerns.
“Just because a substance is detected does not necessarily mean that there is a problem or that it is a health-related issue. We’re regulated by the US EPA and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and we’re regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, there are regulations called the ‘maximum contaminant level’ – that’s the acceptable level, the safe level, of a contaminant in drinking water. If we have a detection of a chemical that is below that ‘maximum contaminant level’ it’s been determined that that is not a problem.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has set the standard for acceptable levels of PFAS at 70 parts per trillion. According to the water quality report, all 11 active wells where PFAS was detected fall below that threshold, meaning by Wisconsin’s standards, the water is safe to drink.
There are no enforceable federal standards for PFAS. But earlier this month, the EPA issued new health advisory levels for PFAS contamination: for PFOA it is .004 parts per trillion; for PFOS it is .02 parts per trillion. Levels under this are deemed safe. Madison’s reported levels are 12 to 350 times higher than those EPA levels.
Grande says the water Utility is still reviewing these new advisories. And with that, comes challenges.
“Those new health advisories just came out last week and they are orders of magnitude, thousands or even tens of thousands times smaller than what the previous health guidance was. We’re still digesting that. But the good news is that that is the preliminary step towards EPA establishing a formal drinking water standard.”
The federal EPA is making billions of dollars of grant funding available to communities on the front lines of PFAS contamination. Grande says Madison plans to apply for funds to help reopen Well 15, which has been shut down since 2019 due to high levels of PFAS. Recently the water utility hired a consultant to develop preliminary designs for a PFAS treatment facility at the well.
“Yes, we do have plans to apply for that federal funding, specifically for PFAS treatment at Well 15 … A lot of the work that we’ve done on PFAS, in terms of monitoring and closely tracking that issue, has really positioned us in a good place to be able to get some federal funding for our treatment plant at Well 15.”
The Madison Water Utility will hold a community listening session about Well 15 next Thursday, June 30th, at the East Madison Community Center from 6:30 to 8pm.
Reporting for WORT News, I’m Emily Kaysinger.