New laws protecting public health could lead to higher water bills in many Colorado communities

New federal laws requiring low levels of PFAS — also known as “forever chemicals” — in public drinking water are creating significant financial burdens for many of the nation’s water districts, which experts say will ultimately lead to bills higher water rates for customers in many areas.

The new regulations – issued by the Environmental Protection Agency – took effect in April and aim to protect public health after further research showed the chemicals can be harmful to human health, even at low levels. extremely low exposure.

PFAS – short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – do not break down easily in the environment and can cause many health problems, including reproductive problems and cancer.

However, removing PFAS from drinking water is not cheap.

The city of Thornton, Colorado, for example, is set to pay $80 million for a new PFAS treatment addition to one of its water treatment plants.

This is a cost that the city deems necessary to ensure its resilience in the future.

“It’s going to be a challenge for a lot of municipalities,” said Caleb Owen, Thornton’s water quality administrator. “It’s definitely a nationwide problem. The EPA has really shined a light on the negative health impacts that PFAS could have on people.”

Currently, the city has stopped using some of its groundwater wells along a section of the South Platte River because they have too high levels of PFAS.

Once the city builds a new treatment system, water officials can resume using wells, especially when water supplies are low during droughts.

In April, Thornton implemented a rate increase for its customers to help fund some of its PFAS efforts.

Water customers can now expect to pay an average of about $4.79 more per month this summer, according to the city’s website.

Owen says the city just won a $2.4 million grant from the state to pay for its new PFAS treatment, but that represents only a small reduction in upcoming PFAS mitigation costs.

“There will probably be additional impacts on rates, but we’re really trying to limit them as much as possible,” Owen said.

He says the city is currently exploring special federal loan options to help offset costs passed on to customers.

Ultimately, he says the city and customers have to pay more to clean up someone else’s mess. He says the city is advocating for greater accountability for the origin of PFAS contamination.

“There are ski waxes that contain PFAS…and any type of municipal or industrial discharge increases the levels of PFAS in our source waters, and we’re really pushing the EPA and the Department of Public Health and Environmental Colorado to implement standards on these discharges to reduce the amount of PFAS that gets into our water so that we would have to treat it less because there would be less of it,” Owen said.

Thornton has worked hard over the past several years to reduce its PFAS levels, using a powdered carbon filtration approach and closing some of its wells.

But Owen says it’s not sustainable.

“We’re respecting the rule and we’re just looking to build that resilience into our process,” Owen said.

Although their levels are now below the EPA’s new legal limits, they are still above the EPA’s even lower health guidelines.

“There really shouldn’t be too much of a health impact, unless you’re a susceptible population, maybe you’re a pregnant woman or an infant or something like that, and in those cases , you might need lower levels, and so that’s where the health advisory comes in, and so as we implement new treatment techniques, we should even reduce our levels even lower “Owen said.

To view Thornton’s latest test results, click here.

He says Thornton’s new $80 million PFAS treatment will be worth every penny spent to protect public health.

“That’s why I got into this industry,” Owen said. “I really care about public and environmental health…it’s peace of mind.”

He says Thornton’s new treatment process will use what’s called granulated activated carbon, which he says is more effective than the powdered carbon they currently use, and should be up and running by 2027.

He’s glad his team is already on the right track, because he says as more water utilities scramble to become compliant by 2029, costs will only increase.

“Since the pandemic, construction costs and inflation have really skyrocketed, everyone is putting these things up and demand is driving up costs,” Owen said.

Many Colorado water utilities haven’t even begun testing for PFAS, let alone adding new filters.

If you are concerned about the safety of your water, contact your water district and ask for their PFAS test results.

If your district has not tested or its levels are above the legal limit, consider using a carbon or reverse osmosis filter.

You can also limit your exposure to PFAS by avoiding other household products that contain them, such as non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing, and even makeup.

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