City of Lawrence testing water for ‘forever chemicals’ ahead of proposed EPA regulations

photo by: Mike Yoder

A treatment tank is pictured at the Clinton Water Treatment Plant in this file photo from 2010.

Lawrence officials can’t yet say whether the city’s drinking water contains dangerous “forever chemicals” that came under new scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency this week, but Lawrence has started spending money to find out.

City officials last tested for the polyfluorinated substances — known as PFAS — in 2013, and the city didn’t detect any in its water supply at that time. But there have been some changes since then.

For one thing, testing has become more sophisticated. For another, the EPA now is placing more urgency on removing the chemicals from water supplies. The chemicals have been linked to kidney cancer, low birth weights and other health issues.

The EPA this week proposed the first ever federal limits on PFAS, which would require drinking water utilities to remove any PFAS at or above the four parts per trillion level, which currently is the lowest level that tests can detect.

The EPA estimates at least 100 million residents use drinking water that has PFAS levels at or above that amount. The chemicals had been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including in nonstick pans, food packaging and firefighting foam. Their use is now mostly phased out in the U.S., but some still remain. They frequently are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t degrade in the environment.

Joshua Toevs, water quality lab manager with the city’s Municipal Services & Operations division, said Lawrence was following the issue.

“The city decided to test for PFAS based on current and upcoming regulatory requirements,” Toevs said.

With improved technology, Toevs said the tests on the water should provide a more detailed look at what PFAS chemicals are in Lawrence drinking water and at what level, especially compared to when the city last tested in 2013.

“Detection limits for the 2023 sampling are much lower than in 2013 due to the improvements in laboratory methods of measurement,” Toevs said.

Results for the current testing are not yet available.

The additional cost of testing for the chemicals in Lawrence water is currently a one-time investment of $5,000 for four tests per year. If the EPA’s proposal is finalized, it would become an annual cost.

The bigger cost, though, would come if the city finds PFAS and has to install new equipment to remove the chemicals from the water. Toevs said it is not yet possible for the city to predict how much those costs would be, if the chemicals are found.

Nationally, some officials have expressed concern that water utilities will have to raise their rates if the new standards become final. Lawrence already is in the middle of multi-year increases to its water rates to fund other infrastructure upgrades.

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators called the proposal “a step in the right direction” but said compliance would be challenging. Despite available federal money, “significant rate increases will be required for most of the systems” that must remove PFAS, the group said this week.

Toevs stressed that the EPA rules have not yet been finalized, and the city’s water utility continues to meet the regulatory requirements for drinking water and takes pride in providing clean and healthy drinking water. He also said Lawrence is fortunate to be a city that has multiple supplies of drinking water, pulling water from both the Kansas River and Clinton Lake.

“The issues regarding PFAS in drinking water are an additional example of the importance of supporting water treatment infrastructure and the ability of the city to test and treat water in a way that ensures it is safe to drink,” Toevs said. “We are fortunate to have two water plants with two different raw water sources, which gives us additional options in the treatment and management of any PFAS compounds that may be detected.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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