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Massachusetts lawmakers continue to raise concerns about toxic PFAS

The Environmental Protection Agency now says there's no safe amount of PFAS in drinking water.
Jim Cole
The Environmental Protection Agency now says there's no safe amount of PFAS in drinking water.

From fish being reeled in by anglers in Taunton to the drinking water at an elementary school in New Salem, so-called forever chemicals known as PFAS are everywhere, the questions and comments from lawmakers from various corners of Massachusetts at Monday's Joint Committee on Ways and Means budget hearing made clear.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that do not break down entirely in the environment, and exposure to their long-lasting presence has been linked to serious and negative health impacts like thyroid disease and kidney cancer. PFAS chemicals are all around us — they are used in non-stick cookware, food packaging, children's products, carpets, leather goods, ski wax, firefighting foams and more, and they have leeched into drinking water supplies and the soil.

And with Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper, Undersecretary for Environment Stephanie Cooper and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bonnie Heiple before them at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth on Monday, representatives and senators impressed upon the administration that PFAS testing, mitigation and treatment, and research should be priorities across the state.

"The [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's] new federal requirements for PFAS in drinking water means that our communities will need resources to treat and upgrade their drinking water supplies. At the same time, we need to address PFAS contamination in other media," Tepper said. "We have been aggressive in Massachusetts in going after federal funds to supplement these efforts and our federal delegation has been supportive. The governor's budget will fund direct new staffing towards our effort to test for PFAS in water and landfill facilities."

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs would get $543.6 million under Healey's budget -- an increase of $105.2 million or 24 percent that would allow the secretariat to hire 240 new staff members (an 8 percent increase in staffing), including 18 new employees to help the state comply recently-promulgated federal PFAS standards through increased testing at landfills and water facilities and to develop standards for airborne PFAS.

Those new federal standards set enforceable limits for pollution from two specific PFAS compounds in drinking water. Massachusetts regulates six PFAS compounds in drinking water but with a different limit.

"So we're at 20 parts per trillion for a sum of six [PFAS compounds]. The federal standard is four parts per trillion for each of two PFAS compounds. The federal proposal also provide hazard indices for other PFAS compounds, some of which match up with our other four and some of which don't," Heiple said when asked if DEP planned to send EPA comments on the new federal standards. "So part of what our comments will focus on is reconciling the PFAS compounds that we currently cover with what's proposed under the federal standard."

Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton used an elementary school in her district, the Swift River School in New Salem, as an example of the impact that PFAS contamination has particularly in smaller or rural communities that aren't part of a large water system.

"It has to truck in, probably thanks to DEP, bottled water ... and it's about 200 feet from the Quabbin Reservoir to which it has no right, right, because all the water right now flows east," Comerford said, alluding to the longstanding tensions between the Quabbin region and the eastern portion of the state that benefits from the reservoir's clean drinking water that reemerged during Monday's hearing. "So we're feeling these issues significantly deeply and trying to battle them, and we have a disproportionate amount of septic and wells. And so we won't be able to access the big water system money, we're going to need actually home by home help if we're really going to go there."

But while drinking water is how humans get their most direct exposure to PFAS, Heiple said it is just "the tip of the spear with PFAS" and that efforts are underway now to figure out how to test for and limit PFAS in biosolids (like the sludge produced by wastewater treatment) and in the air.

"Those are in development now, people are figuring out ways to roll out standards that are in line with testing methodologies," she said. "So a large portion of the staff that are included in the MassDEP portion of the budget proposal will go to air monitoring and technical assistance for communities. So, making real-time -- or as quickly as labs can process the data and make it available -- data available to communities so they understand what's in the air that they're breathing."

Rep. Carol Doherty of Taunton took Heiple's comment as a "hopeful, hopeful message." Residents in her city have been fighting against a planned "gasification" plant in which sewage sludge would be combusted and turned into biochar. Doherty said it would also emit PFAS through the air.

Doherty supports a bill (S 2053) filed by Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton to impose a moratorium on the construction of facilities that generate PFAS emissions at least until data on airborne PFAS is available and health standards can be set. That idea got a favorable report from the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee last year but never resurfaced after being sent to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Doherty also raised the issue of Watson Pond, which is under the care of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Fish caught in Watson Pond have been found to have elevated levels of PFAS, she said. But the pond flows into Lake Sabbatia, which is under the city of Taunton's jurisdiction.

"So the state has oversight responsibility for Watson Pond and it's been tested. Nothing has come to us in the community about the testing of Lake Sabbatia. Is that the responsibility of the community? Or does the state help to support that effort?" Doherty asked. "How can you avoid having PFAS flow into Lake Sabbatia if they're connected?"

Heiple didn't provide a direct answer, but said DEP would make sure relevant data was shared with Taunton.

Sen. Michael Moore of Millbury, who previously filed legislation to prohibit the manufacture, sale or use of food packaging with "any amount" of PFAS added intentionally and to address firefighters' exposure to PFAS, brought up a sweeping new bill that would implement many of the 30 recommendations made last year by an interagency task force that studied PFAS in depth.

Filed by Rep. Kate Hogan of Stow and Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro, the bill (H 2197 / S 1356) would ban the use of PFAS in most products to prevent new contamination, and create new programs to clean up contamination that already exists.

Moore asked if the new Healey administration has taken a position on the bill yet.

"The administration is reviewing it. As you know, probably better than anybody, it is so comprehensive. So I know that we're taking our time to just look at all the different elements," Cooper said. "Some aspects of, I think, the legislation are reflected in the budget in terms of investments in some of the areas that task force identified. But position on the whole omnibus bill is something that we're still developing."

The bill has substantial support from environmental and consumer protection groups, and at least 71 of the Legislature's 200 lawmakers cosponsored one or both versions of the bill.

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