BURLINGTON - This past June, PFAS issues arose in Burlington’s tap water and the Department of Public Works (DPW) wasted no time crafting an “accelerated plan” to remedy the situation.
The new state drinking water standards for polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are the primary reason this whole situation coming about. In October 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a new regulation setting the drinking water standard for 6 PFAS at 20 nanograms per liter (ng/L), equal to 20 parts per trillion (ppt) (referred to as PFAS6). The state set its own standards because these compounds are not yet regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, EPA has an advisory level for two specific PFAS compounds (PFOA and PFOS) of 70 ppt.
PFAS are a family of manmade chemicals used since the 1950s for non-stick coatings and firefighting foams. Products containing PFAS include carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food, and other materials (cookware) that are resistant to water, grease and stains. Manufacturing of certain PFAS was discontinued in the United States about 30 years ago, but they are still used in imported products. PFAS are resilient and do not degrade easily in soil and water. As a result, they are widely found in the environment and many consumer products where they migrate to the food supply and drinking water. In fact, most people already have concentrations of these chemicals in their blood as food and consumer products are additional points of exposure.
The DEP recommends consumers in a sensitive subgroup (pregnant or nursing women, infants and people diagnosed by their health care provider to have a compromised immune system), are advised not to consume, drink, or cook with water when the level of PFAS is above 20 ppt. The DEP says that “consuming water with PFAS above the drinking water standard does not mean that adverse effects will occur. The degree of risk depends on the level of the chemicals and the duration of exposure.’’
As is the case with numerous communities throughout Massachusetts, Burlington’s PFAS levels do not reach the aforementioned state standards.
Testing, as recently as April, of the Vine Brook and Mill Pond Treatment Plants detected PFAS at levels of approximately 40 parts per trillion (ppt).
“The 40 part per trillion figure is equivalent to one drop in our water tank every six hours,” DPW Director John Sanchez detailed to the Select Board.
There are scientific studies that suggest potential links between exposure to certain PFAS in the environment and health effects. The studies have looked at the effects on the development of fetuses and infants, the thyroid, the liver, kidneys, hormone levels and the immune system, as well as if a cancer risk exists for people exposed to levels well above the drinking water standard.
Sanchez expounded further that it would take a “lifetime of drinking” water with this low amount of PFAS in it to impact an individual without a compromised immune system.
The long-term corrective plan consists of abandoning the Vine Brook Treatment Facility and constructing a new transmission main to access water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, in addition to upgrades to the Mill Pond Treatment Facility so PFAS levels are below the new standard. Since April, the town opened the Adams Street connection to Lexington, effectively providing approximately 1 million gallons of water per day to reduce the impact of PFAS in the town’s distribution system. This water diluted the town’s water, lessening the PFAS levels.
At Town Meeting this past September, a $15 million warrant article was passed to fund the above-mentioned “long-term corrective plan” which is expected to be completed on schedule, thanks to a strategically efficient approach by DPW.
Sanchez informed the Select Board that the DPW is working on an “accelerated plan” consisting of splitting up the project into three separate contracts. The new filters have been ordered separately and should arrive in 8-10 months. The wise approach to order them during low-demand filter-needy months during the winter worked out for the DPW, as the large filters are in high-demand due to the state’s elevated acceptable drinking water standards.
Secondly, pre-construction work is being done separately from the design and construction of the new facility. The third and final part pertains to the construction of the new building at the Mill Pond Water Treatment Plant, which they hope to bid for this winter. The ultimate objective is to have the new facility and filters online by the end of 2022.