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Virginia works toward meeting federal PFAS standards by 2029

Ryan Smeltz collects samples in eastern Henrico.
Henrico Department of Public Utilities
Ryan Smeltz, the monitoring and compliance division supervisor for the Department of Public Utilities, collects samples in Eastern Henrico.

State fund could be set up to help smaller public waterworks, owners of private wells remove contamination.

The State Water Commission met Tuesday to discuss a bill that would have set state drinking water treatment regulations, and create a small water system testing and treatment program. The proposal was left behind at the General Assembly this year due to a lack of funds.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Ellen Campbell (R-Augusta), who retracted the measure before it could be discussed in subcommittee, opting to return to the issue in 2025.

In a statement to the commission, Campbell wrote that she submitted the legislation with her Shenandoah Valley constituents in mind, but noted the impact would be felt statewide.

“I believe that wherever we look, we will find contaminants in our water systems, which is a major issue that needs to be rectified,” Campbell wrote.

In state Department of Health testing at the entry point of 274 water systems, 26 showed per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances above federal screening standards. VDH is now in Phase III testing, which targets smaller community water systems, according to the Virginia Mercury.

Those substances, commonly known as PFAS or forever chemicals, are man-made substances that are nearly indestructible and are associated with a wide range of health issues, including cancer, heart disease and reproductive health problems.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are nearly 15,000 distinct PFAS chemicals used for everything from nonstick pan coatings to firefighting foam; EPA finalized new regulations for six of them in April. Public water systems have until 2029 to comply with those standards.

Campbell’s bill would have created a state fund to help smaller public waterworks and owners of private wells identify and remove PFAS contamination.

Richard Mest, of Master Water Conditioning Corporation, addressed the commission on Tuesday, saying that testing smaller systems would be a good start for Virginia’s efforts to address PFAS.

“This HB 1295 is a huge opportunity to plant the flagpole to say, in the state of Virginia, we're going to find funding … and we're going to help rural people in Virginia,” Mest said. “We're going to help people on small public water systems. We're going to help people on private wells who need help.”

Private wells aren’t required to meet EPA standards for PFAS, but well owners would still have to pay for filtration improvements to protect themselves.

Mest said building out a program now will help the state protect residents against contaminants identified in the future by the EPA, like lithium. Some of those substances are already being researched; they’re in the same stage of the process that PFAS were before EPA proposed standards for some forever chemicals.

“There's a lot more coming down the pipeline, so using PFAS as a driver is really smart to do,” Mest said.

It’s expensive work: A $5-million investment in the program is estimated to collect about 6,480 water samples and set up 510 treatment systems on wells and small public water systems. That’s compared to about 613,000 Virginia homes on well water and more than 1,000 small public systems.

The Board of Health regulations in Campbell’s bill would target contamination at two points: point of entry and point of use.

A point-of-entry filter would remove contaminants before water enters its destination — prior to well water entering a house, for instance. But a point-of-use filter is more targeted. According to Mest, a Brita filter on a faucet or pitcher is a good example, “strategically going to the point of most impact and treating it there.”

The commission will review a state health department report due later this year on the expected cost of managing PFAS contamination. It could make a recommendation on Campbell’s bill before lawmakers gather in January 2025.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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