2024-05-20 12:20Press release

Op-Ed: Paying for protections against ‘forever chemicals’

A water utility executive says providers will need help meeting new federal standard, polluters must pay full price
Mark McDonough

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced historic regulations for drinking water protection and regulations of PFAS. So-called forever chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a notoriously long-lasting class of human-made chemicals found throughout our world, including in groundwater.

These regulations are an important public health measure, based in reasonable science-based analysis to further preserve the quality of our water resources. However, the immense cost of compliance must be shouldered by the corporations responsible for this pollution. In addition, without federal efforts for increased funding for consumer protection and assistance, the costs will pose significant burdens to residents and utilities.

PFAS have been found in nearly every aspect of life across many of the products we use daily — from nonstick cookware and waterproofing to industrial operations such as firefighting and personal care products like shampoo and feminine hygiene products.

PFAS also pose a unique challenge because of their pervasiveness. They appear in groundwater, surface water and drinking-water supplies across New Jersey, and all the way to the top of Mount Everest. Our understanding of these chemicals continues to grow. But to adequately protect every New Jerseyan who enjoys and depends on our drinking water, it is imperative that policies are in place to protect our source water and address PFAS releases.

Prior to the EPA’s announcement, states were left to establish their own standards for allowable so-called Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs. New Jersey has long been a leader in establishing sound PFAS mitigation standards, setting an interim health-based guidance level for one of the compounds — PFOA — of 0.040 micrograms per liter in 2008. Current state regulations, established by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection as early as 2018, allow for up to 0.014 micrograms per liter, or 14 parts per trillion.

The newly established federal guidelines set a limit of just 4 parts per trillion for two of the six types of PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) that the EPA now regulates and a limit of 10 parts per trillion for the remaining PFAS compounds (PFNA, PFHxS, and HFPO-DA).

The need for funding

The EPA estimates that the cost of the rule is $1.6 billion per year to install necessary treatment systems and perform regular maintenance, nationwide across all water utilities. However, independent calculations estimate the cost may be as much as three times higher than the EPA’s calculations.

While New Jersey American Water has already invested in state-of-the-art PFAS treatment capabilities across its systems, these newly established standards will require additional upgrades and investments for every utility — both private and public — across the state.

The burden and costs become exponentially higher for small, municipally owned water systems that may struggle to install the necessary treatment, whether it be due to challenges in expertise, water supply needs or competing financial priorities.

We believe that all water and wastewater utility providers, whether privately or municipally owned, should have equal access to federal and/or state funding to treat PFAS. Regardless of ownership status, we all have a shared responsibility to operate safely, reliably and in compliance with necessary public health standards.

Any sound governmental policy to ensure water utility compliance should be thoughtfully structured to protect customers and communities from these costs. Consumers did not create this problem, and they should not pay the price for cleanup, mitigation and future testing.

Through participation in multi-district litigation, we are advocating for funds to mitigate compliance costs, holding PFAS polluters accountable and making government funding available to those who need it most. Similar lawsuits are underway or have reached settlement in New Jersey. American Water also joins other water organizations urging the EPA, Congress and other decision-makers to implement policies that will exempt all water and wastewater systems from financial liability for PFAS under CERCLA, the federal Superfund law.

All customers should also have access to permanent funding for a federally funded low-income water and wastewater assistance program. Such a program has existed for over 40 years to assist customers with their energy bills. It’s time that the same federal assistance is made available to ensure no one worries about how to pay for the water and wastewater service they depend on every day.

Our mission is rooted in safeguarding clean, reliable drinking water. It’s why we agree that these EPA regulations are an important public health tool under the Biden administration’s plan to combat PFAS pollution.

However, New Jerseyans will be best protected from PFAS when we implement comprehensive, forward-thinking initiatives to protect our source water. From federal funding to legal actions, all efforts must focus on forcing PFAS polluters to pay the full price for their actions.

About American Water

American Water (NYSE: AWK) is the largest regulated water and wastewater utility company in the United States. With a history dating back to 1886, We Keep Life Flowing® by providing safe, clean, reliable and affordable drinking water and wastewater services to more than 14 million people with regulated operations in 14 states and on 18 military installations. American Water’s 6,500 talented professionals leverage their significant expertise and the company’s national size and scale to achieve excellent outcomes for the benefit of customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders. As one of the fastest growing utilities in the U.S., American Water expects to invest $34 to $38 billion in infrastructure repairs and replacement, system resiliency and regulated acquisitions over the next 10 years. The company has a long-standing history of executing its core operations, aligned with sustainable best practices, through its commitments to safety, affordability, customer service, protecting the environment, an inclusive workforce and strengthening communities. American Water has been included in the top 10% of America’s Most JUST Companies by JUST Capital and CNBC, is ranked number one in the utilities industry for the 2024 Forbes American’s Best Large Employers, has been recognized on the 2023 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for the fifth consecutive year, is the highest-ranked water and wastewater utility on Barron’s 100 Most Sustainable U.S. Companies 2024 List, and has earned the U.S. Department of Homeland Security SAFETY Act designation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense® Excellence Award, among additional state, local and national recognitions. For more information, visit amwater.com.