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Access to Clean Water

W.Va. Democratic Lawmakers Announce Plans To Tackle PFAS Chemicals

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West Virginia Del. Evan Hansen. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

A group of Democratic West Virginia lawmakers announced plans Monday to introduce legislation to regulate a group of toxic, man-made fluorinated chemicals. 

Del. Evan Hansen, who represents most of Monongalia County, and a group of colleagues, said the “Clean Drinking Water Act” would address the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also called PFAS chemicals. The class of chemicals includes C8, or PFOA, the chemical produced and dumped in the Parkersburg area for decades by chemical giant DuPont. 

The effect of the chemical and related events were recently brought to the silver screen in the blockbuster film, “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hatheway. 

Hansen said the bill, which is still being drafted, would require facilities that use or produce PFAS chemicals to disclose that information to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP would be required to monitor these facilities and regulate their discharges of these chemicals into waterways. Currently, PFAS chemicals are unregulated nationwide. 

The second component of the bill would set legally-enforceable drinking water limits, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, for some PFAS chemicals. 

The legislation comes at a time when both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators are increasingly testing for, finding and seeking regulations for these so-called “forever chemicals.”

In recent years, a growing number of communities have detected PFAS in their drinking water. The chemicals are widely used including in everything from pizza boxes to flame-retardant foam sprays and in nonstick and stain-resistant products like Teflon.

Ohio announced in September it would begin monitoring water systems near known contamination sites. In Berkeley County, federal researchers are currently studying residents’ exposure to C8 after it was found at a water treatment plant in Martinsburg. The contamination was likely due to groundwater contamination from the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, which used PFAS-laden firefighting foam.

Research conducted in the Mid Ohio Valley after DuPont’s settlement over C8 contamination linked chemical exposure to six diseases including thyroid disease, as well as testicular and kidney cancer.

“I think we owe it to the citizens of West Virginia, especially considering we were ground zero for the impacts of many of these chemicals, we owe it to the people of West Virginia to take matters into our own hands,” Hansen said.

The EPA is currently weighing how to set drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA. A handful of states have set their own limits, much lower than the EPA’s current health advisory of 60 parts-per-trillion. 

Hansen said if the bill is passed, West Virginia would examine both EPA’s decisions and state actions. He also noted he hopes to put safeguards in the legislation so that if contamination is found, rate payers and cash-strapped municipalities won’t be on the hook for paying for cleanup. 

“What we are going to get out of this is the chance of transparency,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which supports the bill. “Companies will have to tell us what is in our water.”

Rosser and others said clean water is key to boosting the state’s economy. 

“The people of our state know polluting industries drive away clean industries,” said Del. John Doyle, a Democrat from Jefferson County. 

When asked about the bill’s chances of making its way through the Republican-controlled Legislature, Hansen said he recognized it could be a tough sell, but said he’s open to hearing any ideas from his colleagues across the aisle or other interested groups. 

“I don’t think clean drinking water is a partisan issue,” he said. 

During the 2020 session, Hansen, who is an environmental scientist, said he also intends to reintroduce a proposed amendment to the state’s Bill of Rights that would enshrine clean air, water and the preservation of the natural environment as constitutional rights for current and future generations. 

The measure was introduced last session and had more than 30 co-sponsors. Two other states — Pennsylvania and Montana — have adopted a similar constitutional amendment. If passed, the environmental rights amendment would serve as a guiding principle for state leaders and regulatory agencies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Access to Clean Water

Ohio Valley Residents Among Millions In America Lacking Access To Clean Water, Sanitation

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Photo: Courtesy Red Bird Mission

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Communities across the Ohio Valley are among an estimated 2 million Americans that do not have consistent access to clean drinking water and basic indoor plumbing, according to a report published in November by two nonprofits, DigDeep and the US Water Alliance.

The report titled, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” synthesized data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, including its American Community Survey, to identify six areas of the country where access to clean water is lagging. That includes some communities in Appalachia, which the report lists among six “hot spots” for inadequate water access.

“From all the data sources we looked at, we know at least 2 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to running water or a working flush toilet,” said George McGraw, founder of DigDeep. “But we also know because of some errors with the census that the number is probably much higher than that.”

The analysis finds people of color, low-income individuals living in rural areas, tribal communities, and immigrants are more likely to go without running water and basic indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than any other group to have trouble accessing clean water.

The report states there are multiple reasons why some communities find themselves lacking access to clean water. One is a steep decline in federal funding for water infrastructure. Historical discrimination has also played a role.

In the 1980s, the federal government started placing more emphasis on loans over grants for water infrastructure. As a result, federal funding for water and wastewater systems has dropped from 63 percent in 1977 to less than 9 percent today.

Nationwide, the report finds the number of Americans without access to complete plumbing has declined. Between 2000 and 2014, those without water access dropped from 1.6 million to 1.4 million. However, the rate of decline has fallen in recent decades. For example, between 1950 and 1970 the percentage of the population lacking complete plumbing dropped from 27 percent to 5.9 percent.

“This suggests that the remaining communities lacking access face particularly entrenched challenges,” the report states.

Further analysis of state-level data by researchers at Michigan State University showed that while states made improvements, others including, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, and Puerto Rico, saw the number of people without access to clean water grow.

“We’re worried in those places fewer people might have access to a working tap or toilet tomorrow than they do today,” McGraw said. “That’s a very alarming trend in a country that is as prosperous and has been as successful as we in extending services to all.”

West Virginia

In McDowell County, West Virginia, for example, the authors highlight three communities where crumbling infrastructure and population loss are creating a perfect storm.

In the town of Keystone, for example, the water system was constructed decades ago by coal companies that no longer exist. Today, the community, which stopped funding its police department in 2018, does not have the tax base to repair the leaking pipes.

In the nearby community of Mile Branch, many residents are not connected to any type of water system. Instead, some collect water from streams or other natural sources.

But the springs and wells many people used to gather drinking water may not be safe either.

When households are not connected to sewer systems or septic systems, waste is sometimes piped straight into nearby streams. The practice, also known as straight piping, can contaminate water used for drinking and cause health problems including staph infections and gastrointestinal issues. Water sampling from 2012-2014 in southeastern Kentucky found as many as 64 percent of the sites exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for E. coli bacteria.

Despite the region’s challenges, the report’s authors also highlight solutions across Appalachia that boost access to clean water.

For example, in McDowell County, the authors profiled the Five Loaves & Two Fishes food bank, which has become the de facto source of bottled water across the county. As a trusted organization within the community, the food bank is able to not only deliver drinking water, but check in with elderly and other vulnerable residents.

In southeastern Kentucky, the faith-based organization Red Bird Mission has installed a water filling station. The authors note that some residents fill up at night to avoid being seen, “an indication that life without water access still carries a stigma.”

Radhika Fox, CEO of the US Water Alliance, said the prolonged failure to provide water and sanitation access in Appalachia is, in part, a question of the country’s priorities. She said while for most communities local taxes can fund maintenance and service, in impoverished, rural communities that may not be the case.

“We need to honor communities that live in rural America,” Fox said. “And when maybe the math might not always pencil out, we need to figure out how we utilize public investment to build that water safety net for those communities as well.”

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Access to Clean Water

W.Va. Food Bank Trying Out Hydro-Panels For Clean Water Needs

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The Five Loaves and Two Fishes Foodbank has 24 hydro-panels for water-gathering in Kimball, West Virginia. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In McDowell County, West Virginia, access to clean water can be a challenge. Aging infrastructure, a shrinking tax base and lack of oversight affect the region’s water quality. That is why one community food bank is trying something different, to provide cleaner water to some who are in need.

Earlier this month, the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank and outreach center in Kimball debuted its new set of hydro-panels to the McDowell County community. 

They are like solar panels, but instead of using sunlight to create electricity, these hydro-panels pull moisture from the air and filter it with sunlight, to produce clean water.

According to information from developer Zero Amounts, each panel can hold up to eight gallons at a time in a mineralized reservoir. How fast the panels gather and filter water depends on how much sunlight is available, and the humidity. 

Linda McKinney pours a sample of water from her food bank’s hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Altogether, food bank director Linda McKinney said her 24 panels should hold 192 gallons at full capacity. That might seem like a lot, but Five Loaves and Two Fishes provides food and other essentials to more than 800 McDowell County families each month. Bottled water is one of their most requested items. 

“There’s no way with that amount of panels that we could, you know, supplement everybody in the county with enough water,” McKinney said. 

“It is a small start, but it’s better than no water. That’s what I say about food. You know, a lot of times we don’t get the healthiest food, and I always tell people [that] in my world, some food is better than no food. You know, it keeps your stomach from growling.”

Linda McKinney’s husband shows a picture of a shed, from which they hope to pump water from their food bank’s new hydro-panels. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The food bank got the hydro-panels with help from a California-based nonprofit called Dig Deep, which McKinney said visited McDowell County over the summer for a water quality study it released earlier this month.

“Dig deep was here for about a week,” she recalled. “And then they went back, and I kept in contact with this lady named Nora Nelson … and then one day she said, ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity, I think that would benefit you guys.’”

Dig Deep connected McKinney with Zero Amounts and the one2one USA Foundation, which paid for the panels. 

McKinney said she has not had to spend anything on the project herself. She added that she expects it to be fully operational by spring.

She and her husband were installing a shed a few feet away from the panels on Friday, where she will be able to pump water into one-and-five-gallon jugs for distribution.

Contractors still need to install pipes to connect the panels and the pump.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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‘Dark Waters’ Puts PFAS Saga On Big Screen As Ohio Valley Contamination Comes To Light

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Actor Mark Ruffalo in a film still from “Dark Waters.” Film Still: Courtesy Focus Features

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The new film “Dark Waters” depicts the real-life story of the 20-year battle waged by attorney Rob Bilott against chemical giant DuPont.

We meet Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, as a young corporate defense lawyer living in Cincinnati. His grandmother, who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia, gives his phone number to local farmer, Earl Tennant. Tennant lives next to a landfill where DuPont had been dumping a chemical called C8.

In a scene from the film, Tennant, played by actor Bill Camp, shows Bilott around his farm, where his cows are dying.

“You tell me nothing’s wrong here,” Tennant tells Bilott.

Bilott, with the begrudging blessing of his law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, LLP, takes the case as a “small” favor for a family friend.

Over the course of the next two decades, documents released by DuPont during litigation would reveal that C8, or PFOA, a completely unregulated chemical, was toxic. The company had known this for decades, feared it was poisoning workers, and yet continued to dump the chemical into the Ohio River and air around its plant in Parkersburg without alerting the community or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bilott’s fight in the Ohio Valley introduced America to PFOA and its related class of chemicals called PFAS. They’ve been used in everything from pizza boxes to flame-retardant foam sprays and in nonstick and stain-resistant products like Teflon. The film comes as new testing reveals widespread contamination of water systems in the region and regulators and lawmakers consider new rules on exposure to these toxic chemicals.

Broader Contamination

As concern about PFAS exposure grows Ohio Valley officials are stepping up efforts to identify the extent of contamination of water supplies.

Kentucky regulators recently released results of 81 water system tests around the state. Half tested positive for PFAS compounds. In about 82 percent of those samples, researchers found levels under five parts per trillion, much lower than EPA’s 70 parts per trillion health advisory issued in 2016.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

However, it is higher than the health standards set by a handful of states for these chemicals, and some researchers believe 70 parts per trillion is not protective of human health. A recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggests that safe levels of PFAS chemicals are as low as .1 to 1 parts per trillion.

Researchers found the highest levels of contamination in eastern Kentucky along the Ohio River and in drinking water systems that pulled from waters connected to the river. At water systems that use surface water from the Ohio River, the results found a 100 percent detection rate for PFAS compounds. Groundwater connected to the Ohio River saw PFAS detections in about 41 percent of samples, according to the report.

Upriver lies the Washington Works Plant, formerly owned by DuPont and now operated by its spinoff company Chemours. The plant for decades produced PFOA to make Teflon. Chemours now uses it to produce other chemicals using another PFAS compound, GenX.

The Chemours facility, formerly the Dupont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/Ohio Valley ReSource

The more recent testing by states reveals far more contamination than did earlier testing conducted to meet the EPA’s requirements under the agency’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. That rule did not require testing for as many of the PFAS compounds, and did not require public disclosure of PFAS detections at low levels. For example, under that testing regimen, only two Kentucky communities were identified in 2016 as having PFAS compounds in drinking water. This raises questions about whether water customers have received adequate notice about PFAS chemicals in their water.

Ohio in September announced it would begin monitoring water systems near known contamination sites. In recent years, a growing number of communities have detected PFAS in their drinking water. Many U.S. military bases, where PFAS-laden firefighting foams were used, have measured high levels of contamination.

The advocacy organization Environmental Working Group estimates 110 million Americans drink water with dangerous PFAS levels. EPA estimates PFAS have been found in the blood of 98 percent of Americans.

These so-called “forever chemicals” don’t break down in humans or the environment due to the strength of their carbon-fluoride bond. It’s what makes PFAS chemicals highly effective at repelling water and oil.

A growing body of research shows that same characteristic makes these chemicals toxic in humans.

Bilott won a $670 million settlement with Dupont over its undisclosed contamination of the drinking water of 70,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio. The outcome of the class action lawsuit also funded a 70,000-person health study into the effects of PFOA exposure. That allowed an independent panel to link exposure to six diseases including thyroid disease and testicular and kidney cancer.

“This is one of those rare circumstances where the community came together actually got the human studies done and actually was able to confirm, you know, that this chemical was causing harm,” Bilott said, speaking at a recent event hosted by the Washington Post Live.

Susan Pinney at her desk. Credit: Colleen Kelley/University of Cincinnati

Susan Pinney, a professor at the University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health at the College of Medicine, said the C8 study was incredibly important in understanding how exposure to these chemicals is affecting humans.

“They made a huge contribution to our understanding of health effects of PFOA,” she said.

Revisiting Regulation

While more states are seeking and finding evidence of PFAS contamination, guidance from federal regulators on at what level exposure to the chemicals is safe has not been finalized.

Recognizing growing concern, in February the agency announced it would take a series of actions to address the widespread contamination of fluorinated PFAS chemicals. The “PFAS Action Plan” included a commitment by EPA to set legally-enforceable drinking water standards, or Maximum Contaminant Levels, for PFOA and PFOS. EPA said it would also move forward with listing PFAS as hazardous under the Superfund law, which would make federal funding available for costly cleanup efforts.

Critics have questioned the agency’s expansive timeline for taking action. Documents have also emerged that show in-fighting between federal agencies over how best to regulate PFAS chemicals.

A report released last year by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, found PFAS chemicals can endanger human health at levels 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA says is safe. The Pentagon has questioned the price tag of regulatory action. The agency weakening EPA’s draft cleanup requirements for the chemicals. Last month a top defense official ignored the EPA guidance, instructing the military to use screening levels 10 times higher than EPA recommended when looking for the chemicals at its sites, according to reporting by Poltico.

The inaction has angered environmental advocates and some members of Congress. The House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment has held four hearings on PFAS chemicals. Dozens of bills related to PFAS are snaking their way through both the House and Senate among debate about whether there is sufficient science to regulate the chemicals. One measure would add to the 2020 defense spending bill to speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals.

“We need government to save people’s lives by protecting them from dangerous chemicals,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California at the latest hearing. “They did not know they were drinking and wouldn’t have drunk if the truth had not been shrouded by them from corporations that knew for decades how toxic these chemicals were, and are.”

While Republicans have said they broadly agree more needs to be done about PFAS contamination, some members have also attacked Bilott’s use of litigation against DuPont and questioned whether the science is sufficient.

“We should be careful about taking any sweeping actions that could have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting a broad segment of the economy, including public entities like hospitals and airports,” Rep. James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky and ranking member of the subcommittee testified. “Any legislative or regulatory actions we consider should be based on solid scientific understanding of the toxicity of specific compounds.”

Dr. Philippe Grandjean, of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Photo: Harvard Chan School of Public Health

Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at Harvard University who has spent his career studying the ways pollution impacts children, including PFAS chemicals, said there is ample evidence.

“The science is very strong and the public health consequences are really serious,” he said.

In addition to the six diseases linked by the Ohio Valley C8 study, he said other research has shown vaccines might not be as effective in children with high levels of PFAS exposure.

Pinney at the University of Cincinnati characterized the science as “emerging,” but said new findings are showing similar, worrisome trends. She said it will likely take time for new research to be incorporated in the regulatory process.

But at the same time, Pinney said, she expects a growing number of municipalities will begin testing and finding PFAS in their drinking water.

“To me where we’re at right now, we’re soon going to find that there are a whole lot more communities with exposed people than anyone thought,” she said.

While EPA determines what level of exposure is safe, a handful of states, including New York, New Jersey, and Vermont, among others, have adopted drinking water standards for some PFAS chemicals much stronger than EPA’s health advisory.

New Chemicals

Over the last few years, DuPont and other companies have phased out the manufacture of PFOA and PFOS.

However, replacement chemicals including GenX, which is manufactured by DuPont’s spinoff company, Chemours, have been found widely in the Cape Fear watershed in North Carolina. GenX is used at the Dupont facility near Parkersburg in the manufacture of fluoropolymers.

Earlier this year, EPA cited Chemours for releasing chemicals used to make GenX into the environment at both its North Carolina and West Virginia plants.

Bilott has remained focused on PFAS chemicals and he said the ongoing GenX contamination shows the need for strong regulation.

“It just shows you almost kind of what a whack-a-mole game we’re dealing with here,” he said. “As the information’s finally coming out about one of these, there’s the switch to another one that’s slightly different. So, we’ve got to really focus on this broad class of chemicals and deal with all in a comprehensive way.”

In a statement, DuPont said the film “misrepresents some things that happened years ago” and in some cases depicts “wholly imagined events.”

Attorney Rob Bilott (left) with actor Mark Ruffalo. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Bilott, who has spent years embroiled in internal documents released by DuPont, said he thinks the facts speak for themselves.

“It is now in the blood of everyone. It’s in water all over the planet. I mean, these are facts,” he said. “And the story, I think people can see for themselves and they can judge for themselves exactly what really happened. And you know where the truth really is here.”

Bilott has filed a second class-action lawsuit against eight chemical companies on behalf of everyone in the U.S. who has PFAS chemicals in their blood. A judge in late September rejected the companies’ motion to dismiss the case and ruled it can proceed.

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