Tucson Officials Hope New EPA Guidelines Will Accelerate Groundwater Cleanup | Local News

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Tucson officials are hoping recently announced federal health guidelines regarding PFAS contamination levels in drinking water will speed the flow of federal funds to that area for what they say is massive groundwater cleanup work that will will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

City officials were already planning to apply for federal funds to clean up PFAS-contaminated wells on the Northwest Side and in the city’s reclaimed water system.

Local officials also say they hope the EPA’s tougher standards will free up federal money from the Air Force and Air National Guard to clean up longstanding groundwater pollution in the downtown, north of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and an Air National Guard base adjoining Tucson International Airport on the south side.

“Today’s announcement truly underscores the urgency and need for the responsible parties here in Tucson, the PFAS manufacturers and the Department of Defense, to step up and help us address the contamination from the PFAS that they have contributed to water sources in Tucson,” Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said. Wednesday.

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“I’m pleased that the City of Tucson and Tucson Water have for years led the nation in having the most stringent operational targets (for PFAS levels in drinking water),” Romero said, adding, “I would say that we have one of the toughest operational targets of any water utility in the country.

EPA tightens health guidelines

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that it is significantly tightening health guidelines for lifetime exposure to two PFAS compounds that are increasingly found in drinking water supplies in Tucson and nationwide.

Since 2016, the EPA has recommended that people not have lifetime exposure to levels of compounds known as PFOA and PFOS of no more than 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. On Wednesday, the EPA reduced the maximum recommended levels to 0.0004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.002 parts per trillion for PFOS.

Equipment owned by Tucson Water and many state and federal utilities and agencies across the country is not capable of detecting such low concentrations in drinking water, according to local and national officials. This means that the new EPA guidelines really mean that no measurable levels of these compounds are acceptable in drinking water.

Tucson Water had previously set its own much lower health advisory level of 18 parts per trillion for the two PFAS compounds. But in reality, it was shutting down every well in the city found with PFAS contamination, utility officials said.

To find PFAS compounds in drinking water, Tucson Water uses EPA laboratory methods that can detect no less than 2 parts per trillion PFAS concentrations, the utility said in a statement Wednesday.

The city closed 25 PFAS-contaminated wells north of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, north of the Air National Guard Base and in the far northwest of the Marana area.

“However, we are continuously sampling throughout our system and will review our past data to ensure that any active wells that may have detectable levels of PFOA and PFOS are removed from active service,” Tucson Water said.

PFAS is the abbreviation for a group of commonly used man-made chemicals known as perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, which are very persistent in the environment and the human body, which means that they do not break down easily and are known as “eternal chemicals”. ”

Federal grants sought

The Air National Guard has acknowledged that it, like many other military departments in the United States, routinely used PFAS compounds in firefighting foam nationwide beginning in 1970. In 2019, a spokesperson for the Air National Guard told the Star that the base had phased out the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam over the previous 2½ years.

Tucson already plans to seek $133 million in federal grants to design systems to treat PFAS contamination from wells on the Northwest Side and its reclaimed water system. But the total cost of a full PFAS cleanup of the city’s well system will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, said John Kmiec, director of Romero and Tucson Water.

Due to congressional approval last year of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the federal government is already sending money for PFAS cleanup in the state, Romero said. . The city is preparing grant proposals of $61 million and $72 million, respectively, to design treatment systems for the northwest side and some of the city’s reclaimed water.

Those applications are for the state’s Water Infrastructure Funding Authority, and “we’ve been working with them for months to make sure we have good applications,” Kmiec said Wednesday.

Romero said the federal Department of Defense budget now contains funds for environmental cleanup and that city officials will continue to press the Arizona congressional delegation to pressure the department to that it provide cleanup funds for the Tucson area as soon as possible.

“I’ve been saying since we started discussing this that Tucsonians shouldn’t be left with the bag” for cleanup costs, the mayor said.

The Defense Department has used the 70 parts per trillion advisory level as the threshold to begin action to clean up PFAS-contaminated wells, said Tucson Water and Councilman Steve Kozachik, the most outspoken council member on the PFAS issue. Now, with the stricter health advisory, the department should change its scope for a Tucson cleanup, the utility and Kozachik said Wednesday.

“DM is hiding behind the advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. They can’t do that anymore,” Kozachik said.

Davis-Monthan and Air National Guard officials did not immediately respond to Star’s requests to comment on the impacts of the new EPA health advisory on the cleanup work. They began work last fall on surveys of the contamination that were due to be completed in 2024, but city officials said they would not agree to wait that long for cleanups to begin.

Contact Tony Davis at 520-349-0350 or [email protected] Follow Davis on Twitter @tonydavis987.

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