More than 70 drinking water sources in SC have chemicals above new federal limits


While other states moved in recent years to protect drinking water from toxic forever chemicals, South Carolina chose not to, instead waiting on the federal government to set a national limit.

But as the state waited, officials collected data on the breadth of forever chemical contamination in South Carolina — and updated statistics released Thursday show a disturbing trend.

All told, regulators say 78 drinking water sources are polluted with forever chemicals at levels that exceed the recently announced federal standard of 4 parts per trillion for the two most well-studied types of the chemicals, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

DHEC data show that 26 drinking water plants fed by rivers or lakes exceeded the limits — including Columbia’s extensive system. Another 52 public wells that supply drinking water utilities exceeded the limits. Many of those groundwater-fed utilities are small ones.

More than 40% percent of 55 water plants supplied by rivers or lakes in South Carolina have forever chemical levels above the federal standard for the two most common types of the chemicals. DHEC said the percentage was lower for groundwater — less than 10% of the wells checked — but the state has hundreds of groundwater systems.

“We are detecting these chemicals everywhere,’’ DHEC environmental division chief Myra Reece said during a news conference, explaining that the levels vary across the state. For about three years, agency staff members have been collecting data from drinking water utilities and rivers in an attempt to get a handle on the problem.

Agency data show the highest levels of the two most widely studied types of forever chemicals exceeded 20 parts per trillion — more than five times the new federal standard of 4 parts per trillion — in two water systems. After Thursday’s news conference, DHEC identified those systems as small utilities serving the Wallace community and the Siesta Cove RV Park Marina. Wallace is a small town in eastern South Carolina’s Pee Dee region. Siesta Cove is in Lexington County.

The agency hopes to use the data it has collected across the state to determine where the pollution is coming from, which could help stop forever chemical pollution at its source.

Forever chemicals, formally known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are being found in rivers and drinking water across the country. Forever chemicals are suspected of coming from textile plants, landfills and industrial sites, among other sources.

Developed in the 1940s, PFAS was long used in production of non-stick frying pans, waterproof clothing, carpets and firefighting foams because of their durable properties. The EPA announced the first ever limits on PFAS in drinking water earlier this week for six types of the compound.

Chronic exposure to PFAS chemicals has been shown to suppress peoples’ ability to fight disease, while causing kidney cancer and limiting the growth of infants. Breast cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease are other health problems linked to PFAS exposure, according to the National Academies of Sciences.

DHEC officials said they did not want to unduly alarm the public about the chemicals because PFAS is believed to be a threat that slowly accumulates over a person’s life. Still, the agency said it is taking the matter seriously.

The department, which had not advocated for setting a state standard despite calls for action in 2021, says it will assess the effects of the new federal drinking water limits and work with water utilities to comply with what could be costly water treatment plant upgrades. The department also will test private wells if there is evidence they were contaminated with PFAS.

Agency officials did not say at the news conference if they would oppose the EPA forever chemical limits, but they did make it clear the rules are not final. After a 60-day public comment period this spring, the EPA is expected to finalize the new PFAS limits later this year.

Public water systems would have three to five years to comply with the new drinking water limits, according to DHEC.

That would suit many utilities. The city of Columbia, which has one of the state’s largest drinking water utilities, has previously said it could cost $150 million to $200 million to install filtering systems for PFAS, not including the current costs of $24 million annually. The city has registered PFAS levels above the new federal limits.

Meanwhile, DHEC still has about 200 water sources to check, state drinking water regulator Doug Kinard said.

“We’re not leaving any community behind, including our communities who are served by very small systems and communities across the state that rely on private wells,’’ Reece said.

Clint Shealy, an assistant city manager who oversees Columbia’s water system, said he’s impressed with DHEC’s effort. He’s glad the agency waited for the federal standard, rather than advocating for a state drinking water standard that might have been different than the 4 parts per trillion for the two most widely known PFAS chemicals.

Nationally, 21 states had proposed or adopted limits on PFAS compounds in drinking water, The New York Times reported this week, citing statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The federal 4 parts per trillion limit for the PFAS pollutants known as PFOA and PFOS is the lowest amount that could be detected in drinking water, making it the strictest standard that could be set. If South Carolina had imposed a higher standard, people might have been misled about the threats, he said.

“Had a limit been established at 10 or 12, it may have given someone a false sense of security,’’ Shealy said. “Really, the prevailing wisdom is let’s see what EPA comes out with, what the latest science is suggesting. You hate to make an investment to a certain level, then have to make another investment to another level.’’

Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler had advocated for a state standard more than a year ago, saying the state could protect drinking water sooner if it did not wait for the EPA to act. He said Thursday that he’s glad the EPA finally issued the new forever chemicals limits.

The limits will give DHEC the ability to develop regulations to keep PFAS out of wastewater discharged to rivers, as well as sewer sludge applied to the land, Stangler said. The agency also can use the new rules to make cases that certain industries need to clean up their acts, he said.

“Having those numbers allows DHEC to move on some other fronts,’’ he said. “It makes it a little bit easier for them to start looking at some of those sources and say ‘Hey, we’ve got drinking water systems that have problems here, and we know we have potential sources upstream. Let’s start tamping down on those so we can get drinking water systems back in order.’ ‘’