Proposed federal grants would help remove PFAS from rural water supplies

·3 min read

Jun. 9—Congress is considering new legislation to provide grants for testing and filtration systems to remove so-called forever chemicals and other contaminants from drinking water supplies in rural areas.

The Healthy H2O Act was introduced Thursday in the House by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and North Carolina Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., at the same time a companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin.

Maine is regularly finding the forever chemicals in more areas of the state and in everything from wells to milk, deer meat and chicken eggs, said Pingree, who represents Maine's 1st District. Maine is "ahead of the curve" on testing, she said, but it's likely the rest of the nation is facing the same problem: "They just doesn't know it yet."

"The Healthy H2O Act will make testing and treatment technology more accessible so we can address contaminants in our water, and so our communities can be protected against these harmful chemicals," Pingree said in a written statement.

The Healthy H2O Act covers a number of long-known contaminants, from lead to arsenic, but also emerging chemical threats such as so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS, found in groundwater around farms where sludge has been spread as fertilizer since the 1970s.

PFAS, per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, are a class of over 4,000 manmade chemicals used since the 1950s in industrial and household products like waterproof clothing, non-stick cookware and firefighting foam. They have been linked to cancer, kidney malfunction, immune system suppression and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.

Public water systems treat water before distributing it to consumers, but 43 million households in mostly rural communities rely exclusively on wells fed by groundwater, which is typically untested. This can delay identification of and response to health threats posed by contaminants.

"Rural communities in Maine, and throughout the country, have long struggled to receive the necessary support from D.C. to reliably access clean and safe drinking water," said Jason House, a Maine resident who is president-elect of the National Ground Water Association.

"The Healthy H2O Act will bring much needed resources to our rural communities and have a direct impact on the health of our families throughout the state and beyond," House said. "We couldn't be more supportive."

The Healthy H2O Act would provide U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development grants to individuals, nonprofits and local governments for water quality testing and the purchase and installation of point-of-use or point-of-entry water quality improvement systems.

Maine has been out in front on many PFAS issues, setting drinking water standards that are stricter than federal ones and attempting to document the extent of contamination by mounting a statewide review of about 700 farms where state-licensed sludge likely to be high in PFAS has been spread.

Earlier this year, Maine lawmakers voted to ban the sale, distribution and use of any pesticides that contain PFAS, which have been been detected at high levels in Maine farming communities.

Lawmakers also banned sludge spreading, a decades-old practice of recycling state-licensed municipal sludge from wastewater treatment plants into fertilizer to enrich Maine farmlands, which is believed to be the primary source of PFAS contamination in at least three dozen Maine communities.

The sludge has since been linked to contaminated well water, fields, crops and milk in dairy herds that grazed on sludge-fertilized lands. Many of these farmers have had to pull their products from market and cull contaminated herds. Maine created a $60 million relief fund to help impacted farmers.