Henry Schwan | MetroWest Daily News
Worcester, MA – A contaminant known as PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a topic of concern in Massachusetts.
Roughly 50 communities — including Dudley, Millbury and Princeton — have reported elevated levels of the contaminant in town public water systems. The development poses potential health risks for some residents who drink the water.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are manmade chemicals found in a long list of manufactured items, including firefighting foams and moisture- and stain-resistant products.
According to state Department of Environmental Protection records, among the public water systems where water was found to be above the 20 part per trillion (ppt) standard are Dudley, the Aquarion Water Co. in Millbury, the Hudson Water Supply, and the Princeton Town Campus. The Aquarion well in Millbury was immediately shut down when the PFAS sample results were found. No Aquarion customers in Millbury are receiving water above the 20 ppt MCL.
Many legal questions have surfaced — are taxpayers responsible for paying the millions of dollars to remove PFAS from a public water system? Can a resident sue their city/town if their illness is connected to PFAS in the drinking water?
Bob Cox, an environmental lawyer and managing partner at Bowditch & Dewey in Worcester, addressed those questions, and more:
Who is responsible for clean-up costs?
Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 21E makes liable the parties that release hazardous materials into the environment. PFAS is one of the hazardous materials on the list.
The law essentially says if you own the contaminant, then you’re responsible for cleaning it up. In some cases, the PFAS source is clear, like a manufacturing facility or a training ground for firefighters that uses firefighting foams containing PFAS.
A difficulty, in some cases, is identifying the source of PFAS.
“That is a challenge,” Cox said.
Chapter 21E can also provide financial recourse for residents whose private wells are contaminated by PFAS. The party that is the source of the contamination could pay costs upfront or reimburse the property owner for all expenses.
On the federal side, there is the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“That is important,” Cox said, because it requires public water suppliers to provide clean and safe drinking water. It also triggers testing for particular contaminants, including PFAS.
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The federal law is funded locally, and that can be a problem because it’s a challenge to raise the necessary funds.
In September, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a total of nearly $2 million in state funds to help 10 communities – including Hudson – mitigate PFAS in their public water systems. Earlier, $28.4 million in state supplemental budgets paid for water infrastructure and PFAS testing.
However, those monies won’t meet the PFAS challenge statewide, Cox said, especially when treatment systems in each community with elevated levels of PFAS can run from $3 million to $6 million.
“We need more public money to deal with this,” he said.
Can a resident sue a city/town if their illness in connected to PFAS in the public water system?
If the source responsible for the contamination is identified, then it’s subject to a personal injury claim.
However, Cox said the science is still evolving, so it’s too early to make a direct connection between illness and PFAS contamination.
Cox hasn’t seen a personal injury claim locally arising from exposure to PFAS.
In 2010, Minnesota received $850 million from the 3M Company for discharging PFAS used in the making of Scotchgard, a stain and water repellent, into sources of drinking water.
Chemical giant DuPont settled a PFAS personal injury lawsuit in 2017 for $60 million, brought by citizens in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
In January, Tyco Fire Products paid $17.5 million to settle claims from roughly 300 homeowners in South Carolina who said a firefighting foam — known as AFFF, aqueous film forming foam — contaminated their drinking water.
What are your clients experiencing when it comes to PFAS contamination?
Cox’s municipal clients make it a top priority to provide safe drinking water in their communities. And, the DEP is investing significant resources to address the challenge, according to Cox.
Wastewater treatment is a concern, because of sludge generated in the treatment process. The sludge can be used for farming, and officials want to ensure it isn’t spreading PFAS in the community.
Will a recently formed state task force have success dealing with the PFAS problem?
“It’s great. It assembled the right group of people,” said Cox.
More: New state task force meets to discuss ways to mitigate presence of PFAS
The PFAS Interagency Task Force held its first virtual meeting on Tuesday. It will present a report to state lawmakers by the end of this year.
Comprised of 19-members — legislators, agencies, experts and stakeholders — the goal is to agree on the best approach to prevent and mitigate contamination statewide.
That includes educating the public, researching alternatives to products that contain these substances and the cost effectiveness of different approaches, among other objectives.
“They got a lot of work to do,” Cox said. “It’s an opportunity to raise the appropriate money to deal with PFAS.”
This story has been amended to include that the Aquarion well in Millbury with PFAS levels was shut down.