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DHEC says proposed federal 'forever chemical' guidelines offer 'much-needed consistency'

Pouring water from a Faucet (copy) (copy) (copy)

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said March 16 the federal Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations on chemicals found in drinking water would provide "much-needed consistency." File

COLUMBIA — Newly proposed federal guidelines regulating so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water would give South Carolina's health agency a roadmap to reduce exposure, state officials said.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced this week that it planned to limit the amount in drinking water of six groups of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often abbreviated to PFAS. If adopted, the move would create a national standard for the substances.

"Their action gives states and drinking water systems the much-needed consistency for addressing PFAS in drinking water," said Jennifer Hughes, chief of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's Bureau of Water.

Drinking water is responsible for about 20 percent of people's exposure to the chemicals, Hughes said. The other 80 percent comes from other products such as non-stick coatings on pots and pans, fast-food wrappers and makeup. 

The chemicals are also found in certain firefighting foam, which seeped into water near military bases across the state, including Shaw Air Force Base, Joint Base Charleston, the North Auxiliary Airfield and the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

Prolonged exposure to low levels of the chemicals — for example, drinking two liters of contaminated water every day for 70 years — can cause cancer or other long-term health problems, DHEC officials said during a media briefing March 16.

"This is one of the most complex and challenging issues states have been faced with," said Myra Reece, director of environmental affairs at DHEC.

The amount of PFAS in South Carolina water varies from place to place.

DHEC testing in 2020 and 2021 found that 47 percent, or 26 of 55, surface water treatment plants, which draw from lakes, streams and rivers, had a higher ratio of chemicals than the proposed guidelines would allow. 

Sampling in groundwater found around 8 percent of sites — 52 of the 616 tested — had higher levels than would be allowed.

"We know that we're going to see some of the levels that we detect in our surface waters, our lakes and streams, and also drinking water vary for one reason or another across the state," Reece said. "But we are detecting these chemicals everywhere."

These proportions also vary by state. North Carolina, for instance, has more instances of PFAS than South Carolina because of certain manufacturing plants, Reece said. 

Water treatment plants testing at a higher ratio than the proposed level will have to install new forms of filtration to reduce their PFAS levels if the federal regulation passes, Doug Kinard, director of DHEC's Drinking Water & Recreational Waters Protection division said.

The specifics will vary based on each utility's needs.

"That is generally going to be something that's going to be the choice of the water system to determine what's their best option," Kinard said.

The fix could be costly. Columbia, for instance, is facing a potential $150 million to $200 million upgrade to reduce its PFAS levels, which range from below the proposed 4 parts per trillion regulation to just above it, Assistant City Manager Clint Shealy said.

On top of the installation cost, which would add granular activated carbon to absorb the chemicals, the city would have to find a way to pay an extra $20 million or so per year on upkeep, effectively doubling the cost of treating water in the capital city, Shealy said. Ratepayers would likely have to foot at least part of the price through higher water bills.

Cities will be able to take out low-interest loans to help pay for the changes through the State Revolving Fund, Kinard said, which has money available to address contaminants. Federal agencies have not yet said whether they would offer assistance to utilities across the country that would need to update their treatment methods.

Private wells, while not regulated through DHEC, may also have PFAS. People with their own wells can apply to have their drinking water tested and receive recommendations from DHEC workers on how to reduce their levels or, if necessary, get funding to connect to a public water supply.

Officials stressed that the proposal is not a done deal. The EPA is planning to finalize the regulations by the end of the year, following a period of public comment. Once any final plan goes into place, utilities would have three years to implement changes and come into compliance.

In the meantime, DHEC will continue sampling South Carolina's water supply to test for PFAS, officials said.

"Hopefully this will allow us to identify primary locations, try to determine probable causes and work on a way of protecting the drinking water sources down the road," Kinard said.

Click here for more news from Columbia, S.C.

Reach Skylar Laird at (843) 830-1526. Follow her on Twitter @sky_latte_.

Skylar Laird covers Columbia and Richland County for The Post and Courier. She is originally from Missouri.

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