Idaho works to find and remove “forever chemicals” in our water

By: - April 19, 2021 4:10 am
PFAS gel

A cup full of gel-based material used to remove PFAS from water sits atop valves that control a groundwater remediation system. PFAS are a group of chemicals, some of which were formerly used in aircraft fire fighting foam. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)

When you pour a glass of water from your kitchen tap, you expect it to be clean. You expect it not to be contaminated with toxic “forever chemicals.”

And if you live in Boise, your expectations are most likely true.

If you live elsewhere in Idaho, your local water utility may or may not know whether your drinking water is free of PFAS a group of chemicals that have piqued the concern of environmental groups, public health agencies and government officials alike.

But there is no state or federal requirement for water utilities to test Idahoans’ drinking water for PFAS.

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a group of human-made chemicals used in products and industries since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They’ve been found in everything from Teflon to food packaging to foams used to fight fires.

They accumulate and never break down once they get into the environment or the human body. Some research shows that PFAS exposure can lead to health problems, the EPA says. 

“The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations,” the EPA says. More limited studies have linked PFAS to infant birth weight, effects on the immune system, thyroid hormone disruption and cancer.

But the state’s drinking water chief says PFAS in Idaho’s water isn’t something that keeps him up at night. He says the chemicals don’t seem to have polluted Idaho as they have other states. He credits recent federal testing and a new program that allows Idaho utilities to test their own water.

“In the eyes of DEQ and EPA … we may be lucky” not to have industries that spill PFAS into communities, said Tyler Fortunati, drinking water bureau chief for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

That doesn’t mean Idaho is PFAS free, though. At least two places in Idaho’s Treasure Valley have been flagged for higher levels of PFAS in water — Mountain Home Air Force Base and Gowen Field in Boise. 

The EPA’s health advisory says PFAS particles shouldn’t be present at more than 70 parts per trillion in drinking water.

Why that limit?

To protect developing fetuses and infants, the EPA says.

“The health advisory levels are calculated based on the drinking water intake of lactating women, who drink more water than other people and can pass these chemicals along to nursing infants through breastmilk,” the EPA says in the health advisory.

PFAS also may cause “developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy,” the advisory says.

Firefighting foams have been one major source of groundwater contamination at some airports and military bases.

The Department of Defense has tested water at its installations, and its findings are collected and publicly shared by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.

Federal officials hold a PFAS task force meeting
Robert H. McMahon, former assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, presides over the first meeting of a federal PFAS task force in 2019, at the Pentagon. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Carroll, courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)

Testing in 2018 found levels of PFAS at the Mountain Home Air Force Base that ranged from twice to 17 times the EPA limit, according to the EWG data. Other tests on the base found PFAS as well.

“Taking care of (our) Airmen and families is my priority,” Col. Rick Goodman, 366th Fighter Wing Commander, said in an email to Idaho Capital Sun. “As such, Mountain Home Air Force Base regularly tests drinking water for contaminants including (PFAS) and publishes an annual drinking water consumer confidence report.”

Goodman said Idaho legislators recently visited the base to talk about a pipeline and water treatment facility — part of the Snake River Water project — that is expected to be finished in 2026.

“Mountain Home Air Force Base continues to work with the surrounding community, regulators and elected officials to comply with environmental protection laws to protect human health and our environment,” Goodman said.

Testing at the Boise Air Terminal, Gowen Field, have found PFAS at less elevated levels, the EWG data show.

The EWG notes that these tests don’t tell us how much PFAS actually made it into tap water.

Mountain Home has taken action to remediate the problem, according to DEQ.

For example, one well tested high in August 2016, according to a DEQ report. The base held town-hall meetings, issued a health advisory, gave people on base bottled water, turned off the well and installed a filtration system.

The DEQ report says “monthly sample results from (the well) after filtration have indicated that the treatment system has successfully reduced the PFOS/PFOA contaminants” below the EPA limit and below detectable levels.

Goodman said the contaminated wells “were immediately removed as a drinking water source and bottled water was, and has continued to be, provided to personnel who work in the affected areas.”

He said “all active drinking water sources on base no longer have detectable levels of PFOS/PFOA,” two of the common PFAS.

PFAS in Boise drinking water

There is no state or federal requirement for utilities to test their water supply for PFAS.

Several of the Treasure Valley’s municipalities operate their own water utility, but Boise’s drinking water is managed by Suez, a private company.

The utility controls 79 wells and two water treatment plants that serve 240,000 locals residents in Boise and in slivers of Meridian and Eagle.

“Our most important mission is providing safe, reliable drinking water to our community,” Suez Capital Project and Consumer Engagement Manager Jane Kreller said in a statement to the Idaho Capital Sun. “When it comes to water quality, nothing can be more important. That is why we began voluntary PFAS testing in 2019.”

Kreller said Suez has tested 28 of its water sources and will test the rest by the end of September. Suez has paid for all its own testing, Kreller said.

The company began its testing at locations it suspected were most likely to have PFAS contamination. But it turned out even those locations were clean.

“Levels have been non-detectable in most sources or at very low levels in the few wells that had even a hint of PFAS,” the company said in an emailed statement. “The highest level of combined PFOA and PFOS (two of the most common PFAS) was 13.5 parts per trillion, which is significantly below the health advisory limit established by the EPA of 70 ppt.”

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean told the Idaho Capital Sun on Wednesday that the city wants to “do everything we can to make sure that we protect our drinking water, that we have clean water for all of our residents, and that we also harness the power of science and innovation when it comes to learning what we need to know about what’s in our groundwater.”

McLean said the city has been working with and talking with EPA and DEQ about water quality, and that “we look to Suez to continue to test and ensure that the water that our residents (are) drinking is safe.”

The future of PFAS testing in Idaho

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality started a PFAS working group a few years ago, bringing together state agencies, public health departments and other stakeholders, Fortunati said. 

“We’re starting to coordinate our efforts on PFAS monitoring and what we’re all finding,” he said.

The EPA also has done some PFAS monitoring across the state and “found no detections in the state of Idaho during that effort,” he said.

The Idaho Capital Sun obtained the EPA’s testing data and confirmed that. The EPA tested more than 2,000 samples collected between 2013 and 2015 from cities and locations across the state. The data show no detection of six different PFAS chemicals.

But Idaho has put together its own PFAS monitoring plan as well as a sampling program, with help from an $87,000 federal grant. That plan will include education, outreach and communication efforts — and has been training water utilities to gather samples and send them in for PFAS tests.

Fortunati says DEQ has received more money from the EPA this year, to expand on its work.

The program now has up to $213,000 to spend on voluntary water testing by utilities across Idaho, he said.

The funding means they can also do repeat testing. But water that doesn’t have PFAS usually stays that way, he said.

“The general consensus or thought on PFAS is it’s not something that just pops up overnight,” Fortunati said.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton was a senior investigative reporter with the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover included health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.