Camas Council OKs $1.6M contract to tackle ‘forever chemicals’ in water

Consultants will address PFAS treatment for Well 13, develop long-term mitigation plan for City's water system

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The Camas Public Works Operations Center, at 1620 S.E. Eighth Ave., is seen Monday, March 28, 2022. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Camas officials have approved a $1.61 million contract with an environmental engineering firm to help address “forever chemicals” found in the City’s drinking water supply.

“Like many Washington communities on the lower Columbia River, the city of Camas is proactively developing a strategy to discuss and address the public health concerns associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances in its drinking water,” the consultant’s scope of work document presented to Camas City Council members in mid-March explained.

PFAS, a group of synthetic, manufactured chemicals widely used in common household items such as nonstick cookware, glass and surface cleaners, fabrics, floor polishes, paints, carpeting and water-resistant clothing, break down very slowly in the environment — leading to their nickname, “forever chemicals.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are linked to a host of health risks, including increased cholesterol and obesity rates, hormone disruption, reduced vaccine response, decreased fertility, increased blood pressure in pregnant people, developmental delays in children and an increased risk of prostate, kidney and testicular cancers.

The chemicals are widespread, with at least one report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that PFAS are likely in the bloodstreams of at least 97% of Americans.

“They are extremely persistent in the environment,” Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall told city officials in January. “And they’re not easy to get rid of. They don’t degrade … so we’re trying to catch up with something that has been in (our environment) for 70 to 80 years.”

Camas was one of the first Washington state communities to test its drinking water system for PFAS and, in 2022 and 2023 found PFAS levels that exceeded the state’s 15 parts per trillion (PPT) limit in Well 13 near Louis Bloch Park in downtown Camas.

The City has notified water customers when Well 13’s levels exceeded the state’s action limit and turned off the well during the City’s low water-demand seasons.

Since then, the City has tested its water system for PFAS on a quarterly basis, Wall said earlier this year. When Well 13 was offline, the PFAS levels were under the state’s limits, but when the impacted well went back online, the levels rose.

“When the well is off, it’s not drawing any ground water toward the well,” Wall said in January.

Wall said Well 13 is not the only impacted well.

“The City has tested and monitored the water system for PFAS over the last two years and consistently found that PFAS are higher in Well 13 than the current State Action Level (SAL) and higher than the limits proposed by EPA in their pending regulation,” Wall stated in a March 18 staff report to the Camas City Council. “The Oak Park-Wellfield and East Wellfield well sources have also experienced some positive results for PFAS that fall below the SAL but above the proposed EPA limit. … Well 13 is located on the north side of the Washougal River and most of the City’s other wells are located on the south side of the Washougal River.”

Now, city officials are trying to figure out the extent of the PFAS problem in its water supply, find a treatment solution for Well 13 and other impacted wells, develop a long-term mitigation plan and come up with a communications program that will help City staff and officials better explain the issue and possible remedies to the public.

“We want to move quickly at looking at treatment (at Well 13), but we also want to make sure we’re making good, long-term decisions,” Wall told Council members during their March 18 workshop. “We want to look at the whole system.”

During their April 1 meeting, Council members OK’d a $1,614,621 agreement with Carollo Engineers, Inc. to tackle the short- and long-term aspects of its PFAS mitigation strategies. The contract was part of the Council’s consent agenda, which passed with unanimous support. Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen was excused from the meeting.

The consultants, Wall said, will sample and monitor Well 13 as well as all of the other Camas wells to find out if the City can combine PFAS treatment or might be better off treating each well individually.

Though the consultants and City staff “will move as quickly as we can,” Wall said, the City will likely need to use Well 13 during the upcoming summer months, when water demand is higher in Camas.

“At some point in 2024 and 2025, we will still need to be using the water Well 13 produces,” Wall told the Council on March 18, adding that, if the well’s PFAS levels were over the state’s action levels, the City would communicate that fact to the public.

In January, Wall told city officials that the federal government is set to implement action levels for these “forever chemicals” in drinking water systems that will likely be even more strict than the state’s levels.

On Wednesday, April 10, the Biden Administration set new guidelines for “forever chemicals,” that will limit PFAS and PFOS in drinking water systems to no more than 4 parts per trillion (PPT), nearly four times lower than the state of Washington’s current limit of 15 PPT.

In order to meet state and, soon, federal requirements, the City must understand what’s happening in the groundwater feeding Camas’ wells, Wall said.

“There will be ongoing monitoring work so we can understand what’s going on in the groundwater,” Wall said. “It changes through time, and we want to understand that and adapt.”

Wall said the money for the contract will come from the City’s water fund.

The agreement is designed to not exceed $1,684,621 — including $35,000 for contingencies and $35,000 for possible cost escalation — with about 74% of the money going toward fast-tracking the treatment of Well 13.

The consultants’ scope of work details three objectives: quickly developing a near-term treatment plan at Well 13 to reduce the PFAS levels below the state’s action levels; developing a long-term mitigation plan for the entire drinking water system and understanding the extent of the PFAS contamination; and helping the City “discuss and explain the complicated PFAS risks in a clear, understandable manner throughout current and all future PFAS- related projects.”

Wall said the consultants will help the City understand if it should treat Well 13 to levels that are below the state’s current requirements or “treat to a non-detectable, near-zero” level.

“The intent of this (treatment) response is to make sure we’re being thoughtful,” Wall said. “If we end up having to treat more than Well 13, it can get expensive pretty fast.”

The City will host an open house to discuss PFAS issues and will begin to seek funding opportunities to pay for whichever treatment options Camas officials decide to pursue.

“We are essentially in a two-year process here,” Wall said. “We will be done with this scope of work in early 2026 — with the design and permitting of Well 13 treatment and the PFAS response plan. Additional testing and monitoring will take some time to work through.”

Asked about construction costs for a treatment facility at Well 13, Wall said other jurisdictions have paid between $6 million and $8 million, but that “at Well 13, we have an idea of what’s needed and are hopeful the costs will be less than that,” Wall said.

He added that building a treatment facility at Well 13 will be “challenging due to the location of the well building in relation to the Washougal River and the proximity of residential neighbors.”

Editor’s note: This article was edited Thursday, April 11, 2024, to reflect new federal PFAS guidelines set in place Wednesday, April 10, 2024.