Camas considers next steps for ‘forever chemicals’ in water

City staff say risk assessment needed; treatment options available

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Camas Public Works Manager Steve Wall (right) updates Camas City Council members and other city leaders on "forever chemicals" found in the city's water system, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

When it comes to finding, investigating and someday treating “forever chemicals” in a public water supply, the city of Camas is well ahead of the curve, says Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall.

“Camas is at the forefront of this conversation,” Wall recently told Camas officials during the Camas City Council’s 2024 planning retreat, held Jan. 26-27, at Lacamas Lodge.

Camas was one of the first Washington state communities to test its drinking water system for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of fire- and water-resistant, nonstick and stain-repellent chemicals that have been used since the 1940s in everything from firefighting foam and fire-resistant clothing to nonstick cookware, shampoo bottles, takeout food wrappers, household cleaning products and waterproof clothing.

Known as “forever chemicals” due to their inability to easily break down in the environment, the chemicals can, according to the National Institutes of Health, be toxic to humans, with studies showing associations between the chemicals and “altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes and cancer.”

The chemicals also 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,” Wall told city officials last month. “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.”

Wall added that, although he understands why people are concerned about being exposed to these “forever chemicals” in their drinking water, the problem is extremely widespread.

“PFAS are everywhere,” Wall told city officials in January, showing that the chemicals have even been found on Mount Everest and at the North Pole. Additionally, PFAS are found in common household items and, according to recent studies, are much more likely to come from food than from water.

“It is important to know how we’re being exposed,” Wall said, adding that emerging PFAS prevention and treatment research is not only focused on the water we drink and the food we eat, but also on the air we breathe as research shows these chemicals enter human bodies not just through ingestion but also via inhalation.

Efforts also are underway to ban these chemicals from many everyday products, Wall said. Over the past five years, Washington state has banned PFAS in firefighting foam, food wrappers and liners — including plates and pizza boxes — paper bowls, bags, trays, cups and clamshell food containers.

Washington is one of a handful of states that have tried to regulate these “forever chemicals,” Wall said, and now the federal Environmental Protection Agency is set to come out with national guidelines.

“Only about one-fifth of states even have anything in place now,” Wall said of statewide “forever chemical” regulations and guidelines. “And Washington … is ahead of the curve. But the EPA is moving lightning fast on PFAS.”

In fact, when it comes to public drinking water systems, the national guidelines may even exceed Washington state’s acceptable PFAS levels, Wall said, with the EPA likely to set a threshold of 4 parts per trillion (PPT) compared to Washington’s level of 15 PPT.

Wall said it is critical for cities to understand what lies ahead when it comes to PFAS regulations, but said Camas is in a better position than other Washington cities since it was one of the first to begin testing for these “forever chemicals” in its drinking water system.

“We know we have PFAS (in at least one drinking-water well) and that it’s above 4 PPT,” Wall said.

Now, the City must decide how to proceed. Per state guidelines, once the City discovered PFAS in its drinking water system — the chemicals were found in levels exceeding the state’s 15 PPT in Well 13 near Louis Bloch Park in downtown Camas in 2022 and again in 2023 — the City notified water customers and shut the well down during the low-demand seasons.

Since then, the City has tested its water system for PFAS on a quarterly basis, Wall told The Post-Record. As of December 2023, when Well 13 was offline, the PFAS levels were under the state’s limits. Unfortunately, when the impacted well goes online during the higher-water-usage summer months, PFAS levels rise.

“When the well is off, it’s not drawing any ground water toward the well,” Wall explained. “We have it off now and will leave it off until (demand) gets high enough in the summer.”

Wall and Camas Communications Director Bryan Rachal have said it is very difficult to determine the exact source of the PFAS in Well 13, but that there are treatment remedies available.

“There are three treatment options, but really only two that are cost-effective,” Wall told The Post-Record. One treatment method uses activated charcoal to bind the chemicals and remove them from the drinking water system, while another uses an ion exchange process that, according to the National Institutes of Health can be more effective at removing “short-chain PFAS, which are not removed by carbon-based absorption processes.”

The City recently put out a request for qualifications and will bring a contract to the city council later this month in the hopes of getting started on doing a full risk-assessment of Camas’ drinking water wells, thinking about treatment for wells that have PFAS in levels that exceed the state’s — and possibly the EPA’s new — limits and developing what Wall called “a roadmap for the future.”

“We want to make sure we have a solid path forward,” Wall said, adding that City officials have already approved funding in the City budget and have funding built into the City’s utility rate structure to help fix Well 13, but that Camas will likely need more money if PFAS are found in other wells or if more treatment is needed to get drinking water PFAS levels below the expected national level of 4 PPT.

“Part of what we want to make sure of in the future is: ‘How do we reduce our risk to meet the current state action level … and (the possibility of a lower) EPA level?’” Wall said.

He added that there should be federal dollars, as well as grants, available to help cities treat drinking water.

“We’re trying to set ourselves up (to receive) funding through the state, federal government or elsewhere,” Wall said. “There are some grants, but we haven’t qualified for some of the early (funding options).”

Rachal said Camas is not considered a “high need” community “because of the size of the city and its affluence.”

Wall added that at least one other Southwest Washington community — the city of Vancouver — has had some success securing grant money to treat PFAS in its water system.

“Vancouver is ahead of us a little bit, but that’s not a bad thing,” Wall said. “They are having conversations with the Department of Health and, hopefully, will have some lessons learned from their process that (Camas) can learn from.”

Wall said he hopes to get started “right away” with consultants to perform a risk assessment for the City.

“We want to look at things quickly,” Wall said. “And we want to understand future risks, because we don’t want to drill a new well and draw more (PFAS) in.”

Wall said he hopes to bring the risk assessment and scope of work agreement with Carollo Engineers to city officials this month, and will likely talk to Camas City Council members about the PFAS contract during the Council’s workshop or meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

In the meantime, the City will continue to monitor its drinking water system and will send written notices to water users if it discovers PFAS levels that exceed the state’s 15 PPT action level.