Some cold water for Globe story: Turns out NH drinking water among safest

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Ian Rohrbacher says Rochester's water supply has only minuscule levels of PFAS. (Rochester Voice file photo)

ROCHESTER - A story published by the Boston Globe earlier this month that referenced unhealthful levels of PFAS in Turnkey Landfill runoff is being roundly criticized by state and local water quality officials as well as Waste Management, which operates the Rochester Neck Road facility.

The Sept. 6 story said that Sep. 2018 tests at a Lowell, Mass., water treatment facility showed Turnkey Landfill runoff levels as high as 9,700 ppt for some types of PFAS, more than 100 times above the federal health advisory level for drinking water.

Waste Management has had a contract since 2012 to send up to 100,000 gallons of its landfill runoff daily to the Lowell facility, but it suspended its contract a day after the Globe story broke.

A Waste Management spokesperson on Friday said the story appeared to lack clarity in differentiating between limits for drinking water, wastewater and effluent, which is treated wastewater that is discharged into rivers and streams.

City officials in Lowell have reported that they suspended the contract out of "an abundance of caution" but that PFAS levels in the Merrimack River where the water was discharged are very low.

In fact, Massachusetts has no wastewater standards, said Garrett Trierweiler, Waste Management's director of public affairs.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire has some of the tightest regulatory limits for PFAS in the country, including maximum contaminant levels for both drinking water and groundwater: between 11-18 parts per trillion for the four most prevalent PFAS.

PFAs refer to a family of hundreds, if not thousands, of manmade substances known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl. They are widely used in a myriad of industries including clothing, food preparation and even pots and pans. They are known for their ability to make clothes resilient to water, keep stains out of carpets and pizza boxes, and douse fires with special firefighting foam.

"They're ubiquitous," said Rochester Water Treatment Plant Chief Operator Ian Rohrbacher on Friday. "Whenever I go to a conference talking about them, the expert speaker from DES usually says something like, 'Do you like to open up your cheeseburger and see that the cheese doesn't stick to the wrapper? Thank you, PFAS.'"

Rohrbacher said PFAS for all four of the chemical's major health advisory iterations are in the single digits for parts per trillion in Rochester's drinking water as opposed to a federal health advisory at 70 ppt.

Studies show 99 percent of Americans are estimated to have some PFAS in them. Health risks include cancer, kidney damage and reproductive and immune system harm to name a few.

Rohrbacher is part of a new initiative in which water operator chiefs from around the state will send quarterly samples of groundwater from areas around city reservoir to state DES officials to ensure there are no higher than allowed levels of PCAS anywhere in the state. The state expects its first batch of samples at the start of 2020.

But make no mistake about it. New Hampshire is the vanguard of the nation when it comes to PFAS, New Hampshire DES spokesman Jim Martin said on Friday.

Martin explained a federal health advisory uses 70 ppt as a level that should be concerning.

"The 70 ppt is just an advisory," Martin said. "In New Hampshire we have an MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level), which is an enforcement tool."

Trierweiler said the amount of Turnkey Landfill wastewater sent to Massachusetts comprised only about one tenth of one percent of the amount of water treated at the Lowell facility and the average amount sent was 35.000 a day, not the 100,000 gallons a day the Globe referenced.

He said the suspension of the contract won't affect the operations of Waste Management, which will treat the wastewater through its own filtration system before the effluent is discharged within the confines of the lined landfill.

"It will be easily assimilated," Trierweiler said.

Martin said routine sampling in and around landfills as well as any other place that might be suspected of having higher levels of PFAS is ongoing.

He said if any of the MCLs are in violation of the state's maximum limits there will be increased monitoring and mitigation efforts.

In addition any property owner who has wells within a 500-foot radius would be notified.

He said a noteworthy point to make about New Hampshire's tough rules is that drinking water and groundwater contaminant maximums are the same.

He added that with groundwater and drinking water already under a microscope, the next challenge will be to develop standards for surface water like the state's lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.

Rohrbacher said private wells could also be contaminated by PFAS even if they're not near a landfill or any other exposure-rich risk as there are airborne PFAS, too.

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