Mobile utility says ‘water safe to drink’ amid questions following EPA guideline changes

Mobile utility says 'water safe to drink' amid questions following EPA guideline changes


After the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System sent out an advisory July 1 to customers to alert them that certain man-made contaminants in the drinking water were above new federal standards, the phone calls and emails came with plenty of questions.

Is the water safe to drink?

What kind of filter do I need to install to make the water safer?

What is going on?

On Thursday, representatives with MAWSS gathered at the utility’s offices to meet with the media and set the record straight.

“We have never made the statement in writing or to anyone that it’s not safe or for (people) not to drink our water,” said Bud McCrory, director of MAWSS. “We thing to be transparent to our customers.”

Said Doug Cote, director of plant operations with MAWSS, “We feel this out to every customer. We knew when we did that we’d get a lot of interest. That’s fine. We want the people to understand what we are doing and what is out there and what we are doing locally.”

‘Early advisory’

For MAWSS, the message is this: The water in Mobile has low levels of two compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS, that were subject of a nonbinding US Environmental Protection Agency health advisory last month.

But the detection of the two compounds in Mobile, at a range of 1.0-2.2 parts per trillion (ppt) – is still above the new thresholds established by the EPA on June 15. Those two limits are near zero – at 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS.

Few utilities in Alabama – as well as across the US — are able to meet the new levels. But officials at MAWSS and elsewhere are awaiting regulation the EPA might roll out later this year.

Doug Cote, director of plant operations with the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) speaks to the media during a news conference on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

“There is no regulation right now,” Cote said. “It’s an early advisory.”

A regulation that cements the low level of PFAS could drive Alabama state officials and those elsewhere in the US to seek grants to improve water treatment systems.

The EPA is inviting states to apply for $1 billion under the new bipartisan infrastructure law to address PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water.

Last month’s advisory replaces 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 ppta level that most utilities in the US and Alabama had been able to meet.

Related: EPA ‘moving forward’ to limit PFAS chemicals found in Alabama tap water

“These levels of concentration are so low and so small that today’s analytical procedures cannot detect them or measure them,” said Cote. “It was a bit of a surprise to us when these levels came out at such a low level.”

‘Emerging contamination’

The two compounds are part of a larger cluster of “forever chemicals’ known as PFAS. They have been used in consumer products since the 1940s and are associated with serious health conditions like cancer.

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are used in nonstick frypans, stain-resistant carpet, leather, cosmetics, food packaging, shaving cream and countless other consumer products. The chemicals are so strong that they do not degrade and can remain in a person’s bloodstream indefinitely, hence the “forever chemical” tag.

“PFAS are ubiquitous (found everywhere),” said Cote. “If we had a comprehensive list of these compounds, it would take pages and pages of documentation.”

Few utilities in Alabama have PFAS that are considered undetectable.

Cote and others, though, are pleased the EPA released the numbers in an advisory. Drinking water health advisories provide information on contaminants that can cause health effects and provide state agencies and other public health officials with information about analytical methods and treatment technologies associated with the contamination.

“This is a national issue,” said Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. “There rightly is concern about any harms these chemicals can have on human health and the environment. ADEM has been addressing PFAS issues for a number of years, including requiring testing for PFAS at drinking water systems with well/treatment plants even though there is not a federal requirement to do so.”

He added, “We are pleased to see EPA now take steps that will lead to the regulation of these emerging contaminates.”

‘Spare no expense’

Concerns over PFAS are unusual in South Alabama. But in North Alabama, where the issue of contaminates in water systems has sparked lawsuits, the issue is not as unique.

In Decatur, the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL), opened a $32 million treatment plant last year that uses a reverse-osmosis filter to cleanse the water.

The project came after WMEL, back in 2016, advised customers not to drink their tap water until a temporary filter system was installed.

“This hit us pretty hard in 2016, probably like it’s hitting most utilities right now,” said Jeaniece Slater, general manager at WMEL. “We decided to spare no expense to make sure the chemicals didn’t go into our children. We felt we made this decision and we feel even better after (the EPA) made this announcement.”

Also in 2021, WMEL settled in federal lawsuit with 3M Co. and other companies over allegations that those companies polluted the Tennessee River with PFAS.

Slater said the new water treatment plant has reduced the utility’s PFAS down to untraceable levels that would meet the strict new federal guidelines.

“We feel even better after they made this announcement,” she said.

‘Educate’

Aside from MAWSS, other water utilities in Alabama are expected to let their customers know about the advisory, which could spark more questions about the safety of drinking water statewide.

LeFleur, in his statement, said he anticipates affected water systems to take action to reduce PFAS levels and to provide information to their users, “especially those who may have conditions that make them more sensitive” to the compound.

He said that ADEM and the Alabama Department of Public Health are coordinating with water systems in the state with measurable levels of PFAS to provide assistance.

“The EPA wants individuals to educate themselves on PFAS and educate themselves to make health decisions regarding that,” said Cote. “But the EPA has not advised us nor told us to tell people to stop drinking water.”

He added, “This is an early advisory based on early draft information to tell people in the community that there will be regulations coming that will require us to treat PFAS to whatever levels they believe is necessary in their (yet-to-be-determined ) regulations.”



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