The new EPA limits: Columbus City Utilities prepares for new federal regulations on PFAS

Mike Wolanin | The Republic A view of the Driftwood River at the public access site near the intersection of 325 South and Lowell Road in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Levels of polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS above acceptable EPA limits were detected in fish in this portion of the river. Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made, long lasting chemicals that break down very slowly in the environment that present a health hazard for humans and animals.

Columbus City Utilities is taking steps to prepare for new federal limits on long-lasting and highly toxic chemicals that are linked to cancer and other illnesses and were detected in the city’s lone water source last year.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first national drinking water limit on the substances, known collectively as PFAS.

PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a cluster of industrial chemicals associated with a variety of serious health conditions and have been used in products ranging from cookware to carpets and firefighting foams and consumer products since the 1940s, according to the EPA.

Research suggests exposure to certain levels of PFAS can lead to reproductive effects in humans, developmental delays, increased risks for certain cancers, elevated cholesterol levels and weakening of the immune system, according to the EPA.

The chemicals are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally in the environment — or do so slowly — and can remain in a person’s blood indefinitely. U.S. manufacturers have voluntarily phased out compounds such as PFAS, though there still are a limited number of ongoing uses for them.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that at least 45% of the nation’s tap water contains one or more types of PFAS. Nearly everyone in the United States have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The new federal rule sets a strict limit of 4 parts per trillion for two common types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — in treated drinking water. It also limits other PFAS chemicals — PFNA, PFHxS and GenX — to 10 parts per trillion each, as well as other limits on their combined amount.

To put limits in perspective, one part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools, experts told The Republic previously.

Water providers will have three years to test for PFAS and must be in full compliance by 2029. They’ll also need to tell the public if results are too high.

Indiana currently has no limits on the substances in drinking water.

Local impact

City utility Director Roger Kelso said he is unsure how big of an impact the new rules will have on the utility, which serves more than 19,000 customers, as the most recent round of testing for PFAS found that the city’s water was already in compliance with the new federal rule.

However, the utility is currently conducting a preliminary assessment on its treatment plants’ capacity to filter out PFAS, what treatment options may be available and plans to test treated water and wells for the substances later this year, Kelso said.

Officials said previously that filtering out PFAS “is a little bit more complicated that just screwing a Britta filter on to the end of a faucet.”

“We’re not just going past the graveyard and saying, ‘Oh, well, the samples were good last time. Everything’s cool.’ I think that’s perhaps being a little bit too naïve,” Kelso said. “By the same token, we don’t want to be overreactive and say, ‘Well, we’re just going to go out and build a $35 million, $40 million improvement to a treatment plant’ when we don’t really have the monitoring or the testing data to back that up.”

“PFAS may never show up,” Kelso added. “We’ve got new wells. The new wells aren’t showing anything.”

Four of the PFAS that the EPA has set limits for have been detected in the aquifer that supplies Columbus with drinking water.

This past August, voluntary testing by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found PFOA in untreated water in one municipal well between Garden City and the railroad tracks on Columbus’ south side at 45 parts per trillion and the city’s finished drinking water at 7 parts per trillion, nearly twice the new EPA limit. City officials took that well offline, and it is no longer supplying the city with drinking water.

During the same round of testing, PFBS was detected in nine different municipal wells in Columbus, including at 40.9 parts per trillion in the well that the city shut down and ranged from 3.1 to 14.2 parts per trillion in the other eight wells. It also was detected in the city’s finished water twice, at 7.9 and 2.8 parts per trillion.

PFOS was detected at 9 parts per trillion in a sample taken from one city well and at 2.2 parts per trillion at another well but was not found in finished drinking water.

PFHxS also was detected at 6.3 parts per trillion in the well that was shut down but was not detected in finished drinking water.

However, state regulators conducted an additional round of testing after city officials shut down the well and did not detect any of those chemicals in amounts exceeding the new federal rule, officials said.

Columbus’ drinking water currently meets all federal and state regulations.

“Not everybody participated in the early testing like we did, and we did that so we could get a jump on this,” Kelso said.


Health advocates praised the EPA for not backing away from tough limits the agency proposed last year but said PFAS manufacturers knew decades ago the substances were dangerous yet hid or downplayed the evidence, The Associated Press reported. Limits should have come sooner, they argue.

But some water utilities have taken issue with the rule, saying treatment systems are expensive to install and that customers will end up paying more for water, according to wire reports.

Utility groups warn the rules will cost tens of billions of dollars each and fall hardest on small communities with fewer resources. Legal challenges are sure to follow.

The EPA estimates the rule will cost about $1.5 billion to implement each year, but doing so will prevent nearly 10,000 deaths over decades and significantly reduce serious illnesses, according to the AP.

Currently, it is unclear whether Columbus City Utility will end up needing to make costly upgrades to its treatment plants to be able to filter out PFAS or what types of improvements would be needed. Periodically testing treated water and wells for PFAS is not expected to have a significant impact on the utility’s budget.

“There are several different treatment types,” Kelso said. “Some of them are extremely practical and kind of old school, and some of them are kind of exotic. So, it really depends on what we end up detecting (and the) suitability of treatment with the existing plants.”

Last year, the city of Columbus joined nationwide settlements reached with PFAS manufacturers 3M Co., DuPont de Nemours Inc. and two DuPont spinoffs in class-action lawsuits to offset some of the costs of installing and operating treatment technology to filter out the chemicals.

The city is still actively pursuing the settlements, but it is unclear at this point when or how much money the city would receive, Kelso said.

Local contamination

Officials have said it is hard to identify the source of the PFAS contamination but suspect that it originated locally.

Most of the public water systems around Columbus that have participated in voluntary testing with IDEM did not find PFAS in samples of untreated water, including in some wells that use the same aquifer system as Columbus.

However, there are parts of the aquifer system in Bartholomew County that “lack overlying clays” and are “highly susceptible to contamination from surface sources, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

PFAS have been widely used across the globe and can be found in many places, including numerous consumer, commercial and industrial products, according to the EPA. A recent study by researchers at New York University found PFAS in automotive lubricant, engine oil, grease and hydraulic fluids.

That suggests that there could be a number of potential sources for the PFAS contamination in Columbus’ lone source of drinking water.

Though it is hard to say when the local PFAS contamination occurred, some of the PFAS detected in Columbus’ water may be more recent than others, according to Marta Venier, assistant professor at the Indiana University O’Neill School of Public Environmental Affairs, who studies these chemicals.

“PFOS and PFOA are what we call the legacy PFAS, so to speak, in the sense that they are the ones that were used first,” Venier told The Republic previously.

Then some companies later switched to other types of PFAS like PFBS, PFHpA, PFHxS and PFHxA “because at the time they were thought to be a better alternative,” though they turned out to be about as toxic as the legacy PFAS. All four of those PFAS were detected in untreated water in Columbus.

Venier estimated that some of the newer PFAS have been more commonly used for roughly the past 10 to 15 years.

In the meantime, Columbus City Utilities is participating in a program by the U.S. Geological Survey seeking to delineate how the water moves through the aquifer in Bartholomew County, which officials expect will be helpful in predicting the movement of contaminants through the city’s well fields.

Generally, water moves much slower underground than in rivers or lakes, Kelso said.

“We’ll be able to have some knowledge of, ‘if (a contaminant) is in this well, like the one we’re not using right now … is that staying pretty much limited to that (area) …Is it just here and staying static? Is it here and starting to move downstream? Or is it moving sideways?” Kelso said.

“Nobody has ever done (a study) like that here,” Kelso added.