A new report finds concerning levels of PFAS contamination in waterways near Martinsburg and Parkersburg.
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Environmental groups say the findings are more proof state policymakers should consider implementing stricter drinking water regulations.
Jenna Dodson, data scientist for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the analysis by the Waterkeeper Alliance found 27 detections at four sites where nine different types of the man-made so-called "forever" chemicals were found in waterways in the Mountain State, along the Ohio River and Opequon Creek.
She pointed out in some locations, PFAS were detected at a concentration of 14.6 parts per trillion.
"That's about 700 times higher than the EPA's interim Drinking Water Health Advisory," Dodson noted.
According to the report, more than 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS through drinking water laced with the industrial chemicals commonly used in nonstick cookware, food packaging, and water- and stain-resistant clothing.
Dodson warned exposure to the chemicals can have far-reaching health consequences.
"I think something that hits home with folks, really, is that babies are being born with PFAS in their blood," Dodson stressed. "And prenatal exposure to PFAS can cause low birth weight, reduced immune function, and really sets the stage for a lifetime of increased disease susceptibility."
Dodson added state lawmakers could consider adopting water-quality criteria for certain PFAS and related chemicals which could then be enforced through industry permitting processes.
"It really is a critical issue that's going to take policymakers, agencies, industries, water utilities and consumers all working together to protect public health," Dodson contended.
On the federal level, the EPA said it is in the process of developing drinking water standards for the PFAS family of chemicals.
Kentucky cities and towns could soon start ramping up water monitoring for PFAS chemicals in response to the latest nationwide limits proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
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In 2019, Kentucky tested 81 drinking-water systems statewide and found at least one out of eight different PFAS chemicals in more than half.
Betsy Sutherland - the former director of the EPA Office of Science and Technology and current member of the Environmental Protection Network - explained that the EPA now wants to set strict limits on six types of PFAS in water.
"That's all going to change if EPA finalizes drinking water standards for these chemicals that are similar to what they just proposed," said Sutherland. "And that's because they're all much lower than what Kentucky thought was a problem back in 2019."
Found in non-stick cookware, fast-food packaging, dental floss, fire-fighting foam and other products, mounting evidence shows PFAS chemicals can accumulate in the body over time and have been linked to cancer and other health problems.
The EPA plans to hold a public hearing on the standards May 4. Members of the public can register to attend and provide comments.
More information is on the agency's website.
Sutherland said that while the EPA works to finalize the rules, there's already money available - a total of $5 billion in federal money through the bipartisan Infrastructure Law - for the Commonwealth and other states to start addressing contamination.
She added that beginning in 2025, the agency is also requiring every public water supply system in the country serving 3,300 or more residents to regularly monitor for PFAS compounds.
"So by the end of 2025," said Sutherland, "we're going to have much more detailed information on all the drinking-water systems in the country, as to whether they're contaminated with these chemicals at a level of health concern."
The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators says while the new standards are a step in the right direction, federal funding won't be enough to cover construction projects - as well as ongoing increased operation and maintenance costs.
By Zachary Shepherd and Kelsey Paulus for Kent State News Lab.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.
In summer 2022, Garrett, Jenny and their young daughter Katie Betts had no potable water in their home in Vinton County, Ohio. The Betts family's house was on the community water line, but they lived about 250 feet up a hill, which is too far for the system's pumps to successfully push the water.
So several times a week, they made a two-hour-long trip to a local water pump to fill the tank in their trunk, which they used to fill a larger, underground storage tank. They've hauled water for more than a decade.
They're far from the only Ohioans struggling to get clean, potable drinking water, says Terri Fetherolf, who runs the department of development in Vinton County. "Some people have to ration water, have to go elsewhere to get water," Fetherolf said. "They haul it in tanks in the back of their pickup trucks and use [it] out of a 300-gallon tank. Depending on the size of their family, it may last them a few days or a week, and then they have to go haul it again."
Fetherolf said approximately 1,700 of about 5,000 households in Vinton County depend on wells or water from elsewhere for basic household tasks.
Getting water to Appalachian communities is challenging and expensive, said Joe Pheil, the executive director at the Ohio Rural Water Association. Residents are spread out in small communities among the hills and it's difficult to pump water up and down. The reason these people and communities are left without reliable drinking water? The cost.
"I've been to pretty large systems over on the western side of Ohio, where everything's really flat ... The whole system has one pressure [zone]," Pheil said. "I've been to other systems down in the Appalachian area that have 19 different pressure zones in order to pump through the hilly terrain."
Water providers "would love for everybody to have access to water," Pheil said, but the logistical challenges would probably lead to high water bills that aren't affordable for the average household. The median household income in Vinton County was about $45,000 in 2020, compared to about $58,000 statewide.
"They're having a hard time maintaining the infrastructure in those communities because the costs are going up," Pheil said. "The residents in those communities can't afford to pay more money." There's one other option - where the federal and state governments step in with funding for water infrastructure, he said.
Since 1987, the Ohio EPA has offered low or zero-interest loans to community water systems to help fund the development of drinking water infrastructure. The state spent $250 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects.
But broadly speaking, Pheil said it can be hard to drum up support for grants like this since it can seem like a lot of money for infrastructure that helps relatively few people.
In the meantime, people haul water. The Betts family used a water tank, held down on their flatbed trailer with parallel winch straps. Their storage tank, located on a short but steep gravel drive behind their house, has seen its fair share of problems. They were once left without water during winter for a month.
"It was the middle of winter and I ran out," Garrett said in 2022. "While I was trying to reprime the pump, my line ended up freezing right at the tank." After that winter, Garrett buried the tank underground and hasn't had any issues since, except a few times when the water tank emptied. In those situations, he has to reprime the pump, which takes a few hours.
By summer 2022, hauling water had become a normal part of everyday life, so much so they find themselves not having to keep track of the amount in the tank. Garrett said he typically hauls two to three loads of water every Saturday, which lasts the family a week.
"It's so close, yet so far" to the community water system down the hill in MacArthur, Garrett said. "They talked about [needing] a pump station or a water tower, and we've already offered to donate property to help with that."
In August, Ohio announced a $799,000 grant to connect 52 households in Garrett Ridge, a region of Vinton County near MacArthur, to drinking water. The project aims to extend Jackson County Water Company's service lines into Garrett Ridge.
Keith Solomon, deputy manager of Jackson County Water Company, said this grant money is reserved for the engineering and designing of the project, and any remaining funds afterward will be reserved for the actual construction of the project if it moves forward.
"When the engineering and design work is completed we will be able to present a complete project to the funding agencies," Solomon said via email. "This is a step in the right direction." The Bettses are holding off on making any permanent, expensive changes to their water system in the hopes these grants will soon lead to potable water in their homes.
Garrett said he heard about efforts to fix local water infrastructure over the years - but he's "not going to believe it until it's running through my faucet."
Zachary Shepherd and Kelsey Paulus wrote this article for Kent State News Lab. This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.
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The annual cleaning of acequias in northern New Mexico gets underway in earnest next week, just as a filmmaker debuts a documentary about their past, present and future.
Arcie Chapa, manager, Multi-Media Services, University of New Mexico Center for Regional Studies and a filmmaker, has created the hour-long documentary: "Acequias: The Legacy Lives On." She said the hand-built irrigation ditches have enriched the Land of Enchantment since 16th-century Spanish settlers arrived, with many established by the Pueblo Tribes long before. While some stretches are drying up, prompting fears of their extinction, Chapa believes unified communities can help protect the waterways for future generations.
"My dream is that this film somehow brings communities together - because climate change, if we don't start now, climate change is going to force us to become more mutualistic," she said.
The Taos Valley Acequia Association has multiple events starting this Friday in which farmers and volunteers will conduct spring cleaning prior to water being released. Two free screenings of the documentary will be held at Santa Fe's Jean Cocteau theater today and tomorrow (3/21 and 3/22) with additional screenings in Albuquerque next month.
Chapa believes it has been standing-room only for early showings of the documentary because people are hungry to learn more about the acequias and their self-governed history.
"If you are part of an acequia, you have to be a part of that community whether you like each other or not. When it's cleaning day, you go out and clean it. You go out and take care of your section of the acequia that runs through your property," she said.
Most of New Mexico's acequias are concentrated in the upper valleys around smaller rivers and watersheds but some stem from larger rivers, not only providing water for agriculture but also miles of adjacent recreational trails. Chapa hopes the film serves as an inspiration to people to keep them flowing.
"If there's water in the San Luis Mountains at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, then there will be water in the acequias, so we need to protect this infrastructure. It's like one of the people said, 'It's the most important infrastructure that we have in New Mexico,' " she said.
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