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To comply with new PFAS regulations, Gov. Josh Shapiro seeks more funds for drinking water testing

Eva Stebel, water researcher, pours a water sample into a smaller glass container for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center For Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response, Thursday, Feb. 16, in Cincinnati.
Joshua A. Bickel
/
AP
Eva Stebel, water researcher, pours a water sample into a smaller glass container for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center For Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response, Thursday, Feb. 16, in Cincinnati.

As new rules govern the levels of PFAS allowable in drinking water, the state of Pennsylvania is requesting additional systems to test for the toxic chemicals.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is asking for funding from the state’s next fiscal budget for new water testing equipment that would help the agency detect toxic PFAS chemicals at a faster pace.

Used in manufacturing a number of household items, PFAS can remain in the environment — and the human bloodstream — for years. The chemicals, widely used in consumer products from firefighting foam to nonstick cookware, have tainted drinking water across the U.S. for decades. They’re linked to serious health problems, including some cancers, which has led to numerous lawsuits against companies, such as DuPont, that manufactured the compounds.

New state regulations aimed at reducing PFAS in drinking water require larger providers to test their supplies for the “forever chemicals” and report the results by the end of next month.

One year ago, DEP adopted new restrictions — known as Maximum Contaminant Levels — on the amount of PFAS in drinking water, requiring providers to test and treat the chemicals. Drinking water providers are likely to face stricter PFAS regulations in the future if federal MCLs proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency are enacted.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has set aside $1.5 million for new testing equipment as part of his $48.43 billion 2024-25 proposed budget. The funding also would allow DEP to hire two new staff members in its Harrisburg lab.

“Sometimes samples [from water providers] might come to us, sometimes they might use a private lab. This [funding would] allow us to bring down the cost of some of those samples, but it will allow us to better protect Pennsylvania’s drinking water and surface water from PFAS contamination,” said DEP Interim Acting Secretary Jessica Shirley.

DEP lab technicians currently test drinking water and wastewater with the same piece of equipment, making the process longer because it must be cleaned in between sampling. New equipment would allow the agency to test drinking water and wastewater separately, reducing the need for cleaning. Shirley said that would double the agency’s testing capabilities.

“The new equipment will allow DEP to be more efficient and process the samples, so that we’ll have results faster, and we’ll better be able to identify where these sources of contamination are,” she said. “The water company has to treat the water, but then we, DEP, do an investigation to locate the source of that PFAS contamination and begin to remediate.”

Canadian wildfires also prompt request for new air quality monitors

The PFAS testing technology is not the only equipment DEP has asked for from Shapiro’s budget. The Democratic governor has proposed $1.1 million for new air quality monitoring tools.

DEP currently oversees about 60 sites across Pennsylvania that test air quality daily, Shirley said. Some counties, including Philadelphia County, operate their own air quality monitoring stations.

“These monitors are a little bit more complicated than you or I would probably ever imagine,” Shirley said. “They’re not like sensors in the air, but they do involve driving around to different sites, and collecting the canisters, and sending them to the lab. So it’s a pretty intensive program.”

However, there are several areas of the state that go without regular air quality monitoring, she said. The new technology, in addition to hiring two scientists to monitor the equipment, will allow DEP to evaluate air quality in more locations.

Shirley said following last summer’s Canadian wildfires, the agency learned there were some gaps in the state.

“I think that showed us that there are potentially some areas in the state that might need a little additional focus on monitoring that typically have not had it in the past because there aren’t major sources of air pollution there,” she said.

DEP has not yet determined where the new monitoring tools would be placed, Shirley said. However, she added the agency also wants to address residents’ concerns about poor air quality in areas near oil and gas activities.

Zoë Read | WHYY