Silicon Valley Suburb Scrambles to Tackle ‘Forever Chemicals’

As California expands testing for PFAS in water supplies, the rest of the state is due its own rude awakening.

The City of Pleasanton, California — a suburb just 30 miles north of California’s tech hub, San Jose — offers residents a sleepy escape from bustling Silicon Valley. On shady Main Street, dog walkers and stroller-pushers pass pioneer-style storefronts boasting yoga studios and coffee shops. In a city where median home prices top $1 million, residents pay a premium for small-town charm. But last October, residents here learned that their zip code came with an unexpected cost: water contamination.

Downtown Pleasanton
In April last year, when California selected Pleasanton for its pilot test –– which monitored 600 water supplies out of over 3,000 statewide –– many city officials say they had never heard of PFAS chemicals before. They soon learned that Pleasanton residents were among an estimated 74 million Californians drinking PFAS contaminated water. Photo by John ‘K’/Flickr

“We’re used to making top ten lists for best schools or neighborhoods,” says Pleasanton resident Jill Buck. “Not for ‘most dangerous drinking water’.”

That is, until the state began testing for a class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS. In January 2019, the state launched a pilot water testing program for the previously unregulated substances. By April, Pleasanton had shut down one of its three wells — which provides 25 percent of water to the city’s 80,000 residents. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are chemicals commonly used in industrial and consumer products that are toxic to human health, and they are showing up in water supplies nationwide. In October last year, new data from the California Water Board revealed that Pleasanton residents are among an estimated 7.4 million Californians drinking contaminated water. And that number is about to grow: In January this year, a new state law went into effect that will expand PFAS testing, regulation, and public notification statewide.

“PFAS are the next environmental challenge of our time,” said Andria Ventura, toxic substances manager at the nonprofit Clean Water Action. “If you haven’t heard of them yet, you will.”

PFAS are a class of thousands of manmade chemical compounds first developed in the 1940s, and popularized by DuPont as the non-stick material in Teflon pans. For decades, they’ve been used in countless industrial and consumer products for their stain-resistant, grease-resistant, and flame-retardant properties. They’re in our homes covering our couches and carpets, and they run off from landfills, industrial facilities, military testing sites, and airports into groundwater. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” once they enter the environment, they persist for geologic time.

But they’re toxic — which we know thanks to a 2013 lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of a West Virginia community. The lawsuit proved that, for decades, a Teflon-producing DuPont plant had pumped high levels of a common variety of the chemical, PFOA, into surrounding drinking water supplies for decades. The community received a multimillion-dollar settlement that they used to fund a health study on themselves — the largest epidemiological study in human history. This lawsuit was dramatized in the November 2019 film Dark Waters. (Read Earth Island Journal’s feature on the case “Teflon’s Toxic Legacy.”)

The resulting 2013 C8 Study, carried out by researchers at Emory University, Brown University, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, collected blood samples from over 69,000 residents living in the area around the plant over the course of eight years. Their findings definitively linked PFOA exposure to diseases like pregnancy-induced hypertension, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and testicular and kidney cancer. The study also found that these chemicals are bioaccumulative: just like they persist in the environment, they build up in our blood over time.

“PFAS are unique in that they’re not just incredibly toxic. They don’t break down,” said Amy Kyle, researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Whatever’s in our blood is going to stay there.”

In response to the C8 study results, the US Environmental Protection Agency decided to test for PFAS in drinking water nationwide. The 2013 Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) study revealed that contamination was widespread across the nation, particularly near landfills, military training sites, and airports.

Despite this alarming new information, the EPA still did not move to regulate PFAS. Instead, in 2016, the agency set “health advisory level” for PFAS exposure at 70 parts per trillion — which requires no action from water suppliers. It maintains this recommendation to this day, despite the US Centers for Disease Control’s 2018 PFAS exposure health study, which found that drinking water with PFAS concentrations above 7 to 11 parts per trillion could have adverse effects on human health.

“The EPA’s in action on PFAS is indefensible,” said Kyle. “States are out there fending for themselves.”

Absent clear federal standards, PFAS regulations vary state-by-state. Most states have taken the EPA’s lead, and adopted the 70 parts per trillion health advisory level. In August last year, California joined five other states that have adopted more stringent PFAS standards, by setting a “notification” limit of 13 and 14 parts per trillion for the two most common forms of PFAS, PFOS and PFOA. Earlier this month, California reduced the response levels for PFOA and PFOS to 10 ppt and 40 ppt, respectively. In other words, the state now requires that when PFAS detection exceeds a response level in a water supply, public water systems choose between taking that water source out of service and notifying its customers.

Michigan, perhaps carrying over lessons from the Flint crisis, has the nation’s lowest limits for PFAS in drinking water at 5 parts per trillion. Six more states, including Washington and Pennsylvania, have proposed various limits that are now heading toward adoption.

Most water supplies nationwide still haven’t been tested for PFAS. And greater testing tends to uncover deeper contamination problems. For example, Michigan currently claims the nation’s highest PFAS detection sites, at 192. But it also has tested most extensively: results from their 2018 statewide, multi-agency testing efforts ballooned the estimated affected population from 200,000 people to two million. And experts say that as California expands its own testing that started in January, residents are due for their own rude awakening.

“The more you test for these chemicals, the more you find,” says Ventura. “Give it a few months, and the California map will light up.”

California’s testing efforts are still fledgling. Last July heralded the state’s landmark PFAS monitoring bill, AB 756. Assemblymember Cristina Garcia sponsored the bill, in response to UCMR data showing high PFAS detection levels in her Los Angeles County district. Under this new law, which went into effect in January, the state is broadly expanding its testing efforts, and requiring water utilities to notify the public about the contamination for the first time.

In April 2019, when the state selected Pleasanton for its pilot test — which monitored 600 water supplies out of over 3,000 statewide — many city officials say they had never heard of PFAS chemicals before. These tests revealed that Well Eight contained levels of 108 parts per trillion combined of the two most common PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA — far exceeding the “response level” standard of 70 parts per trillion. The city immediately took the well offline, and increased pumping from the other two wells. But those had PFAS, too: at 35 and 30 parts per trillion of combined PFOS and PFOA, respectively.

In August, the state lowered its “notification levels” to 5.6 parts per trillion and 6.5 parts per trillion for those two common PFAS — putting all three of Pleasanton’s wells into dangerous territory. So the city shifted to a public outreach campaign.

“It was a windstorm,” says Kathleen Yurchak, Pleasanton’s director of operations. “We were just learning of the chemicals ourselves. And then we had to tell the public.”

In late October 2019, informational pamphlets arrived in mailboxes citywide. These pamphlets defined PFAS, outlined their health risks, and directed residents to a city website. For many Pleasanton residents, this information wasn’t just an introduction to a new toxic chemical. It was a beginner’s course in the idiosyncrasies of their own water supply.

“California water is complicated, and Pleasanton is no exception,” says Todd Yamello, Pleasanton’s assistant director of operations.

Pleasanton gets its water from two main sources: the city’s wells, and local wholesaler Zone 7 Water Agency. Since the city shut down Well Eight in April, it has relied on pumping more water from the other two wells, Wells Six and Seven. But Yurchak says that this won’t last long-term. And the city can’t count on alternative water sources: like many California communities, the city’s Zone 7 water allotment comes as part of the California State Water Project allocations, which differs year to year. At some points between 2013 and 2016, during the height of the drought, the state had reduced Pleasanton’s water allotment to zero.

Even if the city had unlimited access to uncontaminated water, it lacks the pipe infrastructure to distribute it citywide. Large sections of the city are entirely dependent on wells. Worse, Zone 7, which has its own water supply that’s separate from the City of Pleasanton’s, has contamination issues of its own. The agency blends state surface water with water from its own local wells, and the state’s pilot test results revealed that almost all of those wells contained some levels of PFAS. In April last year, Zone 7 took one of its own wells that tested at 101 parts per trillion offline.

“We are looking at very limited options moving forward,” said Yurchak.

Pleasanton’s contamination may be widespread, but its source remains a mystery. Yurchak has a few guesses: groundwater could flow from as far as the nearby Livermore, which has an airport and military training facilities — two types of sites commonly linked to PFAS contamination.

But, Yurchak is quick to note, water utilities are responsible for cleaning up chemicals, not tracing their source. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is currently conducting a site investigation of the Pleasanton/Livermore area. But they may not find a single polluter: because PFAS are so persistent in the environment, high detection levels don’t always point to an isolated source, or even a currently operating facility.

“Even if we find the source, it won’t be a question of just turning it off,” Yurchak says. “This could be legacy contamination decades in the making.”

In the meantime, Pleasanton is looking into treatment. At a Pleasanton City Council meeting in early November, the council voted to hire a consultant for a $400,000, two-year feasibility study to assess the costs of treating their wells with reverse osmosis or other processes. But treatment is expensive: Yurchak says she’s heard estimates “between $2 and $22 million” to treat just one well. And the burden of that expense will end up on residents’ utility bills.

“We’re looking at doubling or tripling water bills,” says city councilmember Jerry Pentin. “I’m dreading those conversations.”

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