Oregon to test several Central Oregon water systems for 'forever chemicals'

November 8, 2021
Oregon to test several Central Oregon water systems for 'forever chemicals'

Dozens of drinking water systems across the state of Oregon will undergo testing to detect the presence of harmful chemicals, including seven systems in Central Oregon.

Testing for PFAS, or per- and poly-fluorinated substances, is scheduled over the next few months, said Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson for Oregon Health Authority. Results will be available two to three weeks after the samples are collected.

PFAS are a group of thousands of chemicals described as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the body or in the environment. Health officials say they are linked to a number of ailments and diseases. They can cause certain cancers, liver damage and decrease fertility.

The chemicals are known for their heat, moisture and stain resistance and are used in a variety of products, including stain-proof carpets, food packaging, microwave popcorn bags, non-stick pans, and waterproof jackets. PFAS compounds include PFOA, formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard.

There is growing concern about these chemicals leaching into local water supplies — the culprit is often firefighting foam, which contains PFAS chemicals. When the foam falls to the ground it can sink to the soil, contaminating water supplies.

Last month, the federal Environmental Protect Agency announced a new roadmap to curb PFAS chemicals getting into the environment, and clean up existing contaminated areas. Among the steps it plans to take, the EPA will increase its monitoring, data collection, and research of PFAS.

This round of monitoring on small water systems in Oregon will be conducted by the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Environmental Quality. The program only surveys small public drinking water systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people.

Water systems to be tested in Deschutes County include Black Butte Ranch (750 people) and Roats Water System (4,500 people).

Impacted systems in Crook County include Cascade Pine MHP (100 people), McDougal Water System (60 people), and the city of Prineville (9,859 people).

In Jefferson County, the only system to be tested is the one used by the city of Madras (3,940 people).

The Gilchrist water system (440 people) in Klamath County will also be tested.

Jeff Hurd, the Madras public works director, believes his city was chosen because Madras has access to well water. But that well is only activated when additional water is needed by the fire department, he said.

“To me, it sounds like it’s just a routine check, I am not worried about it,” he said.

In total, Oregon plans to test 150 small water systems across the state. The analysis is being conducted through a grant from the EPA, at no cost to the water systems.

The systems were identified as potentially at risk because of their proximity to a known or suspected PFAS use or contamination site. None have been tested for PFAS in the past.

Modie said potential sources include places where certain types of synthetic firefighting foams have been used or stored, such as airports, firefighting training sites, bulk fuel storage locations, rail transloading facilities, and military sites. Other potential sources include landfills and certain wastewater treatment discharges and cleanup sites where known releases of PFAS chemicals have occurred.

“We mapped potential sources of PFAS chemicals and targeted water systems near these potential sources,” said Modie.

Michelle Berg, manager of Roats Water System in Bend, said she is not aware of any firefighting foam sprayed on the Roats service territory and considers the water safe to drink.

“Our groundwater sources provide excellent quality water that is monitored by frequent and routine chemical testing,” said Berg. “We have never had any indication that there may be substances in the water.”

Berg said if tests come back showing there is a containment in the system, Roats will follow guidance from the EPA.

“But at this time, it’s looking like a random sampling process to determine the overall effect statewide,” said Berg.

Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang said many of this community’s water systems draw on groundwater that enters the ground high in the mountains where there are few contaminants present.

“Once that water is deep in the ground, it is difficult for contaminants on the land surface to get into it,” said Chang. “But I know that there are a lot of PFAS out there and that we don’t understand how they move through the environment very well, so I will be really interested to hear about the results of this study.”

Chang added that he is more worried about private individual wells being contaminated because these tend to draw on shallower groundwater that is more subject to contamination.

Other places affected by PFAS chemicals include U.S. military bases where firefighting foam is commonly used to extinguish flames during training exercises. Tests conducted on 65 public water systems in Oregon in 2013-2015 found no detection of PFAS.

PFAS chemicals have been detected in the water on some military and National Guard bases in Oregon, including the Christmas Valley Air Force Station and the National Guard Facility on Dodds Road near Bend. The amount of PFAS detected at these sites is considered safe by the EPA, although some scientists are concerned that even low levels are unhealthy.

If the PFAS are above Oregon Health Advisory Levels, OHA will advise the water system to issue a public notice to customers, said Modie.

Pregnant women, women breastfeeding, bottle-fed infants, and immunocompromised people would be advised to use alternate drinking water supplies. OHA would work with the water system to mitigate the source of contamination, said Modie.


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