DPW director: New testing indicates higher PFAs levels in water; public information meeting next Tuesday

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Department of Public Works Director John Westerling, appearing before the Select Board at Tuesday’s meeting, provided an update on the issue with level of contaminants in the town’s water supply, indicating that another test showed even higher levels.

“The second round of PFAs testing showed that we still exceed the maximum contaminant level of 20 parts per trillion,” he said, later sharing the level went from 20.7 in the first round of testing to 24 this time. “So we have one more month’s worth of testing, and if we’re found to be then still above, then it kicks us into another category of criteria that we have to meet.”

Westerling said the DPW has received numerous calls and emails from residents since the initial test results were shared with the public, and there are two primary questions.

“Number one, ‘The water that I’m receiving at my home, do I get it from well No. 6?’ And the answer is all of our eight wells, as well as the water that we purchase from the Town of Ashland, all gets combined into one water once it hits the distribution system. So we’re not able to tell folks whether they’re getting water from well No. 6 or whether they’re not. We do direct them to our DPW website and there’s additional information there if they are concerned about it or in a category of folks that need to be concerned about it: whether they are pregnant, whether they are nursing, whether they have small children or have a compromised immune system.

“The second question that we’re getting the most is whether or not folks on private wells have to be concerned. Our response to them [is] two things. Number one, they can get their wells tested if they wish. Number two, if they don’t want to have their wells tested — which can cost up to $600 — if they don’t want to have their wells tested and they’re concerned they can just drink bottled water if they are in any of those categories.”

A public information meeting — on Zoom and to be broadcast on HCAM — has been scheduled for next Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will include representatives from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA).

In the meantime, the town is preparing to conduct one more round of tests.

“If the average of next month’s test is also above the maximum contaminant level for PFAs then we’ll be in violation, technically, of the drinking water regulations,” Westerling said. “If we find that we are in violation then we must do three things. We must send out a public notice stating that we are in violation because we’ve had an entire quarter or three months’ worth of testing above their maximum contaminant level. Secondly, we must develop a short-term alternative for water supply. For example, other communities are issuing a credit on water bills or they are distributing bottled water. There are a number of ways that we can provide that alternative source. And we must also develop a long-term plan to remove PFAs 6 from our drinking water. And that can be done through a couple of methods. We can either build water filtration plants or we can connect to the MWRA to just be provided with their water, which is PFAs-free.”

Addressing the rise in contaminant level in the second round of testing, Westerling said a few factors can come into play.

“According to DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] we may see it go down, because the groundwater levels can affect the PFAs levels — the groundwater levels are dropping,” he said. “The fact that we are now pumping less out of our wells can affect the PFAs levels. So we’ll find out.”

Westerling also noted in response to a question that while the state maximum is 20 parts per trillion, the federal guideline is 70 parts per trillion.

Town Manager Norman Khumalo added that he learned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is going to be releasing new guidelines where it will be regulating different PFAs differently.

According to the EPA, PFAs — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a group of of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. Some of the chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body — meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAs can lead to adverse human health effects, including liver, blood, thyroid, fetal development and immune systems effects.