Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday August 20th 2019

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Pensacola’s Drinking Water Questioned Again

By Joseph Baucum

It’s safe to drink the water in Pensacola, right?

You know, the water that not only you ingest, but the water your spouse and children also consume. The water you brush your teeth with, bathe in and pour in your pets’ water bowls. There’s no reason to fear it could actually be poisoning you, devastating your thyroid, complicating a pregnancy or intensifying your risk of cancer.

Is there?

The possibility may sound absurd. Surprisingly enough, though, it’s a question that has been posed in the not-too-distant past to the region’s municipal water utility, Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. Faced with an inquiry in 2010 following reports of possible high doses of contaminants, the ECUA assured the Pensacola City Council its water supply remained safe for human consumption.

But based on recent information first reported by Politico this month, the veracity of those assurances is now unclear.

New Assessment of Toxic Chemicals
The issue casting doubt on the potability of Pensacola’s water centers on a pair of substances from the per- and polyfluoroalkyl class of chemicals known as perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOA and PFOS. The contaminants are not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act or Florida statute, which means the substances can legally appear in the state’s drinking water.

The chemicals have been used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam. Their presence has previously been documented in the Pensacola region’s drinking water and in other sites across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent health advisory for the substances in 2016 warns that certain levels of exposure have been linked to developmental effects to fetuses or breastfed infants, various cancers, liver damage and immune disorders.

And an investigation of federal emails published by Politico this month has now revealed health officials believe the chemicals pose a threat to human health at lower levels of exposure than previously thought.

In a May 14 story, Politico reported that the White House and EPA, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, blocked publication of a federal health assessment on PFOA and PFOS. The analysis, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe.” But the study was suppressed after the White House warned it would create a “public relations nightmare.”

“In 2016, the (EPA) published a voluntary health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, warning that exposure to the chemicals at levels above 70 parts per trillion, total, could be dangerous,” the Politico report states, noting that one part per trillion roughly equates to a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“The updated HHS assessment was poised to find that exposure to the chemicals at less than one-sixth of that level could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers, according to the emails,” the report continues.

Details of the internal discussions between the Trump administration and EPA emerged from emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act. As of Thursday, there was no scheduled release date for the HHS study.

Issue Hits Home for Pensacola
So could this be of concern for Northwest Florida? Possibly.

Because federal or Florida laws do not regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, ECUA does not regularly test for the substances. But the utility has in the past confirmed the presence of the contaminants in the Pensacola region’s drinking water at levels higher than the new threshold of exposure the HHS assessment would apparently advise.

In its 2016 Water Quality Report, ECUA acknowledged tests conducted in July 2016 on its Spanish Trail Well detected the presence of PFOA at .019 parts per billion and PFOS at an average level of .04 parts per billion. Those measurements converted would equal 19 parts per trillion and 40 parts per trillion, respectively—each above one-sixth of the EPA’s health advisory for the chemicals.

Additionally, in a lawsuit filed by ECUA against manufacturers 3M Co., DuPont and Solutia Inc. in 2009, in which the utility sought damages for the presence of PFOA and PFOS in its water, it was disclosed that tests by an environmental firm hired by ECUA identified the contaminants in several other wells.

Despite the confirmation its wells in the past have tested positive for PFOA and PFOS, the utility this week maintained the water remains safe for consumption.

In an email to Inweekly on Thursday, ECUA spokeswoman Nathalie Bowers said the 2016 testing of the Spanish Trail Well occurred as part of the third iteration of the federal Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. Upon detecting the toxins, the well was treated with activated carbon, which can absorb synthetic organic chemicals in drinking water treatment.

“As part of the UCMR3 testing, all 26 active wells in the ECUA water system were tested. Only three wells had detectable levels,” Bowers wrote, later elaborating that the equipment did not detect the presence of the contaminants in the other 23 wells. “Two of these wells were taken out of service, and treatment was put in place at the Spanish Trail Well.”

In addition to ECUA’s wells, the chemicals have also been detected in other locations in the region. They have tested above the EPA’s current health advisory level in on-base monitoring wells at Florida Panhandle military installations, where foam containing the substances was used in drills.

The Defense Department listed 126 facilities with excess contaminants in a March report to Congress. A total of 25 monitoring wells at a trio of sites overseen by Naval Air Station Pensacola tested positive for the substances in excess of current safety guidelines.

Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County had six monitoring wells where the levels of the chemicals were in excess.

Officials at Eglin AFB declined to respond to inquiries from Inweekly. But in an email on Thursday, Patrick Nichols, NAS Pensacola spokesman, said the monitoring wells with high levels of the chemicals are not used for military members’ drinking water. The wells are used for sampling groundwater. He added the Defense Department has ceased using foam containing PFOA and PFOS.

“The health and well-being of our personnel, their families and our surrounding communities is our primary importance,” Nichols wrote.

Science vs. Politicians
Although the HHS assessment remains unpublished, other studies on the health risks of exposure to PFOA, PFOS and other contaminants within the PFAS class of chemicals align with the apparent conclusions of the report.

“I can tell you that the concept of 70 parts per trillion being too high to be protective is supported by the scientific literature, and many of the studies are pointing to levels that are definitely in the range of one-sixth of 70 parts per trillion,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior public health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with Inweekly.

Perhaps equally alarming, Rotkin-Ellman said groundwater containing the chemicals, such as the groundwater tested at NAS Pensacola sites, carries the potential of migrating to other bodies of water such as a region’s drinking-water supply. She explained that a plume of contaminants, depending on the hydrology of the region, could move and enter other ecosystems.

“It is certainly a threat,” she said. “Whether it happens quickly or takes a while is something that bears investigation.”

Noting the prevalence of the substances already in water supplies across the world, Rotkin-Ellman said those with concerns should urge their elected officials to install drinking water standards for the contaminants to ensure water utilities use currently available technology to treat its water for the chemicals.

“Ask your policymakers and ask your water system to put treatment in place,” she said. “Ask the policymakers to set the appropriate standards. They need to hear from people that this is a problem. They need to hear from people that they care.”

But it remains to be seen if the Pensacola region’s lawmakers believe there’s a need for such standards.

In response to Politico’s report on the unpublished HHS assessment, several Northwest Florida lawmakers refrained from calling for the adoption of federal or state regulations on PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, or other chemical cousins within the PFAS class.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, declined to respond to questions from Inweekly on whether or not the Trump administration and EPA should publish the HHS report or if it’s in the best interests of his constituents that the public be allowed access to the study’s contents. Gaetz has on numerous occasions defended the Trump administration on various issues.

State Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, declined to weigh in on to what extent the state needs stronger drinking water standards. White, who has filed to run for Florida attorney general this year, cited his lack of familiarity with the issue.

State Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, acknowledged the region’s recent history with PFOA and PFOS. But he refrained from taking a position on if he would support legislation to enact regulations on the chemicals. He said lawmakers would need to weigh the possible health risks of the substances against the cost to taxpayers “to pay for something that may not be a health risk.”

“I don’t know,” Broxson said. “It’s not a new issue, so I don’t know why it’s more serious today than it was five years ago.”

But there are those in the region who contend the drinking water needs tougher standards. Linda Young, a Navarre resident and founder of environmental advocacy organization Florida Clean Water Network, challenged that anyone can assure the public’s drinking water remains safe if rules don’t exist that mandate regular testing of the water for certain contaminants.

“How many children in Pensacola have behavioral defects, birth problems and cancer because their mothers drank it and so have they since they were born?” she asked. “I’m not trying to be dramatic. But anybody who is levelheaded should be concerned.”