As Barnstable hunts for new sources of public drinking water, PFAS contamination rears its ugly head
Cape Cod Times
Sept. 3, 2021
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HYANNIS — In its hunt for new sources of drinking water, Barnstable must grapple with a grim reality spelled out in an April 2021 report by the engineering firm Weston & Sampson.
“…It is generally understood that any source developed in Barnstable has a risk of detection of PFAS,” the report’s authors wrote.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of thousands of man-made chemicals, some of which have been linked to health problems including increased cholesterol, immune system issues, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
Barnstable — home to three documented sources of significant PFAS contamination including the former Barnstable County Fire Rescue & Training Academy, the Cape Cod Gateway Airport and the Barnstable Water Pollution Control Facility — is already treating Hyannis’s existing drinking water to remove the “forever” chemicals.
Because of the treatment, estimated to cost $900,000 annually, town officials say the water that flows out of the taps in Hyannis is safe to drink.
But the wells currently on line don’t yield enough water to meet all demand, according to a 2019 report by Weston & Sampson.
In 2020, the deficit in the Hyannis water system was 1.87 million gallons per day, according to the report. By 2040, that deficit is projected to grow to 3.23 million gallons per day, an increase of roughly 72%.
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“Weston & Sampson recommends that the Town of Barnstable should immediately initiate the investigation and development of additional sources of groundwater supply, which will take years to bring on line,” the authors of the 2019 report wrote.
Barnstable has now zeroed in on three new potential sources of drinking water. One is north of Route 6 in the Bridge Street Conservation Area, another is north of Route 6 west near Old Jail Lane, and one is in the West Barnstable Conservation area, according to Weston & Sampson’s April 2021 report.
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Despite the comprehensive search focused in less-developed areas of Barnstable, two of the three most promising sources identified by Weston & Sampson have water quality problems. The potential well site in the West Barnstable Conservation Area would require treatment for manganese, and the the Bridge Street Conservation Area would require treatment for PFAS.
Why is the town considering new drinking water sources that are tainted?
Contamination is only one of many considerations town officials will weigh as they select a new source of drinking water, said Hans Keijser, supervisor of the Barnstable Water Supply Division.
Also at play are other factors, such as who owns the land, whether the area is considered for future development, how much it would cost to build in that location, and how much water the town can safely withdraw. The source contaminated with PFAS, for example, is expected to yield the highest quantity of water of the three new sources under strong consideration.
“The upper management and leadership in town have to make the decision, what’s more important?” Keijser said. “It’s not, ‘Is there contamination? Yes or no.‘ It’s a little bit more complex than that.”
Contamination may once have been a deal-breaker in the search for new drinking water supplies, but is now so widespread that a supplier would be lucky to find a pristine source, said Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.
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A big reason for that, he said, is the Cape’s reliance on septic systems, which become depositories for all of the chemicals that people consume in their daily lives, ranging from antidepressants to PFAS, which is still used in consumer products ranging from cooking pans to cosmetics to waterproof fabrics.
“The vast majority of wastewater treatment on Cape Cod happens in backyard septic systems, none of which are intended to remove contaminants,” Gottlieb said. “So you have a hundred-and-something thousand individual small backyard-based point sources that provide access to the groundwater for unregulated contaminants and emerging contaminants like PFAS, like perchlorate before it, as well as things that are much more benign.”
We have to just wake up to the fact that as long as we remain a society that intensely uses chemicals and relies on 18th-century treatment technology to deal with our waste, those chemicals are going to find their way into the groundwater. And it is completely unacceptable for it to be this way. ANDREW GOTTLIEB, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ASSOCIATION TO PRESERVE CAPE COD
Until recently, Gottlieb said, Cape Cod’s water quality was good enough that suppliers didn’t need to consider treating the water it pulled from the ground before sending it to people’s homes and businesses.
“I think the sad reality is those days are coming to an end,” he said. “We have to just wake up to the fact that as long as we remain a society that intensely uses chemicals and relies on 18th-century treatment technology to deal with our waste, those chemicals are going to find their way into the groundwater. And it is completely unacceptable for it to be this way.”
“What we’re finding out here on Cape Cod is that everything is connected,” Keijser said. “Wastewater, drinking water, everything people use or abuse, it’s all together. (Barnstable Town Manager) Mark Ells often says, ‘We drink the water we stand on.’ With that comes enormous responsibility for everybody in the community. If people really think about that, hopefully, they’ll change their behavior.”
On Cape Cod, 100% of the drinking water is pumped from the region’s sole-source aquifer.
In summer 2020, Tom Cambareri of Sole Source Consulting collected samples taken from 21 ponds in Barnstable, under the assumption that pond water quality is a good bellwether for groundwater quality. PFAS compounds were present in every pond sample tested, in quantities ranging from 2.5 nanograms per liter to 252 nanograms per liter. The drinking water standard for the six PFAS compounds currently regulated by the state is 20 nanograms per liter.
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The authors of the 2021 Weston & Sampson report said those findings mean that PFAS contamination is so ubiquitous, the town should still consider using water sources contaminated with the chemicals, and factor in the cost of treating that water in making a final selection.
“There’s plenty of water,” Santos said this week. “It’s just that the most cost-effective way to get it is by not having to treat it for contaminants.”
Questions linger about the future effectiveness of PFAS treatment
Laurel Schaider is a senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute, where she leads water quality research on PFAS, research that now includes Hyannis-based human health studies on the effects of consuming PFAS-tainted water.
Schaider said the system used to clean the water in Hyannis is a standard method that does a good job of removing the six PFAS compounds regulated by the state.
But she noted that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 9,000 chemicals fall into the PFAS family, and a Harvard study publishedin the spring found PFAS compounds in Cape Cod streams that aren’t captured by most current testing methods.
“There’s certainly the potential that in the future we may learn about other PFAS that might also be present in the water, and not all PFAS are equally well removed by all types of treatment,” she said. “That’s why it would be preferable to choose a place where there isn’t PFAS in the first place, rather than having to treat.”
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She acknowledged that’s easier said than done.
“I don’t envy the people who have to make these decisions, because it’s not easy,” Schaider said.
Department of Environmental Protection Public Affairs Director Edmund Coletta said his agency has been searching for new sources of water in Hyannis.
Cape Cod is not alone in grappling with the effects of contamination, he said.
“The urbanization of southeastern Massachusetts is increasing the challenge of finding adequate water supplies,” Coletta wrote in an email. “Municipalities that long ago preserved land for aquifer protection have an advantage in providing pure drinking water to their citizens.”
“Barnstable is not unique in its challenge to locate water sources to serve an increasing population, and water quality issues aren’t just a problem for southeastern Massachusetts or the Cape,” he added. “As an example, there are many locations across the state, new and old, that are now dealing with the issue of PFAS contamination.”
Reach Jeannette Hinkle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her to Twitter: @Jenny_Hinkle.
As Barnstable hunts for new sources of public drinking water, PFAS contamination rears its ugly head – Cape Cod Times