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Mar 11, 2019 10:20 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Water Authority Says Contamination Could Cost $1 Billion To Combat

The first Advanced Oxidation Process treatment system, for eliminating 1,4-Dioxane from drinking water, is being tested on a Suffolk County Water Authority well in Central Islip. Water Authority officials said they expect to need to install the filters, which cost about $1 million each, on at least a dozen wells around the county once new health safety levels are set.    COURTESY SUFFOLK COUNTY WATER AUTHORITY
Mar 12, 2019 10:08 AM

Suffolk County Water Authority officials say that tackling contamination by newly worrisome chemical compounds like PFOS and 1,4-Dioxane in Long Island's drinking water supplies could cost the authority—and its customers—$1 billion in the coming decade.

With likely dozens, or hundreds, of new filters needed for some of the SCWA's approximately 600 wells if new standards are set for such contaminants, and years of work to get them installed, the water authority is warning county residents that bills for ratepayers could jump by hundreds of dollars a year when the full brunt of the impacts of these new contaminants is realized.

"Our customers pay $1.95 per 1,000 gallons of water. The average customer pays about $400 per year. This could tack on another $100 to $200 per year onto that," water authority CEO Jeffrey Szabo said in an interview with the Press last week, part of a public information campaign the authority has started to make known its expectations of looming financial burdens.

"The public needs to know that this is what's happening and that these are the ramifications," Mr. Szabo said.

New York State has set up a fund for addressing contamination, and the SCWA has already been awarded $2.9 million, but Mr. Szabo said such levels of assistance are but a drop in the bucket. Federal funding is also still faint, with the Suffolk County Water Authority—one of the nation's largest water suppliers, with 1.2 million customers—competing with thousands of other suppliers nationwide for limited grants. Expanding both state and federal money for combating water contamination—which many feel is going to prove more prevalent as testing is done for compounds that are only just growing as concerns in the public eye—will be the only way to stave off large costs, Mr. Szabo said.

Such funding, however, is unlikely to materialize until more is known about so-called "emerging contaminants" like PFOS/PFOA and 1,4-Dioxane. While all three are believed to be possible carcinogens and to carry other health effects, they are still relatively new on the list of known contaminants, and little is known about the extent of the health threat they pose or at what levels of concentration make drinking water unsafe.

PFOS and PFOA are compounds that were used for decades in firefighting foams and in waterproofing additives to things like pizza boxes and carpeting. The compounds have been out of use since the early 2000s, when health concerns first arose, but the compounds are long-lasting in the environment and are now being detected at concerning levels in wells throughout the country. More than 200 private wells in Wainscott and more than 100 in Hampton Bays have been found to have PFOS/PFOA contamination, believed to have been caused by the use of fire-suppressant foams in firefighting drills or plane crash responses—some decades ago—at Gabreski and East Hampton airports.

The water authority and East Hampton Town won a state grant to install nearly $10 million worth of water mains in Wainscott to protect homeowners, and property values, in the hamlet, and the water authority says that PFOS/PFOA have not been detected in the authority's well that serves that region.

The solvent 1,4-Dioxane—which has been detected in one of the SCWA wells in Montauk—is more complicated to treat for because it is not easily captured by filters. Instead, the water authority is testing a new treatment system that employs ultraviolet light to neutralize the chemical, which has been used in a wide range of applications from dry cleaning fluids to solvents, adhesives and aluminum cans.

The water authority has been testing for 1,4-Dioxane in its wells since at least 2004 and for PFOS and PFOA since last year. Thus far it has found traces of 1,4-Dioxane in some 240 SCWA wells.

There are still no federal guidelines outlining safe levels of either 1,4-Dioxane or PFOS/PFOA in drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a "health advisory level" for PFOS/PFOA, but the density—70 parts per trillion—is many times the level that some states have recently started saying is dangerous to human health. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo empaneled a commission in 2017 to study PFOS/PFOA and 1,4-Dioxane and come up with a health standard for the chemicals. The levels being discussed are a fraction of the federal guideline—about 10 parts per trillion. For 1,4-Dioxane the expected level will be 1 part per billion—at which level Mr. Szabo said the company would want to start treating water from at least a 10 of its wells immediately and would seek to add filters to many others in short order.

Filtering out PFOS/PFOA and 1,4 Dioxane requires different filtering processes for each, at a cost cost upward of $1 million each, per well to which they are attached.

About 100 of the county's wells already have the granular carbon filters that can scrub PFOS/PFOA from water, but more filters would be needed if and when New York State sets new limits on the level of the compounds considered safe in drinking water. The filters cost about $1 million apiece and can cost up to $40,000 per year, each, to operate, depending on the extent of contamination in the water.

Ridding water of 1,4-Dioxane is more difficult because it cannot easily be filtered out. Instead the water authority plans to use a powerful oxidant, created by using ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide, to destroy the contaminants that can't be filtered.

Currently the authority has just one advanced oxidation process treatment system in place, on a well in Central Islip.

The authority is already looking for ways to ease costs on the average homeowner. The company has been exploring a tiered rate system that would charge very heavy water users more per gallon of water used, which it thinks could reduce water consumption by up to 15 percent, as well as ease costs on lower-level water users.

The water authority is also suing the manufacturers of some of the chemicals at issue—though its suit against the manufacturers of PFOS/PFOA, including the giant 3M corporation, is one of dozens nationwide that have been lumped together in a federal class-action suit that is certain to take many years to work through the system.

The water authority chief says his agency has the technology to scrub the chemicals from drinking wells, but needs the direction, and the funding, to tackle what is likely to be a mountainous chore.

"We support and encourage setting a standard," Mr. Szabo said. "Give us the guidance and we will make sure the drinking water is safe."

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The MCL proposed by the NYS Commission for 1,4-dioxane is 1 part per billion (ug/l) not 1 part per million (1 mg/l)
By weaver (18), southampton on Mar 12, 19 8:38 AM
1 member liked this comment
You're correct. Thank you; we've updated the story.
By vgarrison (2), East Hampton on Mar 12, 19 9:49 AM
Thank you, the story has been corrected.
By Bill Sutton, Managing Editor (117), Westhampton Beach on Mar 12, 19 10:06 AM
I guess we'll be spending our savings on installing clean water devices in our homes. Can we deduct the cost from our property taxes? Local restaurants should just pass the cost of such systems on to their customers.
By dfree (818), hampton bays on Mar 12, 19 10:38 AM
What other health problems does this cause?
By unclemilt (57), southampton on Mar 12, 19 11:37 AM
1 member liked this comment
It will not be costing the authority anything. I gotta get off this island.
By SlimeAlive (1181), Southampton on Mar 12, 19 1:21 PM
1 member liked this comment
By Resident tax (186), Hampton bays ny on Mar 12, 19 6:17 PM
A billion dollars is just a drop in the bucket
By Non-Political (125), Hampton Bays on Mar 13, 19 5:42 PM
Your local fire houses practicing with foam and washing it down the storm drain. No one ever told them this crap was toxic. Did the fumes of this crap hurt their lungs? These are volunteers I think we need to know what kind of garbage these chemicals are.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Mar 13, 19 11:12 PM
1 member liked this comment
Water customers and/or taxpayers should not have to bear this entire burden, but the question is: Where will the $$ come from?
By zednenem (1), Hampton Bays on Mar 18, 19 5:16 PM