Across New Hampshire, towns and cities provide drinking water, treat wastewater and own landfills where generations of consumer products have been tossed.
Soon, those systems could be subject to additional testing requirements, under strict new drinking water and groundwater standards for certain PFAS chemicals that the N.H. Department of Environmental Services proposed last month.
Officials in several area communities said they’re digesting the proposal’s implications — and potential costs — for municipalities.
“Both water and wastewater operations, by no fault of their own, are on the receiving end of these chemicals,” said Jennifer Palmiotto, executive director of the Granite State Rural Water Association, a Walpole-based trade group for water and wastewater systems in New Hampshire.
The four compounds to be regulated under the proposed rules are part of a class of chemicals known as PFAS. For decades, they’ve been used in various industrial and commercial settings, including in products like non-stick pans, waterproof apparel and firefighting foams.
Studies have linked prolonged exposure to certain PFAS compounds to health problems, including liver damage, increased cholesterol levels and reduced female fertility, and possibly to an increased risk for some cancers, according to a Department of Environmental Services report accompanying the proposed rules.
PFAS contamination has been an issue at some sites in New Hampshire, including the former Pease Air Force Base on the Seacoast.
Palmiotto said the state has previously asked water systems to test for PFAS, but the proposed regulations would make that a requirement.
New Hampshire’s proposed PFAS standards are scheduled to go before a legislative committee this month for approval. They’re lower than what the state initially proposed in January, due to new research becoming available, according to the Department of Environmental Services’ report.
Under the new rules, public water systems — which can range from large municipal systems to smaller ones serving subdivisions or individual workplaces — would have to test for the four PFAS compounds starting this fall.
Systems that test too high would have to adopt plans to lower contaminant levels to within acceptable limits, such as installing a treatment mechanism, said Clark Freise, assistant commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services.
In a cost-benefit analysis, the department estimates that initial testing for public water systems around the state could cost between $1 million and $3 million overall, and initial treatment costs could be somewhere between $65 million and $143 million.
Freise said state officials are looking at ways to offset some of those costs.
“In particular, smaller water systems are our concern,” he said, speaking of costs. “If you’re a large water system, you have engineering staff, you probably have a contract with engineering consultants, and you know how to contract for large infrastructure work.”
Separately, New Hampshire has sued makers of PFAS chemicals, seeking damages that would pay for treatment and remediation.
The new rules would not apply to homeowners with private wells. According to its cost-benefit analysis, the Department of Environmental Services estimates as many as 9 percent of New Hampshire’s 250,000 private wells could exceed the new standards.
Officials in several Monadnock Region communities, including Keene, said their water systems had been tested in recent years and showed no detectable amounts of PFAS.
One of those was Keene, where Public Works Director Kurt Blomquist said the water supply was tested in 2016. Assuming the result hasn’t changed, Keene shouldn’t have to install a new treatment system for its drinking water.
But the city could also have to test its wastewater and around a landfill that closed in 1999 to make sure it’s in compliance with the proposed PFAS groundwater standards, Blomquist said. Those have not been tested yet, so it’s unclear whether further action would be required.
And there are other complicated questions, according to Palmiotto.
Organic solids from wastewater treatment plants can be spread on farmland as fertilizer, but if PFAS is found in the water, municipalities might have to dispose of that waste in some other, costlier way, she said. And the method of treating water for PFAS, known as granular activated carbon, yields spent carbon that also carries disposal costs.
Tony Cavaliere, Marlborough’s water and sewer system operator, said the required testing would not be too expensive for the town’s 300-customer water system — no more than a few hundred dollars a year.
“It’ll get added to our testing schedule,” he said. “We test for all sorts of contaminants — weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly.”
The bigger costs would come from putting in a treatment system, if tests detect PFAS above allowable limits, he said.
“On the financial side of things, it could be a burden,” he said — but worth it to protect water customers from harmful substances. Operating a water system, he said, is “a health and safety job, when it comes down to it.”