McGovern: $10B to boost efforts to address forever chemicals in water supplies

  • UMass professor Dave Reckhow talks about the Water and Energy Technology Center during a press conference about the facility, funding, and the research being done there on PFAS, or forever chemicals found in water systems. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • UMass professor Dave Reckhow talks about the Water and Energy Technology Center during a press conference highlighting research being done there on PFAS, or forever chemicals. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • UMass research engineer Patrick Wittbold, a in the civil and environmental engineering department at UMass, at center, talks with, clockwise from top right, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, state Rep. Mindy Domb, Sanjay Raman, dean of the civil and environmental engineering department, John Tobiason, department head, and professor Dave Reckhow about the Water and Energy Technology Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Patrick Wittbold, a research engineer in the civil and environmental engineering department at UMass, talks with left, UMass professor Dave Reckhow, John Tobiason, department head, Sanjay Raman, dean of the civil and environmental engineering department, and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern about the Water and Energy Technology Center during a press conference about the facility, funding and the research being done there on PFAS, or forever chemicals found in water systems. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/21/2021 3:35:49 PM
Modified: 12/21/2021 3:35:34 PM

AMHERST — An expectant mother from a North Quabbin community worries her family’s drinking water may pose health risks, but Sen. Jo Comerford says her constituent has no place to turn if the water is contaminated with PFAS, sometimes called forever chemicals.

“She’s afraid to test her own well,” Comerford said Monday afternoon, standing outside the Water and Energy Technology Center at the University of Massachusetts.

But Comerford, who chairs the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, said the UMass laboratory, under the auspices of the department of civil and environmental engineering, gives her hope of detecting where PFAS contamination exists and developing technologies that can remediate compromised drinking water.

Joined by U.S. Rep. James McGovern, a founding member of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, the press conference was aimed at drawing attention to the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden, and discussing how the university will continue its work in combating the threat posed by the chemicals.

PFAS are a group of more than 9,000 toxic chemicals used to make products waterproof, stick-proof and stain-proof, and they also have ben used in firefighting foam.

The federal legislation includes $5 billion to help small and disadvantaged communities address PFAS in drinking water, $4 billion to help drinking water utilities remove PFAS from drinking water supplies or connect well owners to local water systems, and $1 billion to help wastewater utilities address PFAS in wastewater discharges.

“This is a big deal,” McGovern said, adding that although the money is not enough, “it’s a damn good start.”

McGovern said the $10 billion will support real programs and real research to address PFAS, and he anticipates UMass remaining at the forefront, noting that communities can’t get rid of PFAS unless they know where they are. In Massachusetts, an estimated 500,000 people depend on well water and live at risk of it being unknowingly contaminated.

“Access to clean and safe drinking water ought to be a right in every community,” McGovern said.

In addition to the federal support through the bill, there is a $1.5 million earmark in the state’s American Rescue Plan Act recently signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker. Inserted into the bill by Comerford, that will go toward an estimated $7 million project to modernize the Water and Energy Technology Center at UMass and create a suitable building for handling the work being done inside it.

David Reckhow, a civil engineering professor who leads the project, said studying PFAS is vital because the Teflon-type compounds can cause kidney and prostate cancers, elevated cholesterol levels and negative effects on the immune system.

“In recent years they’ve been showing up in our drinking water and in other unexpected places in our commonwealth and in the United States,” Reckhow said.

An analysis by the Environmental Working Group in Washington has found that more than 1,500 drinking water systems in the United States may be contaminated with PFAS, impacting up to 110 million Americans.

Reckhow explained that the federal support for research, and the state earmark, should help improve the Water and Energy Technology Center’s existing trailer that dates to 1970, and which reopened in 2015. Inside the building, a short distance from the Amherst wastewater treatment plant, is a laboratory where more than a dozen personnel, including undergraduate and graduate students, test water and use various technology, supported through previous grants and federal and state money, to find solutions for removing PFAS.

The team there was awarded a $1.07 million grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that is facilitating the sampling of public water supplies for PFAS contamination, and to test, for free, selected private water wells in 84 of the 351 state’s communities.

Patrick Wittbold, a research engineer and fellow who oversees the trailer, showed McGovern and others some of the projects underway to get PFAS out of water and then dispose of the forever chemicals, as well as the possibility of destroying PFAS when they are found.

Testing remains the primary objective and the first step is to raise awareness of the problem, said John Tobiason, head of the civil and environmental engineering department. Tobiason said the deparment is continuing to seek out more samples from communities where 60% or more of residents get their drinking water from wells.

The department also has a Mobile Water Innovation Laboratories that can be taken directly to sites.

Reckhow said the PFAS situation is similar to the phosphorous pollution that choked water supplies in the 1960s, and that researchers are again searching for a way to improve water quality.

“As before, we will solve this new problem, but it will take hard work,” Reckhow said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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