‘Alarming’ reports of chemicals in drinking water spark scrutiny from SC senators

·6 min read
Paul Videla/Bradenton Herald

Michele Ruff has worried for years that the drinking water flowing from her tap might affect the health of the small community where she lives in Newberry County.

But her concerns about foul-smelling water are even greater now. She’s worried about traces of dangerous “forever chemicals’’ that records show have been found in the local water system.

Ruff, who lives in Whitmire, urged state senators Tuesday to set a first-time limit on the amount of those chemicals allowed in drinking water across South Carolina.

“The people in the town of Whitmire have already lost trust in the water,’’ she said during a hearing in Columbia. “I’m concerned about my parents. My mom and dad are in their upper 70s and 80s. And the cost of buying water and supplying water into their household gets expensive on a weekly basis.’’

Ruff’s troubles caught the attention of a Senate subcommittee, but legislators backed away from setting a standard for per and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water after business groups and utility associations complained.

Instead, the subcommittee approved a measure that would have state regulators conduct more studies on the pollutants and take action to fix problems when drinking water systems run into trouble. The legislation now goes to the full Medical Affairs Committee when it returns for the 2022 session in January.

Subcommittee members didn’t explain why they dropped the plan to set a state standard, but they said the threat to drinking water from the chemicals, commonly known as PFAS, is a real concern that requires further scrutiny.

They said the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control needs to do more to assess the problem and help those already exposed to PFAS contamination in their drinking water. That includes directing government funds to help people and water systems with problems cleanse the water.

At Tuesday’s hearing, senators also heard from Darlington County resident Kim Weatherford, whose drinking water has been polluted above recommended safe levels by sludge that was used as fertilizer on a nearby farm, she said. The sludge came from an abandoned textile plant that is now a federal Superfund cleanup site.

“I feel like DHEC needs to be more assertive and going out and saying ‘Hey, it’s likely that you may have a problem,’ ‘’said Republican Sen. Billy Garrett, who represents Greenwood County. “And then we deal with that.’’

PFAS, a growing concern across the country, are a class of chemicals used in textiles, firefighting foam and other products through the years. The chemicals now being found in drinking water can be harmful to people who consume the material. Some of the chemicals are tied to cancer, liver problems and developmental disabilities in children.

In South Carolina, DHEC has identified about 30 utilities with PFAS in the water but the levels don’t exceed a federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for two of the most common PFAS chemicals, records show. The advisory is not a mandatory limit, but a measure of potentially dangerous levels of chemicals in the water.

Whitmire, a tiny town of about 2,300 water customers, has levels of PFAS in the water, but like other cities, the levels do not exceed the 70 parts per trillion health advisory level, according to a DHEC spreadsheet.

Reached late Tuesday afternoon, town officials said they follow all state standards and provide quality drinking water.

“We’re putting excellent water out into the system for the consumer,’’ Mayor Billy Hollingsworth told The State. “When we do that I’m happy, and when we meet DHEC’s standards, I’m even more happy.’’

Even though the levels in Whitmire are under the 70 parts per trillion federal advisory level, any amount of PFAS in the water is of concern to some people because the chemicals don’t breakdown easily, thus the term ‘“forever chemicals.’’

Two of the main PFAS are commonly known as PFOS and PFOA , but the overall class of PFAS has many more chemicals of concern, environmentalists say.

Whitmire resident Ruff questioned whether the PFAS in drinking water came from a nearby sludge field, along the Enoree River near the town’s water intake. Like in Darlington County, she said sludge applied to the fields was from textile plants in the area.

“The sludge was applied as close as 250 feet from the banks of the river,’’ she said. Sludge application is typically to fertilize crops.

The subcommittee trimmed down the proposal for a state drinking water standard after hearing from former DHEC director Earl Hunter, who now represents water utilities that oppose establishing a state standard.

Hunter said the federal government is working to put together a PFAS drinking water standard, and South Carolina should wait for that proposal to come out, likely next fall. The drinking water limit is commonly referred to as a maximum contaminant level, or MCL.

“To force DHEC to do an MCL now is premature,’’ Hunter said.

Hunter, a legislative lobbyist, said other states are spending millions of dollars on the effort, with limited results in setting “defensible’’ standards. He said he was speaking on behalf of the S.C. Rural Water Association, the S.C. Water Quality Association and the South Carolina chapter of the American Waterworks Association. The groups are the three major water and wastewater utility associations in South Carolina, Hunter said.

“The federal government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency and its partner agencies, is the only entity that can take on such a complex …. challenge,’’ Hunter said.

The subcommittee’s action, despite its failure to have DHEC set a drinking water standard, was encouraging for some environmental groups whose members were glad the Senate is at least talking about the problem.

Legislation last year to address the PFAS threat to drinking water drew little interest.

According to the amendment to the original legislation, DHEC would be authorized to spend state or federal funds to provide grants to help make water system improvements or limit exposure to PFOS and PFOA.

That effort would occur if a drinking water system had a combined amount of PFOS and PFOA approaching the federal standard of 70 parts per trillion. The amended legislation also requires DHEC to report findings of research it is conducting on PFAS.

Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler and Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said waiting on the federal government to set a maximum contaminant level isn’t the best course of action.

Stangler said what might be a priority for the current presidential administration might not be one if a new administration takes over.

“We can’t just assume this will happen quickly, or leave it up to the feds to swoop in and save us on these things,’’ Stangler said. “We can take action ourselves as South Carolinians.’’

McElveen, who sponsored the legislation but is not on the Senate committee, called reports of pollution in drinking from PFAS “alarming.’’

Some mobile home parks in Sumter County have had troubles with PFAS in wells near Shaw Air Force Base, the suspected cause of the pollution.

“What I’m concerned about is sometimes we say we don’t like the federal government, but now it’s lets wait for the EPA,’’ McElveen said, noting that “We need to have a sense of urgency.’’

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