PFAS is a man-made superchemical used to make carpets stain-resistant and pans nonstick, but it’s toxic to human health. It’s also turning up in drinking water supplies nationwide. Wherever people test for it, it seems to show up, and California’s just beginning to test, thanks to a new state law.
It’s a Friday morning last October. Radio host Jill Buck is opening her show, Go Green Radio. This show reaches millions of people every month on VoiceAmerica.com, the nation’s largest internet talk radio station.
Today she’s interviewing environmental lawyer Rob Bilott. He’s here to tell her about his twenty-year lawsuit against DuPont for dumping a mysterious toxic chemical into West Virginia water. Last fall, his book about the lawsuit and a movie adaptation called "Dark Waters" came out. Mark Ruffalo played Rob Bilott.
In his interview, Billott tells Buck the story about how a DuPont plant was dumping this secret toxic chemical called PFAS into a local community’s water. Residents were getting cancer, autoimmune disorders, and other diseases. Bilott sued, DuPont settled, and the townspeople used the money to fund a 2013 health study–that directly linked these diseases to PFAS in residents’ blood.
When the interview ends, Jill Buck can’t help but wonder if her town, Pleasanton, has similar problems.
“I was just so enthralled by his story and so when we finished the show and we signed off I just Googled ‘Pleasanton’ and ‘PFAS,’ and was shocked to find that it was in my water,” Buck says.
As it turns out, PFAS are showing up in drinking water statewide. Last January, California’s Department of Drinking Water initiated a pilot study to test 600 water supplies for this chemical — including Pleasanton’s three wells. By April, Pleasanton had detected such high levels, it had to shut down one of its wells.
“Pleasanton is such a great town. We're used to making lists like the top five or top 10 for lots of good things: Great schools, safe community and making the top five list like that just blew me away,” Buck says.
As it turns out, Buck’s not the only one blown away.
“It was like a windstorm. It really took us by surprise,” says Kathleen Yurchak, the City of Pleasanton’s Director of Operations. “We hadn't really heard of it being a significant issue specifically in California.”
Before last year, Yurchak and her team hadn’t heard of PFAS. So they did their research and found out PFAS aren’t new chemicals. They’ve been used since the 1940s in tons of household and commercial products. The problem is, new tests are showing that they’ve been draining off of landfills, airports, and military training sites into groundwater nationwide.
And into that one well in Pleasanton. Yurchak says they only have three wells. Shutting off one of them won’t work long term.
“That’s a critical piece of water supply for us,” Yurchak says.
The contaminated well, that underground mechanism failing in its duty to supply clean water to entire sections of the city, is in the field right behind her office at the Operations Facility. I’m already at her office. So I ask if I can see it.
“I will open the back door, and you tell me if I’m wrong in my assessment that it’s not very interesting,” Yurchak says.
She’s right — it’s just a squat little building. On the surface, the well might not look like much, but Pleasanton relies on it to supply safe drinking water to thousands of people. For now, they’re pumping more water from the other wells — but that won’t work long term. So they’re looking into treatment options, that could end up pretty expensive. According to Yurchak, it could be as low as $2 million up to $22 million.
The cost of treating the PFAS will hit residents’ water bills. So how does the community feel? On a Friday morning at a local coffee shop on Main Street, I ask around.
Glen Hebert has been a Pleasanton resident for 33 years. The city of Pleasanton sent out two direct mailers about PFAS to all their water customers last fall, so I ask Hebert if he had gotten them.
“No, I pretty much ignore them when they come in the mail. I maybe shouldn't ignore them but I don't drink the water. It's brackish. It's strong enough to eat the granite countertops and chrome faucets. It’s not very good quality,” he says.
I told Hebert about the costs of treatment.“This would be an issue that I would wholeheartedly support paying for to get rid of it,” he says.
Others were not as naturally suspicious of the water as Hebert.
Sean McPherson is from Dublin, California. It’s one town over, but he spends a lot of time in Pleasanton.
“It has the better coffee places. Better water,” he says.
When I tell McPherson about the contamination, he has a similar reaction to what Jill Buck describes feeling on the morning of her radio interview, and Kathleen Yurchak when she got the state’s tests back about the city’s well.
“I just assumed that California was always on top of it in terms of the air and water quality,” he says.
As the father of a five-year-old, McPherson says this issue strikes a chord.
“I just told my son that the greatest invention society ever came up with was the sewer system and clean water. Because ... it was an entirely different world after that. So we just take it for granted. So I haven't even thought about water quality because I assumed that it would be the one thing that they would always take care of,” McPherson says.
And thanks to a new state law, Pleasanton’s rude awakening over PFAS might come to many more Californian towns this year. Last July, Governor Newsom passed AB 756, requiring hundreds more drinking water supplies statewide to start testing for PFAS for the first time.
And it’s not just a California problem. In December, the Senate approved provisions in the defense bill expanding PFAS testing in drinking water across the nation.
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