INVESTIGATION: Parts of Roanoke County still impacted by ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

Published: May. 8, 2023 at 8:59 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - After the Environmental Protection Agency proposed drinking water guidelines for PFAS, known as ‘forever chemicals,’ communities around the nation are now scrambling to test and treat impacted water sources for the potential health threat.

WDBJ7 reported in March about testing showing concerning levels of PFAS in the Western Virginia Water Authority’s Spring Hollow Reservoir. That prompted the water supplier to stop pumping water from the Roanoke River in August.

We can’t see PFAS chemicals with the naked eye. In fact, many labs can’t even detect PFAS at the levels the EPA says are dangerous. The new proposed guidelines released by the federal agency are now putting the pressure on water suppliers nationwide.

“With water, you’re putting it in your body and ingestion has been identified as the primary source,” said Leigh-Anne Krometis, Associate Professor of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech.

Krometis explained PFAS are so common, we are likely exposed to small amounts of the chemicals on a daily basis, and there really is no safe level.

“PFAS are associated with a variety of health impacts. Everything from cancer to reduced immune function,” she told WDBJ7.

In parts of Roanoke County, the Western Virginia Water Authority said a type of PFAS chemical was detected in its drinking water supply, and later in the Roanoke River.

“Out of the 6,000 possible PFAS compounds that are known to exist, one of them, commonly known as Gen X, showed up in our Spring Hollow drinking water reservoir,” explained Sarah Baumgardner, Director of Public Relations at Western Virginia Water Authority.

Baumgardner said through testing they were able to trace the chemical to a facility owned by ProChem, which discharges wastewater into the Roanoke River.

We reached out to ProChem, which told us in a statement, “We remain extremely diligent in monitoring for GenX and PFAS compounds at our facility and levels continue to be well below the drinking water limit.”

ProChem said it took immediate action to eliminate Gen X from its facility. Baumgardner told us the Western Virginia Water Authority is still treating the remnants of the chemical in its Spring Hollow Reservoir.

“We started working to install and utilize granular activated carbon for treatment,” Baumgardner said. “It’s the only proven treatment to reduce or minimize this compound.”

The most recent tests show the level of Gen X in the Spring Hollow drinking water April 12 was at 12 ppt (parts per trillion), which is above the EPA’s proposed recommendation of 10 ppt. The following week, the Gen X was at 2.7 ppt. Testing before April shows much higher levels of Gen X.

ProChem explains it was able to trace the Gen X to equipment from its client, Chemours. They’ve been working with that company since 2015.

Out of the thousands of PFAS chemicals, Gen X is one of only six the EPA plans on regulating.

“Gen X was designed as a replacement, but then it turned out it had health impacts as well, so it is one that EPA is specifically looking to regulate, " Krometis explained.

The Western Virginia Water Authority’s testing was voluntary. Even if you don’t consume water from Spring Hollow – it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Right now, water providers are not required to test for PFAS chemicals.

“This is going to be a huge burden for the drinking water industry, because once EPA sets these Federal Guidelines, every drinking water system is going to have to abide by them.”

That means once the EPA does set limits on the potentially dangerous chemicals, Krometis said water suppliers across the country will need to test for PFAS and treat any contaminated water.

“There aren’t a lot of laboratories that can do that testing,” Krometis explained. “Supply and demand, it’s going to get expensive as well.”

For the Western Virginia Water Authority, it’s going to cost more than $13 million.

In the meantime, the Western Virginia Water Authority told us the water is safe to drink, even for residents in Roanoke County who get water from Spring Hollow Reservoir. The water authority is using advanced filters to reduce the levels of Gen X. A spokesperson says that high reading from April is likely from work they were doing on a valve.

Both the EPA and Western Virginia Water Authority don’t recommend switching to bottled water, as there are far fewer safety regulations for it than tap water.

The EPA’s public comment period about the proposed ruling ends May 30.

We also reached out to other water suppliers. The City of Lynchburg Water Services told us over the phone it has tested for PFAS, and the tests came back non-detect for its primary and secondary sources of drinking water. The utility plans to continue testing in the future and follow the state and EPA guidelines.

The City of Salem also gets its water from the Roanoke River, and told us it has not had a positive PFAS test to date.