A new rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that could require costly monitoring and testing for “forever chemicals” in water supplies across the country could lead to increased monthly bills in Long Beach, even as officials say the city’s water is safe.
The EPA announced this month that it was moving forward with new regulations targeting perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl—chemicals that are known as “PFAS” and are found in things like firefighting foam and nonstick pans—that will require water agencies to limit their presence in drinking water to nearly zero.
The substances are carcinogenic and can cause cancer after prolonged exposure, even when they’re present in microscopic doses. Agencies would have to treat their water to lower the amount of PFAS found in their supply or switch to an alternate source under the new rule.
While the public comment period for the proposal is still open, it’s expected that the regulations will be adopted and enforced nationwide, which could cost an estimated $772 million per year and lead to increased water bills for households across the country.
Tai Tseng, the assistant general manager of operations for the Long Beach Utilities Department, said that Long Beach has been monitoring for PFAS since 2019, when the state issued an order to test for the substances in areas thought to be at risk.
For Long Beach, that meant wells near Long Beach Airport because of PFAS’ presence in firefighting foam, Tseng said. Landfills are also a source of concern, he said, and with the EPA’s new rule, the city would be required to start monitoring all of its groundwater wells instead of the 14 that were identified in 2019.
“We’re feeling pretty confident it won’t affect us, but it does impact the region,” Tseng said, noting that PFAS have not been detected in the groundwater or at the city’s water treatment plant.
The new targets for the chemicals are much lower than previous allowable levels in drinking water, with proposed targets for PFAS being a fraction of one part per trillion, when older regulations allowed for up to 70 parts per trillion.
Even if no PFAS is detected in any of Long Beach’s water, city residents and businesses could still be impacted by the rule because of high PFAS levels elsewhere in the region. The Water Replenishment District, which includes Long Beach, already has a remediation program for PFAS for wells within the Montebello Forebay, which is near Whittier Narrows just north of Rio Hondo College.
“The Water Replenishment District is going to bear the cost, and that’s going to affect pumpers in the region, and we’re one of them,” Tseng said.
The district launched a $60 million grant fund in August 2020 to help water suppliers install treatment systems. How much more the district will have to invest to meet the proposed new standards is unclear, but California law allows the costs to be passed along to customers.
Tseng said that agencies could seek funding from the EPA to help cover additional costs, but it’s not guaranteed that they’ll get any. The agency was given $9 billion by Congress last year to help states invest in clean drinking water programs.
While the cost to expand monitoring and testing to all the wells in Long Beach should be absorbed by the department’s lab budget, other cost escalators outside of the city will likely be out of the control of the department.
Long Beach pumps about 60% of its annual water supply out of local wells, but it imports the rest. If the costs of providing safe drinking water go up for the Metropolitan Water District, one of the two imported sources of water for the city, monthly bills in Long Beach could rise.
It’s unclear how much bills could increase. The department said it’s still assessing how the new rules would affect its operations and costs.
Politico reported this month that a water utility in North Carolina had invested $43 million in upgrades to deal with PFAS contamination, and its operators said that the $5 million in annual operation costs could amount to about $5 per month in additional charges to its customers.
In the last budget cycle, the largest rate increase that was considered by the Utilities Commission was an 8% increase, and that was projected to cost customers about $4.34 per month.
The department said last year that rates could go up by as much as 8% in 2024, 2025 and 2026 before the announcement of the EPA’s proposed monitoring requirements.