Waterloo idles drinking water well contaminated by ‘forever chemicals’

One of the wells that provide Waterloo's drinking water tested positive for PFAS chemicals. (Photo by Peter Cade Stone/Getty Images)

Recent tests of Waterloo drinking water revealed one of the city’s wells has detectable amounts of PFAS, a toxic group of chemicals that are newly regulated by federal officials.

The city decided to stop drawing water from that well — even though its contamination is within the new limits — because its other wells have plenty of capacity and “just to provide us with a sense of calm,” said Chad Coon, general manager of Waterloo Water Works.

“Right now, PFAS is a highlight of the news,” Coon said. Its detection in other cities has greatly alarmed some residents.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released new rules that severely limit certain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — often known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

They persist indefinitely in the environment, accumulate in people’s bodies and have been linked to various illnesses and cancers. The chemicals repel water and oil and have been used in food packaging, clothing, non-stick cookware and many other products.

Most people in the United States are believed to have detectable amounts of the chemicals in their blood.

Testing in March of four of Waterloo’s wells found several types of PFAS in one well near Crossroads Mall on the city’s south side, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources data. Notably, it had PFOS — one of the two most-restricted versions of the chemicals — in a concentration of 2.6 parts per trillion.

That is lower than the EPA’s new limit of 4 parts per trillion, but the agency has said public water supplies should strive for zero contamination in treated drinking water. Waterloo plans to test about 10 more of its wells for PFAS, Coon said.

Waterloo’s water system is uncommon in Iowa: it does not have a centralized treatment facility. Its relatively high-quality raw water only needs chlorine and phosphates, which are added at the wells to control bacteria and corrosion, before going into the city’s distribution system, Coon said.

The affected well is relatively shallow at about 139 feet, DNR records show. It was drilled in 1962, and it’s unclear how long the contamination has existed and what might have caused it.

Tests of the wells in recent years did not reveal the PFOS contamination, Coon said, but new testing is more sensitive.

Waterloo serves water to about 69,000 people and is among the largest cities to be affected by PFAS contamination. Others include Burlington, Davenport, Dubuque and Sioux City.

Coon said the city’s total water production capacity is nearly double its typical peak usage, and that its wells are alternatingly idled throughout the year. The tainted well will remain offline until city leaders decide how to proceed.

The city could remove PFAS from the water, but there is little room to add a treatment facility near the contaminated well, Coon said, and the city would need to dispose of the chemicals it removes.

“There’s not a good remedy right now for actually treating this,” he said.

There is no state requirement for Waterloo to alert its customers to the PFOS contamination because it was less than 4 parts per trillion, said Corey McCoid, a DNR supervisor who oversees water supply compliance.

The new federal drinking water standard for PFAS was released about two weeks ago, and it might force some Iowa cities to install new treatment systems or find other sources of water in the next five years.

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