Proposed federal regulations would set limits on the amount of “forever chemicals” in drinking water and require most public systems in Oklahoma to begin regular testing. 

Per- and polyfluroalkyl substances — often referred to as PFAS — do not break down over time.  

It’s a group of more than 9,000 man-made chemicals synthesized in the 1940s that have since been used in firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, waterproofing products and even pizza and hamburger boxes. These substances are also sometimes called “forever chemicals.” 

There are at least nine sites in Oklahoma where ground or water contamination from forever chemicals has been confirmed, mostly at military installations, airports and at least one municipality’s drinking water, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group. The advocacy group also lists numerous other suspected sites for PFAS pollution in the state. 

PFAS are capable of accumulating in human and animal bodies through food, air and water. The National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences estimates that around 97 percent of Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood and research has shown elevated levels can cause decreased fertility, developmental delays and effects in children, increased risk of certain types of cancer, reduced immune systems and increased cholesterol.

Though testing for PFAS and similar chemicals in public water supplies is encouraged by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, it has not been a requirement. Many public water systems operated by cities and other local governments don’t do any testing. 

Two bills that would have required the state Department of Environmental Quality to do more testing and public notice of potential contamination from PFAS and similar chemicals were introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature this year, but neither successfully made it out of the Senate.  

New rules the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed would require public water systems to test at least four times a year, alert people of contamination and take steps to remove the chemicals.

“Every person should have access to clean and safe drinking water,” said Jennifer McLean, director of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. “That’s why EPA is acting now — to protect people’s drinking water from PFAS contamination. The science is clear: Long term exposure to certain PFAS linked to significant health risks.” 

Dania McKibben, lead operator at Tulsa’s Mohawk Water Treatment Plant, performs manual contaminant testing of water samples at the facility’s lab. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

The proposed federal rules would set the maximum contaminant levels in public water supplies for the PFAS chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA, used at 4 parts per trillion, as well as combined limits on four other PFAS chemicals. The chemicals are listed as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

If approved, water systems would have three years to begin monitoring for PFAS contamination. Water systems that rely on surface water and all groundwater systems serving more than 10,000 customers would be required to test for the chemicals quarterly, while groundwater systems that serve fewer than 10,000 customers would be required to do monitoring twice per year.

The EPA is currently taking comments from the public, state agencies and stakeholders on the proposed rule.

Erin Hatfield, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, said the state agency is likely to offer comments on the proposed rule, but that some PFAS monitoring for large public water systems and randomly selected small water systems in the state has already begun. The state’s environmental lab is able to perform testing for PFAS, she said, and some other states are using Oklahoma’s facilities to test water samples.

“I think the big takeaway here is we have started monitoring, but long-term anything, we’re still going over this proposal and working through it,” she said.

Some water systems in the state are already required to begin monitoring for forever chemicals beginning in this year under the EPA’s 2021 Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.  

“Oklahoma doesn’t require it, so most places never test for it. So they won’t know until their required testing comes around,” said Tim Collier, plant supervisor at the Altus water treatment plant. “That’s when people are really going to start noticing it in their water or not.”

Altus is home to Altus Air Force Base, where 11 of the 12 groundwater wells on the base tested had high levels of PFAS in 2018. The Air Force base gets its drinking water from the City of Altus, which has not shown signs of PFAS contamination, according to an Air Force press release.

Collier said Altus has already been testing for PFAS in its drinking water about once a year and all tests have thus far come in under the proposed maximum contaminant level. 

However, for water systems where PFAS is detected above the proposed maximum limits, it could mean significant costs to upgrade the system, Collier said.

“It would have to come out of emergency funds along with grants and stuff, because nothing for treatment is cheap,” he said. 

According to the EPA, there is around $9 billion available to water systems looking to monitor and reduce PFAS and other emerging contaminants through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2022. Nationwide, the EPA estimates that the benefits of the proposed regulation could save between $908 million and $1.23 billion per year based on reduced instances of kidney and other cancers, heart attacks, strokes and developmental issues in children, while annual cost is anticipated to run between $772 million and $1.2 billion, with an additional $30 million to $61 million in possible hazardous waste disposal.

Of the nation’s approximately 66,000 public water systems, between 3,400 and 6,300 are expected to exceed at least one of the proposed maximum contamination levels, according to the EPA.

Oklahoma City’s water system tested for several PFAS chemicals in 2013 and 2014, with test results showing amounts below the then-detectable levels of 10 parts per trillion. Further testing in 2019 and 2022 showed results below the newly proposed levels, according to officials with Oklahoma City’s municipal water department.

The proposed regulations would require more frequent testing at both of Oklahoma City’s two water treatment plants and the results would be included in an annual report on drinking water quality, according to officials with the city’s water department. Oklahoma City is scheduled to begin quarterly testing in January 2024.

Oklahoma City gets its drinking water from five separate reservoirs — Lake Stanley Draper, Lake Hefner, Canton Lake, Atoka Reservoir and McGee Creek Reservoir.

Tulsa’s water system is also preparing for the proposed regulation. The city has already been testing for PFAS at both of its two water plants and has so far gotten a clean bill of health, said Eric Lee, Tulsa director of water and sewer.

Tulsa gets its drinking water from Lake Eucha and Spavinaw Lake as well as Lake Oolagah. While testing for PFAS has been done on Eucha and Spavinaw waters, it has yet to be done at Lake Oolagah, which is administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lee said.

“We’re probably going to continue doing some testing, just to make sure we’re prepared when the rule comes out,” Lee said.

Even if PFAS was detected above the proposed levels in Tulsa’s system, Lee said, the filters at Tulsa’s water plants use a granular activated carbon system, which is one of the recommended ways to remove the chemicals.

“Even if we were to detect it, we have what we think is the best available technology in our filters to remove it,” Lee said.

While the EPA’s current proposed regulation does not address PFAS put into the environment through wastewater treatment systems, wastewater maximum contaminant limits, testing and filtering are on the federal agency’s agenda next.