The July 22 event, hosted by Clean Water Action Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation, and Reps. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, and June Speakman, D-Warren, featured Terry Gray, deputy director of environmental protection at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM); Angela Slitt, director of graduate programs at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy and co-lead of the school’s Sources, Transport, Exposures & Effects of PFAS; and Craig Howard, who worked on the research study featured in the film Dark Waters that showed the devastating effects of PFAS on DuPont employees and the residents of Parkersburg, W.Va.
Gray said these chemicals are a problem in Rhode Island, even though there are no DuPont plants here. He noted that PFAS are pervasive.
The Rhode Island Department of Health tested for PFAS last year. The agency tested every major drinking-water supply in the state and the water in every school that had its own well. In all, 87 percent of Rhode Islanders had their primary source of water tested. The results showed that PFAS are in a significant portion of the state’s drinking water — they were detected in 44 percent of the locations tested — and that more than 40 percent of the schools tested had levels above the new recommended standard of 20 parts per trillion (ppt). The Environmental Protection Agency originally issued a 70 ppt health advisory level, but since then a growing number of public-health officials and some states are pushing for levels of 20 ppt or lower.
In Rhode Island, House and Senate versions of the same bill would require municipal water systems to treat their drinking water or offer an alternative source if levels exceed 20 ppt. Last year, New Hampshire adopted rules that established drinking-water standards for four PFAS chemicals of 12 ppt. The state was quickly sued by industry behemoth 3M.
In 2017, just weeks after the Oakland Village Water System in Burrillville was awarded “Rhode Island’s Best Tasting Drinking Water” by the Atlantic States Rural Water & Wastewater Association, DEM discovered the water was contaminated with PFAS.
PFAS used in firefighting foam are blamed for the closure of the Oakland Village Water System and several other private wells in the area. The fire suppressant is also the likely source for massive concentrations in wells at the Quonset State Airport in North Kingstown. PFAS-containing firefighting foams were commonly on hand and used anywhere fuels were stored, including airports and military bases.
Newport’s Naval Education & Training Center stored hundreds of millions of gallons of fuels and had firefighting foams on site. The Melville area of Aquidneck Island has been a fuel depot since World War I. There was a recent proposal to convert the site to a commercial marina, but the discovery of PFAS halted the project. A cleanup is ongoing.
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