Wash. city officials unveil drinking water, PFAS management plan
By Lauren Ellenbecker
VANCOUVER, Wash. — Vancouver officials last week unveiled how the city may be able to tackle its drinking water problem.
A draft management plan, developed by Vancouver and environmental firm Brown and Caldwell, outlines steps needed to manage per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — harmful human-made chemicals known as PFAS — that have been detected in the city’s water system.
The four-letter acronym represents a class of thousands of so-called forever chemicals. As the nickname implies, these substances don’t break down in the environment or the human body.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it’s an easy schedule. ... It is a huge undertaking,” Tyler Clary, Vancouver water engineering program manager, told the city council at a Dec. 18 workshop.
The timeline aligns with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s anticipated finalization of its proposed PFAS regulations, which are expected to be enforced in December 2026.
Long-term strategies tap into treating existing sources and looking at whether deeper aquifers can become a new resource. Each path is effective in curtailing PFAS contamination but comes with its own challenges.
Treatments occur in large vessels where water is filtered through granular activated carbon or an ion exchange. These methods aren’t overly complex, Clary said, but equipment takes up swaths of space and is expensive. Finding new water would require Vancouver to move its existing wells to deeper sources, which would require state approval and further treatment for manganese.
Currently, managers adjust operations to draw from wells with lower PFAS concentrations, as well as blend sources to dilute contaminated water. Vancouver is also proceeding with its $15.7 million project to install a treatment system at Water Station 14, 6803 N.E. 78th St., which has the highest concentration of PFAS.
Installing systems — like at Water Station 14 — will take years to complete, requiring Vancouver officials to explore interim solutions to reduce residents’ PFAS exposure. Temporary fixes include supplying customers with pitcher filters or establishing a rebate program for lower-income customers, who could choose what filtering option fits their lifestyle the best. Either approach could cost the city $3.5 million.
Officials estimate the city’s eight years of work will amount to roughly $235 million. Once systems are installed, operational and maintenance costs will be an additional $1.25 million annually.
Washington’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which this year awarded $12.7 million for Water Station 14’s improvements, could offer further help to cover Vancouver’s costs. Vancouver is also one of hundreds of Washington drinking water managers that could receive small sums from settlements with manufacturers that emit PFAS pollution, including 3M, Chemours, DuPont and Corteva.
What’s a safe level?
Vancouver’s public water system, with 40 wells distributed across nine water stations, is one of many nationwide that have detected amounts of PFAS in its drinking water. The system supplies 9.5 billion gallons of water per year to more than 270,000 people.
The city’s latest rounds of sampling showed multiple groundwater wells contained PFAS concentrations meeting or surpassing action levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), two of 29 monitored PFAS. These are two of five regulated compounds that are produced in largest quantities within the country, according to the EPA. They have been removed from most products due to health and environmental risks.
PFAS is measured by parts per trillion — one part being a drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Washington’s state action levels have a threshold of 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and 15 parts per trillion for PFOS, which five of Vancouver’s water stations exceed. However, the EPA’s proposed limit of 4 parts per trillion for both chemicals would push eight of Vancouver’s nine water stations beyond the action level.
Clary said varying regulations increase puzzlement surrounding management approaches.
“PFAS has led to confusion among water utilities around the world as we grapple with trying to understand what the safe level of PFAS is in water,” he said. “The science continues to evolve, and we continue to learn.”
PFAS are likely found in every aspect of a person’s life — food wrappers, clothes, cleaning products and cookware. Manufacturers use the chemicals to make products resistant to heat, water and stains. PFAS are virtually impossible to avoid.
The Washington Department of Health says that high PFAS exposure can lead to increased risks of thyroid disease and testicular and kidney cancer, as well as worsen cholesterol levels and lower immunity. However, science surrounding the chemicals’ effects on human health continues to evolve.
Determining the source point of PFAS has been a challenge for Washington utilities.
Some experts think the contamination could have come from military bases, airports or sites that conducted training with firefighting foam. Others are looking at landfills and stormwater. There is likely no smoking gun, rather a combination of factors, Clary said.
Further evaluations to identify contamination sources are underway, according to Vancouver’s draft management plan.
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