Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For the first time, the EPA is regulating PFAS in drinking water. Here's what that means for Vermont

Woman filling a glass of water from a stainless steel or chrome tap or faucet, close up on her hand and the glass with running water and air bubbles
Woman filling a glass of water from a stainless steel or chrome tap or faucet, close up on her hand and the glass with running water and air bubbles

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced the first ever federal limits on PFAS — or so-called “forever chemicals” in public drinking water.

Starting in three years, every public drinking water system in the country will be required to test for the chemicals. Those that are out of compliance with the new standard will have five years to install new infrastructure or seek another water source.

The news comes after years of organizing and advocacy from affected communities across the country, including in Vermont.

“This announcement — it’s historic. It’s symbolic,” said Haley Jones, director of the environmental advocacy group Slingshot in Vermont and New Hampshire. Slingshot leads the National PFAS Contamination Coalition and worked with North Bennington residents to hold Saint Gobain accountable for well water there that was contaminated with PFOA from nearby manufacturing.

“It puts the full weight of the federal government behind our communities’ efforts to regulate and take out PFAS,” Jones said.

More from Vermont Public: The EPA is taking steps to regulate toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water. What does that mean for Vermont?

The manufactured chemicals have been used since the 1940s to repel water, oil and heat, and they’re found nearly everywhere in the environment.

While contamination can in some cases be linked to manufacturing, like the PFOA discovered in 2016 in wells in North Bennington, much of the contamination Vermont faces comes from PFAS in consumer goods.

The persistent chemicals build up in the body and the environment and have been linked to cancer, liver problems and other health issues.

What do the new restrictions do?

The new federal standard restricts two of the most toxic varieties — PFOA and PFOS — to 4 parts per trillion (ppt) in public drinking water supplies.

The agency has said virtually no exposure to these chemicals is safe, and it would ultimately like to eliminate them altogether from drinking water.

For PFNA, PFHxS and GenX chemicals — which are manufactured as a PFAS replacement and also toxic — the limit will be 10 ppt.

Additionally, the agency wants to regulate four other PFAS compounds — PFHxS, GenX, PFNA and PFBS — in combination.

More from NPR: EPA warns that even tiny amounts of chemicals found in drinking water pose risks

In some regards, this new requirement goes beyond Vermont’s 2016 limit for drinking water, of 20 ppt for any combination of PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA.

“The federal regulation is different,” said Ben Montross, who leads the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Drinking Water Program. Where the federal standard restricts GenX chemicals, Vermont’s does not. However, Vermont limits PFHpA and the federal standard does not.

“It’s not necessarily apples to apples,” Montross said.

Vermont has just under 1,400 public drinking water systems in the state. They range from serving a small bed and breakfast, to highway rest stops, to villages, towns and cities.

The federal regulation treats drinking water systems that serve the same people every day differently from those at, say, a ski area or inn, because repeat exposure carries more health risks over time.

Montross estimates that, because of this, about 550 drinking water systems will be required to monitor for PFAS and GenX chemicals under the new EPA standard.

Of those systems, he says 2019 monitoring revealed that about 20 were not meeting Vermont’s 20 ppt standard for the five state-regulated PFAS. He says about 30 additional systems would not meet the new federal standard — totaling about 10% of the public drinking water systems in the state.

“We’re expecting those 30 systems to need to install treatment, or if they have a good understanding of the site and where the contamination is, there’s the potential to drill a new well outside of that area,” Montross said.

Nationwide, the EPA expects the new rule will affect 6-10% of drinking water supplies.

What’s next?

Montross said it’s too soon to know how much this regulatory change will cost Vermont, but that there is “considerable financial support from the federal government” through both grants and loans. The Biden administration has set aside roughly $9 billion to help public water systems deal with PFAS.

He says the DEC will be working with contractors to assess public water systems that are likely not in compliance with the new rule and what options are available to them by way of funding to remedy that.

“The big thing is: We are taking this very seriously. It’s very important. Vermont has a bit of a head start, which is really great."
Ben Montross, manager of the Drinking Water Program at Vermont DEC

The department says it’s confident that it can meet the requirements of the rule, but it will take some time. In a statement Wednesday, the DEC said it’s still reviewing the new rule to understand how it will affect Vermont’s existing regulations.

“The big thing is: We are taking this very seriously. It’s very important. Vermont has a bit of a head start, which is really great,” Montross said.

A win for human health — but costly

Rainer Lohmann, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Superfund Research Center STEEP program, which studies PFAS in humans and the environment, said the new federal standard has teeth.

“What EPA basically had to balance was the question of ‘what is protective of health?’ and then ‘what is the technology? Is it in place to achieve a certain standard?’” he said. “So they basically came up with a compromise. And I think it’s a fairly reasonable compromise.”

Lohmann said the current “go-to” technology for removing PFAS from drinking water is a double set of large, activated carbon filters in series. It’s technology that has been in existence for some time and he said that in most cases, for the compounds EPA is regulating, this system should work.

“There’s a lot of research into better materials to remove PFAS, and maybe one of those will be cost competitive,” he said. “But I think for now, this is proven. It’s not super, but it works.”

Reverse osmosis and other technologies also exist that remove more PFAS, but Lohmann said they carry added cost.

“There is a cost to this; there’s no question,” he said. “And it’s frustrating for communities that have to bear it. But of course you don’t want to have the exposure.”

He predicts the federal funding that’s been allocated will not go far enough to insulate communities from paying for the cost of upgrading their drinking water systems.

Patrick Parenteau is a professor emeritus at senior climate policy fellow at Vermont Law and Graduate School. He litigated superfund cases for the EPA and is a former commissioner of Vermont's DEC.

“Those costs are going to fall on, you know, average Vermonters, even though the problem obviously is created by the manufacturers."
Patrick Parenteau, Vermont Law and Graduate School

He said this rule will be controversial — mainly because of the cost of monitoring for these chemicals.

“Those costs are going to fall on, you know, average Vermonters, even though the problem obviously is created by the manufacturers,” he said.

“From a health standpoint, this was absolutely justified and necessary and overdue, given the fact that virtually all of us contain some amount of these chemicals in our bodies already. But the big question is going to be how you’re going to pay for all this.”

The EPA predicts the new restrictions will prevent nearly 10,000 deaths over the coming decades due to health conditions arising from PFAS exposure. Parenteau said what’s really needed is prevention.

The Vermont House gave preliminary approval to a bill that would do just that — banning PFAS in cosmetics, menstrual products, clothing, cookware and child care products, among other consumer goods.

More from Vermont Public: Spill of landfill leachate into stormwater pond leaves Coventry locals concerned

And while he applauds Vermont for S.25, Parenteau said chemical contamination is a national issue and it will take federal action to get these chemicals out of production.

Still, for community organizers, this is a day for celebration and joy.

Hayley Jones with Slingshot said this rule has been a long time coming.

“This is proof that all this organizing on the ground does work, and that the federal government finally had to listen to us,” they said.

Slingshot and others hope to see more compounds restricted by the agency in the future, and more support for medical monitoring, education and prevention.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.


Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
Latest Stories