How one California water utility is leading the fight against the ‘forever chemicals’
If you work in water and wastewater, you might remember Erin Brockovich’s successful 1993 lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which proved the company had contaminated a small California town’s water supply with a toxic compound called chromium 6.
The $333 million settlement Brockovich negotiated is still the largest in U.S. history, and the wave of awareness her case brought to environmental toxins–helped along by the eponymous 2000 Oscar-winning Julia Roberts film–is considered by many environmentalists today to be a turning point in environmental policy.
So, when the Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) Water Agency’s Mike Alvord first heard about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or “PFAS” in 2019, he was certain the general public was due for a similar wake up call.
Ohio residents had launched a similar class action lawsuit alleging a DuPont chemical plant had contaminated the drinking water of 70,000 people with PFAS in the early 2000s. A film about the lawsuit titled Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway premiered in 2019, just a few months after the state of California ordered water utilities like SCV to start sampling wells for PFAS. At one point Erin Brockovich herself even re-emerged into the public eye to sound the alarm on PFAS.
“I really thought that was going to be the next Erin Brockovich,” says Alvord.
But the premiere of Dark Waters came and went, and the anticipated wave of public outcry against PFAS never materialized.
“It didn’t turn into much. Maybe [with COVID] there were too many distractions.”
Despite the relatively tepid public response, Alvord and his colleagues at SCV knew that PFAS was real and that it wasn’t going away any time soon. So instead of waiting for regulators and the public to catch up, they decided to get ahead of the problem.
What is PFAS?
PFAS (pronounced ‘Pee-Fass’) are a class of synthetic “forever chemicals” found in everything from nonstick pans to takeout containers to the foams used in firefighting.
“It’s ubiquitous. The United States has been manufacturing PFAS chemicals since the fifties, and consumers have been enjoying the benefits of PFAS chemicals for decades,” says Alvord.
Studies have shown that PFAS may be associated with reproductive health issues, testicular and kidney cancer, high cholesterol and suppression of vaccine effectiveness in children, and that it might already be present in 98 out of every 100 people’s bloodstreams.
Some European countries and Maine have banned the compounds, but American water utilities are still grappling with how to best manage these contaminants. Most of them weren’t aware of PFAS until 2015 when the EPA added it to the list of contaminants it tracks under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR), and to this day there are few concrete rules around PFAS.
Alvord is the Director of Operations and Maintenance at SCV, which provides water to more than 300,000 business and residential customers in Southern California. When he and his colleagues discovered that one of the agency’s wells had exceeded the EPA’s advisory level of 70 nanograms per liter for two PFAS chemicals in 2019, no law or rule required them to shut down the well.
“But we immediately shut it off. We didn’t have to, but we did–for the sake of the public and the sake of the uncertainty. We just didn’t know what was going on.”
The first line of defence: transparency
Instead of dealing with it quietly, the SCV decided to bring their fight with PFAS out into the open.
The 2019 California order had only required SCV to sample 15 of their wells for PFAS, but the agency began sampling all of them. They also began posting regular updates about their findings to their website, and took a radically transparent approach to informing their customers about the PFAS threat in Southern California.
Alvord says that transparency didn’t just help SCV act quickly on the PFAS problem. It also helped the agency–which was formed after the state merged four separate water utilities in 2018–find its feet as a new organization, come together as a team, and build a strong work culture on short notice.
“We brought in different cultures, different personalities, and we immediately had to work together because we had to try to form our own new culture,” says Alvord.
“If we were separate, even though we worked well together separately, I think it would have been much more difficult.”
Removing PFAS from water
Most drinking water & wastewater utilities have three lines of defence against PFAS. They can use:
1. Reverse osmosis, which forces water through a high-pressure membrane.
2. Granular activated carbon, like the kind you find in refrigerator water filtration systems, which is also the most studied PFAS removal solution.
3. Ion exchange, a process by which PFAS compounds are absorbed into a special kind of resin.
The problem is that none of these technologies were originally designed to remove PFAS from the water, and they each have room for improvement.
The energy costs involved in reverse osmosis, for example, usually make it prohibitively expensive for water utilities. Granular activated carbon can also get expensive, not just materials-wise but also because of the amount of byproduct that needs to be disposed of.
Even ion exchange, the solution SCV settled on, can be challenging in the amount of byproduct it produces.
Staying flexible and keeping an open mind
More interesting than SCV’s technology choice itself, however, is the sheer speed with which the water agency was able to design, permit, and build the facility–during the COVID shutdown no less.
SCV’s new PFAS treatment facility in Valencia is an impressive sight: six massive vessels filled with ion exchange resin churn through up to 6,250 gallons of water per minute, enough to serve an estimated 5,000 households every year.
Most agencies would have taken years to build the facility, but that was time that Alvord says the SCV didn’t have when they embarked on the project in 2019.
“So instead, we did all of it at the same time. We were doing planning, bidding for construction, design–all of that simultaneously.”
It took just one year to construct the facility, which today produces upwards of 6,000 gallons of clean water per minute and has become a template for future plants slated for construction.
Alvord doesn’t recommend other utilities hold themselves to a similarly tight deadline. But he says the resourcefulness and speed SCV was able to bring to the treatment plant project is a product of the organization’s culture of flexibility and cooperation between groups like engineering and operations.
“Don’t just leave it up to your engineering group to do everything: spread the wealth and, you know, spread the pain,” suggests Alvord, acknowledging the tension that can sometimes exist between technically-minded engineers and operators with their eye on the bottom line.
“Engineers have to rely on operations staff to tell them what’s in the field, so make sure you do those field visits together, so that what they’re planning is going to match with what’s happening in reality.”
The value of good communication and trust
Talking to Alvord, it quickly becomes clear that SCV’s ability to get ahead of the PFAS problem is as much an organizational achievement as it is a technical one.
When asked about what advice he’d give to organizations and operations leaders trying to replicate those results, Alvord reiterates the importance of transparency, openness, and communication in the water industry.
“I preach that the two most important things to be successful are good communication and building relationships,” says Alvord, who also works as an instructor in the Water Systems Technology department at a local college.
“If you can learn to communicate effectively without sounding arrogant, without sounding offensive or derogatory, you’re going to be ahead of the game.”