State releases list of drinking water systems tainted by forever chemicals in SC

Recent revelations that drinking water plants and public wells across South Carolina contain elevated levels of toxic chemicals sent chills through people concerned about the quality of water they are consuming at their homes.

Now, state regulators have released a list of the water systems with “forever chemicals’’ that exceed a proposed new federal drinking water limit of 4 parts per trillion for the two most well-known types of the chemicals. Those systems include large utilities, small town water systems, and mobile home park systems.

The list, to be posted shortly, shows that forever-chemical levels in South Carolina, for the most part, are not substantially higher in drinking water than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new limit. But some of them are — and regardless of the level, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says the findings should not be ignored.

Developed in the 1940s for a variety of consumer products, some forever chemicals have been found to be toxic if consumed regularly in water or food over a period of years.

Kidney, testicular and breast cancer in adults, as well as developmental issues in children, are among the health problems that can result from regular, long-term exposure, federal officials say. Forever chemicals also have been tied to immune system deficiencies.

Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said people should not be overly alarmed if the pollution is just above the proposed federal limit, but he also said utilities need to focus on finding the sources of contamination and stopping them because of the long-term hazard.

“This is something you should pay attention to; you want your drinking water provider to have a plan for this,’’ Stangler said. “It’s something you want state regulators and federal regulators to be working on. It does not mean you need to panic right now and stop drinking water.’’

Forever chemicals, also known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been tied to industrial plants that either discharge directly to rivers or send waste to municipal plants, which then discharge to rivers. Landfills, military bases and firefighting training centers also are thought to be sources of forever chemical pollution. Consumer products contain forever chemicals, which are aptly named because they don’t break down quickly in the environment.

All told, 63 public wells and water plants that draw from rivers and lakes had forever chemicals above the new federal level of 4 parts per trillion, according to revised data provided Friday by the Department of Health and Environmental Control. During a March 16 news conference, DHEC said 78 public wells or water plants exceeded the federal limit, but department officials said Friday that was a mistake.

The 63 wells and water plants with elevated forever-chemical levels are operated by more than 50 utilities, large and small, according to agency data released Friday.

Agency data show that many of the affected water sources serve utilities in the Midlands and in eastern South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, although the chemical pollution can be found in drinking water in other areas, as well.

Only a handful of water sources, including wells serving the Wallace community in eastern South Carolina and the Siesta Cove RV Park west of Columbia, exceeded 20 parts per trillion, according to updated data.

The Siesta Cove levels for one type of forever chemical, known as PFOA, exceeded 130 parts per trillion — far higher than other water systems, records show. A person who answered the phone Friday at Siesta Cove said another park official who could comment was not available.

Jeremy Steen, general manager at the Wallace Water Co., said he will be talking to DHEC soon, but until he learns more, preferred not to discuss the matter. Wallace had a level for PFOA of 32 parts per trillion.

In addition to the city of Columbia, which has one of the state’s largest water systems, utilities serving parts of Aiken, Charleston, Beaufort, Marlboro, Georgetown, Greenwood, Kershaw, Cherokee, Newberry, Lexington, Florence and Saluda counties show levels of forever chemicals above the proposed new federal standard, according to DHEC.

In the Columbia area, other major utilities with water plants that have forever chemical levels above 4 parts per trillion include West Columbia and Cayce.

Cayce spokeswoman Ashley Hunter had no immediate comment but said a statement from the city would be forthcoming. West Columbia spokeswoman Anna Huffman also had no immediate comment.

Clint Shealy, Columbia’s assistant city manager over utilities, said the key is stopping forever chemical pollution at the source to help avoid costly water system upgrades. The city estimates it could cost Columbia in excess of $150 million for upgrades to comply with the proposed new limit.

DHEC officials said this week they are still trying to determine where the forever chemical pollution is coming from, but so far, they have been unable to pinpoint sources.

“DHEC is still collecting data and investigating what may be potential sources of PFAS in the environment,’’ the agency said in an email. “It is a complex issue but one DHEC is dedicating significant resources towards.’’

It’s no surprise that some of the water systems with PFAS levels above 4 parts per trillion are groundwater fed utilities in the central part of the state, agency officials said. That area, which includes Columbia, Florence and Aiken, has aquifers that are closer to the surface and more likely to be affected by contamination.

In addition to forever chemicals in public water systems, they also have been found in private wells near industrial plants and farms in eastern South Carolina and near military bases, including Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter County east of Columbia.