Black Bayou water treatment facility in rural Leland, Friday, March 25, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As public pressure mounts to reduce the threat of PFAS in drinking water, local utilities around the country are unsure how soon they can comply with pending regulations from the federal government. 

The Environmental Protection Agency, which legally enforces water quality standards in the United States, recently proposed its first limit on PFAS, sometimes referred to in the news as “forever chemicals.” The EPA expects to finalize a rule around the end of 2023, giving local water systems three years from then to come into compliance. 

But those in the water utility world fear the agency’s proposal is asking for too much, too soon, especially from smaller, rural systems. Chris Moody, regulatory technical manager with the American Water Works Association, said the proposal could mean rate increases that disproportionately affect customers of those utilities. 

“If you’re in a really metropolitan area, your utility bill(s) might go up $60 to $100 (over) the course of a year, which doesn’t seem as daunting,” said Moody, whose association represents the interests of over 4,300 utilities nationwide. “Whereas if you are in a smaller utility or in a smaller community, that’s maybe a rural community in Mississippi or Florida or wherever that’s a town of a couple thousand people, you’re talking about thousands of dollars a year (in bill increases).”

In Mississippi, about 70% of the water and sewer systems in the state are rural utilities that serve a population of 3,300 or less, according to the Mississippi Rural Water Association. 

How utilities will handle new PFAS rules largely depends on what funding the state and federal governments make available. Jason Barrett, a Mississippi State University professor who specializes in water utilities, said the new regulations might force smaller systems to consolidate if there’s not enough financial support. 

“That may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and they go, ‘Alright…we just need to merge with the adjacent system,’” Barrett said. 

In March, the EPA proposed the first federal limit on PFAS in residents’ tap water, which includes a cap of 4 ppt, or parts per trillion, on PFOA and PFOS, two of the more common types of PFAS, as well as limits on four other variants.

As of now, only a dozen states, not including Mississippi, either enforce PFAS limits in drinking water or have proposals to do so, according to Safe States. The National Conference on State Legislatures puts the number at 22 but over 30 states have some kind of policy aimed at reducing PFAS, such as in manufacturing. Mississippi, again, is not one of them. The state, though, is one of the many suing the manufacturers of PFAS, such as 3M and DuPont, for contaminating natural resources. 

Utilities will get some relief from lawsuits against those companies to help filter out PFAS. In June, 3M reached a proposed $10.3 billion settlement over PFAS contamination, just after DuPont, Chemours and Corteva settled their own lawsuit for $1.19 billion. Those funds will go towards cleaning local water supplies. 

It’s too early to tell who’s getting what. Exact details of the settlements haven’t been finalized, and utilities are still submitting claims for the money.

The EPA also recently announced $2 billion in funds, including nearly $21 million for Mississippi, for small and disadvantaged communities nationwide to help reduce “emerging contaminants,” such as PFAS.  

But some estimates suggest that funding might not be nearly enough. Engineering firm Black & Veatch, on behalf of the American Water Works Association, estimated the cost for utilities around the country to comply with the EPA’s proposal is around $50 billion. 

It’s unclear how widespread PFAS are in Mississippi’s drinking water, largely due to the fact the state doesn’t require testing. A Consumer Reports study of 149 connections and well water samples from around the state found some level of the contaminants in almost every sample, although only one of them – taken from Corinth – exceeded the limits the EPA proposed. 

One Ridgeland-based attorney, though, is working with rural utilities around the state to understand their PFAS levels, and confirmed to Mississippi Today that some of them had levels exceeding the EPA proposal. 

“We’ve seen some water providers that are going to have issues with the (proposed PFAS limit),” lawyer John Davidson said, without disclosing specific places or amounts. “Based on our testing, there are some that are going to have to do something, they’re going to have to figure out mitigation protocol for their water supply.” 

Moody with the American Water Works Association said if the EPA were to increase the limit to 10 ppt from 4, it would allow smaller utilities to better meet the EPA’s three-year timeline for incorporating the rule. The EPA based its proposed standard on identified cancer risks, water treatment costs and feasibility.

“The compliance window of three years is just not going to happen. Even if (the utilities) are sprinting, it’ll probably take them five years,” he said, before adding it could take small, rural systems closer to seven years. 

Caroline Ingram, an environmental specialist with Communities Unlimited who works with rural water systems in Mississippi on their finances, said smaller utilities can struggle getting the funding needed to make infrastructure improvements. 

“Some of these smaller systems do slip between the cracks,” she said. “I’ve got systems that are 100 people, and they just don’t have the capacity to pursue funding.” 

Ingram emphasized, though, that managers of those systems will work with what they have to enforce public health standards. 

“There might be a little education that needs to be completed,” she said. “But I know that the operators will be on board because there are so many that care about providing quality water. They’re public health workers.”

This investigation was conducted by Consumer Reports in partnership with Mississippi Spotlight, a collaboration between Mississippi Today, the Clarion Ledger and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. 

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.