As the EPA narrows in on PFAS regulations, Tucson hopes for federal priority

By Alisa Reznick
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2024 - 5:46am
Updated: Tuesday, April 16, 2024 - 10:25am

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Tucson Water Director John Kmiec
Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Tucson Water Director John Kmiec looks out at a human-made basin full of Colorado River water in the Avra Valley. The basin is one of several the city uses to store river water and allow it to seep into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

PFAS are a group of widely-used, human-made chemicals linked to health issues like cancer and thyroid disease. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a long-awaited set of drinking water standards for the chemicals this year. But contamination has already been found in thousands of communities around the country like Tucson.

The chemicals are found in a range of consumer and industrial products — including a special firefighting foam called AFFF used at airports and military sites like Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in the city’s southside. 

Groundwater here is thought to have been contaminated when that foam mixed with effluent and stormwater and seeped into the ground. Tucson Water Director John Kmeic says chemicals spread out from here.

“So groundwater slowly travels, but it still travels from central Tucson to the northwest towards Marana,” he said. “You see impacted groundwater at those two facilities — Davis Monthan, as well as the Morris Air National Guard Base — but then you see groundwater underneath, where the washes and streams, then the Santa Cruz River, going north all the way through the town of Marana.”

Marana is more than 30 miles away from the military sites clustered in Tucson’s southside. But, PFAS still show up in the water here.

“You’re looking at our PFAS treatment plant and 1,4 dioxane. UVA-LP inside there, and then we have our activated carbon in these vessels here,” said Paul Martinez, water operations manager at the Marana Water Department.

Kaulana Breitenbach,
Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Kaulana Breitenbach, water quality specialist for the Marana Water Department, shows a sample of the activated charcoal used to filter out PFAS particles from the water. The treatment plant began using the carbon system in 2021.

He’s pointing out these huge cylinders filled with activated carbon. Groundwater is pumped into one part of the facility and treated for contaminants like 1,4 dioxane using a giant UV light. Those carbon-filled cylinders are where remaining PFAS are absorbed. 

It’s a smaller version of the process underway at another treatment facility closer to the military sites in Tucson — where the highest concentrations of PFAS have been found. Today, Kmiec says no residents are drinking water with detectable PFAS levels.  

“So where Tucson Water and Marana Water sit is, a lot of people around the country are going to be jealous of us, because we’ve already proactively built these facilities,” he said.

But it’s been a long and costly road to get here. The city of Tucson has put some $50 million municipal funds into PFAS testing and treatment. Martinez says Marana has spent around $16 million. Wells where contamination was exceptionally high have been shut down. 

Now, the EPA is on the brink of releasing the first, legally enforceable federal standards for the chemicals. The agency has already issued several health advisories for PFAS over the years. But the upcoming regulations, known as the Maximum Contaminant Levels, will set formal limits on six types of PFAS identified as dangerous. Last March, the agency proposed limiting PFOS and PFOA, two of the most well-known types of PFAS, to 4 parts per trillion in drinking water. Put another way, one part per trillion is the equivalent of a single drop of food coloring in 18 million gallons of water.

A map showing where PFOS, one of the PFAS the EPA is proposing regulations on, has been found in Tucson's south side during testing over the last few years. The pink shaded area shows the TCE plume originally identified by the EPA. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality

An EPA spokesperson said those proposed limits are in an interagency review now that will consider thousands of public comments, and that the final rule will be released after that process is complete. 

Kmiec says he hopes the new limits will usher in a federal clean-up action at Davis-Monthan and other sites, so that the problem is addressed before it hits these treatment sites. 

“So the sooner those areas can be remediated, then in the long term, there should be less impact to the aquifer for generations to come,” he said.

Kmiec also hopes Tucson’s reliance on groundwater will afford it some priority when it comes to federal cleanup efforts. But this is far from the only site with contamination issues.

“Every person is now polluted with these chemicals, every living being is now contaminated with these chemicals,” said Melanie Benish, vice president of government affairs for the watchdog Environmental Working Group.

Federal and state data analyzed by the group in February found more than 5,000 instances of PFAS contamination across the U.S. — including several sites in Arizona. Locations exist in all 50 states, four U.S. territories and D.C. 

Benish says it’s a staggering, but unsurprising figure — PFAS don’t break down naturally, and they’ve been used for decades. She says getting the long-awaited EPA standards finalized will require federal and local action to address the contamination, and free up the money to do it.

“The cost of not cleaning up is communities where people may get sick, where people may get cancer, where people may get a host of other health harms as a result of exposure to these chemicals,” she said. “That’s not something anyone should have to live in fear of.”

Marana Water Department
Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Marana Water Department's Kaulana Breitenbach and Paul Martinez stand in front of a group of massive cylinders full of activated carbon, which is used to filter out PFAS.

That fear is something Yolanda Herrera knows well. She’s a fifth-generation Tucsonan who grew up a few miles from the military installments in the city’s southside. Jets from the National Guard Base nearby hiss through the sky as we talk. Years ago, the EPA designated this area as a Superfund site because of a different water contaminant known as TCE. The effort to address the impacts of that contamination is ongoing. 

“We keep losing family members,” she said. “My sister was just diagnosed with breast cancer, so she's gonna be undergoing radiation treatment starting next week.”

Under the stipulations laid out by the EPA’s Superfund designation, residents of Tucson’s  southside now receive water from the Colorado River, rather than groundwater. Municipal water authorities are also not serving any groundwater found to have PFAS as drinking water.

→ PFAS water contamination is in the national spotlight. In Tucson, it's the latest in a longer legacy

Still, Herrera says she’s worried about the damage contaminants already caused to residents who may have been consuming the chemicals before those changes took place. 

“It's like when you have an automobile accident and you get rear-ended and then you have another one. You get rear-ended again, and then you have a third one. You get rear-ended again,” she said. “Each one is gonna cause its own damage.”

Herrera says she hopes the new regulations will bring attention to the impacts of contamination and help shed light on what comes next.

“Our immune system is already weakened from TCE, then you have 1,4 dioxane, and now you have PFAS,” she said. “I think if we did a health assessment, we can at least prepare, or at least know what's going on with our bodies. And I'm not just talking about my generation — I'm more concerned about the future generations, because it's in my son's system, and I'm sure it's got to be in my grandchildren's system."

Yolanda Herrera
Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Yolanda Herrera shows a page from a book that depicts her mother, another multi-generational Tucsonan and military veteran. Herrera says her mother and other family members have dealt with serious health issues, like cancer, as a result of TCE.

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Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Yolanda Herrera stands outside the Children's Peace Garden, a community space she and her sister run that is tucked inside the Manuel Herrera Jr. Park, named after their father.
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