WESTFORD — Amid rising municipal water rates, the Water Department and Health Department hosted a webinar on future PFAS remediation in Westford.
Water rates set to rise
Municipal water rates, which have not increased since 2009, are set to increase by 22% on July 1.
Customers are billed on quarterly cycles, with usage priced in three tiers, with customers who use more paying more per cubic foot.
The department says it is increasing rates due to a “perfect storm of conditions.”
“A dramatic increase to operating expenses caused by inflationary pressures, combined with reduced revenues and the need to pursue PFAS treatment led to the decision to raise rates,” the department wrote in a release.
The department continued, “this rate is crucial for the Water Department to continue providing clean and reliable drinking water that meets both state and federal drinking water quality standards.”
The department is currently operating in a deficit, which forces the department to use cash reserves that are typically set aside to use in response to an emergency.
When asked about further increases, Water Superintendent Mark Warren says the department will “take it year by year” when discussing future changes.
Department to pursue PFAS remediation
During a July 22 webinar, Warren says the department is pursuing centralized PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances treatment in response to a recent Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would limit the amount of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
“We are pursuing centralized PFAS treatment,” Warren told attendees.
Massachusetts law currently allows up to 20 parts-per-trillion of PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Under new guidelines from the EPA, only 4 parts-per-trillion would be allowed in municipal drinking water once the rule is finalized.
“[These changes] will create a need for construction of PFAS treatment systems for Westford because we will not be able to consistently meet the lowered [maximum contaminant levels] MCLs,” Warren told WestfordCAT.
PFAS are a class of over 5,000 compounds fond in firefighting, industrial and commercial products.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these chemicals have been linked to several negative health effects, including increased cholesterol, a decreased vaccine response in children and an increase of kidney and testicular cancer. These compounds are so common that nearly every American, including newborns, carry PFAS in their bloodstreams.
As a result, the department will pursue construction of two PFAS treatment facilities. Warren estimates the cost of both facilities could range from $25 to $30 million.
“They’re [the facilities] going be attached to or on the same property our current two facilities. There will be one on Forge Road and one on Nutting Road,” Warren said.
Warren hopes to offset some of the cost with funding from recent litigation against PFAS manufacturers. A number of manufacturers, including 3M, Chemours, DuPont and Corteva have settled for a combined $11.49 billion to pay to a fund that will be used to remove PFAS from drinking water systems.
Current actions from the department
The department has taken a number of temporary steps in order to limit PFAS in Westford’s drinking water.
After elevated PFAS levels were found in the Country Road Well in Aug. 2021, the department removed the well from service.
The department recently received approval from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to operate the well under specific conditions with increased sampling. The well will remain online until Oct. 31.
“This is a very temporary solution, ultimately our solution is centralized PFAS treatment,” Warren said.
The department has continued to monitor PFAS levels at its existing groundwater wells, including wells on Forge Village Road, Nutting Road and Depot Road among others.v
“Virtually all of the wastewater generated in town, residential, commercial, municipal what have you is discharged at groundwater,” Warren said.
The Health Department also received approval for $20,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide assistance and testing to 50 private drinking wells.
Warren told WestfordCAT that the Water Department is discussing ideas with the Council on Aging to help low-income residents with their bills. He noted that though ideas for financial assistance have been considered, no final decision has been made at the time of reporting.
“We are thinking of something along the lines of means-tested assistance for water use, [such as] low income households meeting certain criteria,” he told WestfordCAT in an email.