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These three Berkshires water systems were shut down due to PFAS 'forever chemicals'

Water faucet

Most water systems and wells in the Berkshires have escaped serious contamination with PFAS chemicals. But with tighter proposed safety thresholds from the EPA, that could change.

There are plenty of theories, but Kevin Swail doesn’t know exactly how one of Lanesborough’s two drinking-water wells got so polluted with carcinogenic “forever chemicals” that it had to be shut down three years ago.

Swail, the town’s Village Fire and Water District superintendent, also doesn’t know how long high levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, known as PFAS chemicals, have tainted it.

Luckily, there’s a second well. But the town has to find a new backup, and all of it is still costing a whole lot of time and money.

Turns out, Lanesborough isn’t alone.

“It’s a serious issue,” Swail said of PFAS contamination. “Nationwide and worldwide.”

It could be worse. While two other water wells in Berkshire County were also shut down due to mysteriously sky-high PFAS levels, most of the Berkshires has escaped severe contamination, according to state data gathered since testing was first required for public systems in 2020.

The chemicals, however, have seriously contaminated the three wells in Berkshire County, and in other parts of the state.

Most local systems show trace amounts and rarely at that. And a sample of private wells tested through a free and voluntary state program mostly showed scant contamination or none at all.

A household well in Richmond and another in Washington were the only ones to show elevated levels and those were at almost half the state’s safety threshold.

PFAS are added to a wide array of products for stain and water resistance, as well to cosmetics for texture. The chemicals are used in the lining of pizza boxes and takeout containers, microwavable popcorn bags, lipsticks, creams, nonstick pans, dental floss. The list goes on; that’s why they’ve also gotten into the food supply.

The problem is, PFAS don’t break down easily, and they build up in the body. Scientists have found a connection between PFAS and cancers, thyroid problems and a slew of other health issues.

No one is sure exactly how much exposure is safe, and their proliferation makes them hard to control.

That is why regulators want to tighten the rules. In March the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed significantly lowering the maximum safety threshold for the chemicals in drinking water. If those rules are finalized by the end of 2023, Massachusetts will have to follow suit.

Gov. Maura Healey also wants to crack down. But to do so means an expense that she says is “astronomical.”

‘Not just a money thing’

In Lanesborough, the water district knows just how expensive PFAS contamination can be after the Bridge Street well hit a high of 317 parts per trillion in 2021 and had to be shut down. That’s about 16 times the state’s threshold.

Kevin Swail is the Lanesborough Fire and Water District's Superintendent. Swail had to shut down a well in 2021 due to high PFAS contamination. No one is sure of the source of the source of the chemicals in such high quantities. 

The only water source now is the Miner Road well, which has only a trace amount of PFAS. Because the state requires two water sources, the district will probably drill a well off Bull Hill Road.

Swail said the district began testing for PFAS before the state required it.

It hasn’t been easy or cheap. Testing for it alone cost $15,000 last year, according to a town report. One sample for one well can run from $250 to $350 at Housatonic Basin Testing in Lee, which gathers samples for most public systems in Berkshire County. The state also requires the water district to continue testing the shuttered well.

Lanesborough is applying for DEP grants to help cover costs. There’s the monthly testing, the $250,000 to $1 million it will cost to treat the system and another estimated $1 million to drill the new Bull Hill well, said William Prendergast, chair of the district’s commission.

In Lanesborough, the Bridge Street well hit a high of 317 parts per trillion in 2021 and had to be shut down. The well and the Lanesborough Fire and Water District headquarters is protected as a small watershed. The town is using its backup well, but has to drill for a new one, since every municipality needs a backup.

“It’s not just a money thing,” he said. “It’s a time thing.”

Prendergast can only speculate about the source of the chemicals. There hasn’t been any related industry in the area.

“The only other factor being considered is Teflon getting into the septic system,” Prendergast said. “That’s kind of a far-fetched suggestion at this point but nobody’s ruling that out. Half the population of Lanesborough has septic systems upstream of our wells.”

Cosmetics are another possibility, Prendergast said, since “they get flushed.”

‘The great unknown’

No one is sure why the well at Egremont Town Hall tested last May at roughly twice the state’s maximum safety limit. Because the public doesn’t drink the tap water there, the DEP said the town doesn’t need to act.

“We drink bottled water here,” Juliette Haas, director of the Board of Health, said, “and it’s available to anyone who comes here.”

The municipal buildings in Egremont are served by a common well that is contaminated with PFAS levels that exceed the state's safety threshold. From left: Town Hall, the town's police and fire departments. Bottled water is available.

But the town’s Board of Health wants to know what the contamination might mean for nearby private wells. The board might entertain suggesting well samples at properties in a radius around Town Hall, Haas said, and look for money to help homeowners pay for it should they choose to test.

Haas doesn’t want to speculate about the cause of the pollution.

PFAS found in bottled water sold in Vermont

“That’s the great unknown,” Haas said. “Wells are a great unknown. There are different veins — veins in wells have fissures.”

PFAS are not found in Egremont’s Water Department system, which draws from Karner Brook and serves about 650 people.

Health officials like Haas are still learning about PFAS. Great Barrington’s Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk said her office would step in if a private well was contaminated.

“This, thankfully, has not come up in Great Barrington,” Jurczyk said. “If it does, I personally would want to work closely with DEP to ensure the best outcome for the property owner.”

The hairpin turn mystery

In early April Gov. Healey announced a $1 million grant for a number of small public water supplies statewide. Included is $50,000 for Golden Eagle Restaurant on the Mohawk Trail in Clarksburg to test and install a new well.

The Golden Eagle restaurant sits on the Hairpin Turn on Route 2 at the North Adams and Clarksburg line east of the Whitcomb Summit. The restaurant has to replace its water well due to contamination with PFAS from an unknown source. The state is pitching in $50,000 to help.

That’s because PFAS levels in the well water tested last spring at nearly 40 times the DEP limit. Given the “unacceptable risk,” the DEP required the restaurant to use bottled water for drinking and for making soups or other foods that use water, according to DEP documents furnished by the agency.

The owners did not respond to requests for comment.

Their attorney, Christopher Myhrum, said that even before the new DEP testing rules and the discovery of PFAS pollution, the restaurant gave guests bottled water because test results from the well revealed too much sodium. High sodium levels, Myhrum said, were caused by road salt over the years applied to the hairpin turn. The restaurant sits downslope at the bend, so the salt had seeped into groundwater.

Myhrum said that to treat the PFAS problem, the restaurant first has to deal with the sodium.

The bend in the hairpin turn also has been the scene of a number of crashes and fuel spills over the years, but the PFAS pollution might not be connected to that. A preliminary investigation by the owners found that it could be a “chemical” that the state has been applying to the road uphill from their well, according to DEP documents. The chemical is not named in a letter Myhrum sent to the DEP, and Myhrum would not comment on that. The owners and Myhrum are asking the DEP for help finding the culprit.

Such sleuthing can be full of surprises. In the Netherlands, for instance, road salt was found to have high levels of PFAS, according to the NL Times, an English language news website.

But most of the Berkshires has been spared that kind of PFAS mess.

“In the vast majority [of communities] it hasn’t been detected,” said Erick Bartlett, a water operator at Housatonic Basin Sampling and Testing in Lee. “A few places it’s been a surprise. Places we thought we’d see it, we didn’t.”

Bartlett said PFAS are so prevalent in products that there is a list of things the person taking samples can’t wear due to the sensitivity of the lab test. Those include Gore-Tex waterproof fabric, clothing with fabric softener and hand creams.

And that’s one of the ways PFAS chemicals get into the water.

“They end up going down the drain,” Bartlett said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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