Editorial: A struggle for clean drinking water

This image taken from video provided by National Transportation Safety Board shows damage from a World War II-era B-17 bomber plane that crashed at Bradley International Airport in October. Efforts to fight the resulting fire led to the discharge of PFAS chemicals into the environment.

The issue: The recently concluded year brought a new raft of environmental concerns for state residents, including one that even many well-informed advocates had never heard of. PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, are manmade chemicals that are potentially hazardous and can be found in thousands of consumer products and are resistant to heat, water and oil.

They are best known as a component of firefighting foam, and twice made news in Connecticut in 2019. In June, a fire-suppression system at a hangar at Bradley International Airport was accidentally activated, releasing about 40,000 gallons of firefighting foam with PFAS, some of which flowed through the sewer system into the Farmington River in Windsor. In November, a fatal crash of a World War II-era B-17 bomber, again at Bradley, led to yet more release of foam with PFAS into the environment.

Health risks from the substances include effects on the immune system and cancer.

What happened: The state, led by Gov. Ned Lamont, has taken the issue seriously, and made steps to address growing concerns. This summer, Lamont announced the formation of an inter-agency task force to develop a plan on how to measure and address the pollutants. At least eight states have passed or proposed legislation banning or restricting the use of firefighting foams with PFAS substances, but Connecticut has not done so.

In December, Congress approved a $295 million expenditure to study and clean up PFAS contamination across the nation even as the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to issue federal standards as to how much PFAS is allowed in drinking water.

What we said: “The state has a laudable environmental protection record, but true change needs to come from the federal level. Especially for a state as small as Connecticut, there is only so much that can be regulated within our borders to keep residents safe, as indicated with our continual problems with emissions from Midwest and Southern power plants.

“But the federal government … is entirely too beholden to corporate interests, slowing the pace of regulation and cutting necessary protections against everything from cancer-causing chemicals to greenhouse gas emissions. To wait for the federal government to act is to decide to do nothing.” Editorial, July 10, 2019

What’s next: The recently signed federal budget requires the EPA to report to Congress in 60 days with a plan for how it will create new drinking water standards for PFAS. Lamont’s task force has started to released recommendations, including to conduct testing of the 2,500 water systems, 150 reservoir systems and 4,000 groundwater sources that make up the public water supply in Connecticut — a costly but ultimately necessary step.

Connecticut may be eligible for some federal aid to test drinking water around the state, and leaders should ensure the state gets whatever it can. But though Connecticut can’t do everything on its own, it must not wait for the federal government. Vermont is among a number of states nationwide that have taken steps to institute strict PFAS limitations in local drinking water, and Connecticut in its next legislative session should follow suit.

Connecticut Media Group