PFAS contamination calls into question Cambridge’s water supply strategy
A recent update from the Water Department on contamination in our water supply raises grave concerns for our health and safety. Levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances measured in September exceeded the state’s new PFAS Drinking Water Standard, adding to the case against sourcing our drinking water from salty highway runoff along Route 128. Like much of the state, we could be drinking Massachusetts Water Resources Authority water from the rural Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts, which contains no quantifiable levels of PFAS. The city has repeatedly refused to switch our water supply to the MWRA system, which is mechanically simple because it is already our back-up water supply, based on unfounded claims that this would be more expensive than continuing to provide our own water supply.
Massachusetts only recently began to regulate PFAS chemicals in our drinking water, even though they’ve been in existence since the 1940s and their adverse health effects are well documented, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. Although there are thousands of individual PFAS compounds in existence, the state regulates only six. The state’s allowable concentration for these six combined is 20 parts per trillion, although there are no “safe” levels for these compounds according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Recent measurements in Cambridge have been as high as 20.7 ppt, and neighboring communities that have consistently detected levels above 20 ppt are distributing bottled water to residents!
The city routinely spends grant money outside of the water fund on protecting our water supply, including recently $800,000 to buy 8 acres in Lincoln to keep land adjoining the watershed undeveloped and a $115,680 grant to complete the city’s pilot testing of a new PFAS filtration system. While the city’s Water Department is confident that they can get the PFAS levels down to below 10 ppt by implementing additional filtration, which is taking longer than expected, it’s important to note again that there are no “safe” levels. To protect our health and safety, we should switch to MWRA water immediately. Contrary to the city’s claims, there is no reason a permanent switch needs to be more expensive to residential ratepayers.
While it’s not possible to do an apples-to-apples comparison of water rates between Cambridge and neighboring Somerville (because quantity ranges and time periods differ), the cost of water in both cities is dominated by the sewer charges, which in Cambridge are significantly higher than Somerville even though both cities pay the MWRA for sewer. If we compare the combined water and sewer rates for residents in the two cities, they appear to be highly similar, even though Somerville sources its water from the MWRA while Cambridge provides its own:
Based on this comparison with Somerville there is no justification for the claim that residential users need to see a significant increase in their water bill if we were to switch our drinking water supply permanently to MWRA. Were we to do so, the Fresh Pond reservoir could be opened up to recreational uses and the filtered water derived from it could still be used by the city for non-potable applications such as cleaning vehicles and watering trees.
Quinton Zondervan is a city councillor.
Cambridge water has always been touted as among the best in the state. How does this square with that understanding? Has it changed? Has it never been true?
There appears to have been an increase in levels starting last spring. 2021 was a very wet year and with climate change, future years likely will be even wetter– will the future filtering be enough to counter the increased contamination from stormwater runoff?
It would be helpful to see one chart with monthly levels since monitoring began in Aug 2019. The 2021 levels by month (Jan.-Oct) are here: https://www.cambridgema.gov/Water/wateroperationsdivision/waterchemistryinformation/pfasinformation
An incomplete chart of some prior levels between Aug 2019-Dec 2020 is here: https://www.cambridgema.gov/-/media/Files/waterdepartment/labfiles/pfashistorical2019_2020_1.pdf
That’s some fuzzy math there. Anyone else notice that Somerville’s numbers are based on 4 months and Cambridge based on 3 months??
Based on the Cambridge water is already significantly higher. We want it to go even higher?
Guess you gotta fudge the facts when you want a pony.
Considering the problems that have been reported previously in regards to our Salt and Chlorine levels in our water in other publications (Scout Cambridge) and local public radio:
I would say Jean Cummings that you have been misinformed or mislead. The problems with out water in regards to 128 road runoff has been known for some decades.
Now that they are testing for additional chemicals its not a surprise that it is failing to meet the new standards.
The solution to pollution is not necessarily to bring in drinking water from somewhere else. We have a right to safe, locally sourced drinking water. And so do the animals that live among us.
I was alarmed three years ago when I moved to Cambridge. When I repeatedly boiled water to get moisture in the air , a disgusting gray crud accumulated in my pan. Since then, I have been buying spring water to drink. I hate buying all those plastic bottles, but I do faithfully recycle them. The only alternative for the excess calcium chloride would be to install a reverse osmosis filter. But, that would still not address the PFAS problem. I strongly support Councilman Zondervan’s position that Cambridge switch to the MWRA system. Cambridge is a wealthy city and has one of the lowest tax rates in the state; surely we can afford to buy safe water!!
The latest attempt to hide the expenses associated with our contaminated water supply is reflected in a line item in the proposed ARPA spending: https://www.cambridgema.gov/-/media/Files/citymanagersoffice/ARPA/arpacommittedandrecommendedprojectstodate113021.pdf
Replace GAC (granular activated carbon) Filters for PFAS Removal – 3 years $4,500,000.00
But for COVID-19 and the resulting federal relief funding, this $4.5 Million expense would have to be carried by Cambridge water rate payers. By using the ARPA funds instead, the city can continue to claim it’s cheaper to source our own water.