PFAS IN THE COLUMBIA RIVER BASIN: PART 2

A NextGen Blog post by Rachel Rebello, Rutgers University, 2019.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

ABOUT RACHEL REBELLO:  With a Rutgers University bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, Rachel is now pursuing a career in environmental law. This summer, Rachel has researched PFAS pollution in US waters in 3 posts for No Water No Life. Her 1st post focused on PFAS on the US East Coast by looking at NJ’s Raritan River. Her 2nd post examined PFAS in the US Midwest by addressing how PFAS are polluting the Mississippi River. Finally, her post last week on PFAS in the Pacific Northwest: Part 1 looks at the Columbia River, with Part 2 below detailing how Oregon and Washington are addressing these threats.


Currently, US states are gathering PFAS data in order to make regulatory decisions. With little guidance from the federal government, states are left to navigate the complex process of regulating and cleaning up PFAS on their own. Within the Columbia River Basin, Washington and Oregon are of special importance, as they encompass about a third of this transboundary watershed. Specifically, the basin covers around 36% of Washington State and 32% of Oregon.1Washington State Department of Natural Resources2LandScope America

Barge traveling downstream the Columbia River in Oregon.

Response to PFAS in Oregon

In Oregon, various agencies are addressing PFAS in the environment. As of now, Oregon has set no state-specific PFAS limits, guidelines or regulations. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) “is in the process of determining the acceptable exposure levels to these chemicals, including in our water,” says Ali Hamade, Deputy State Epidemiologist and Chief Science Officer at the agency. “To do that, we need to determine, in part, the relevant PFAS species that people in Oregon are exposed to.” 

Fire-fighters during a training exercise. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Part of the challenge in addressing PFAS is the large size of this chemical class. While PFOS and PFOA have been the most studied of these compounds, other types of PFAS in AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) and other products could also be present in the environment.

“The key information we are missing is Oregon-specific PFAS toxicity reference numbers that can be used to develop acceptable PFAS exposures from fish consumption and other media when PFAS measurements are available. This is what we have started working on,” says David Farrer, a toxicologist at OHA. For each state, the types of PFAS and their distribution in the environment varies.

Portland Fire and Rescue Bureau. Courtesy of Steven Pavlov.

Working closely with the OHA, “[Oregon’s] Department of Environmental Quality’s laboratory is developing the new EPA method(s) for testing PFAS in water,” says Kevin Masterson, Toxics Coordinator at the DEQ.3EPA PFAS Drinking Water Laboratory Methods “We hope to complete implementation and development of these methods by early 2021, so we could begin sampling next year in Oregon and the Columbia Basin Region if budgetary resources allow,” says Masterson.

Of particular interest is the 19-mile Columbia Slough, a highly urbanized and industrialized waterway flowing south of and parallel to the Columbia thru Portland, its port and the Willamette River before entering the river’s main stem. The slough is close to the Portland International Airport and Air National Guard. Currently, Oregon State University and U.S. Geological Survey are analyzing fish tissue and blood samples from the slough.

The results could provide a better sense of the types of PFAS in the Columbia River and help narrow contamination sources. In addition, the DEQ and OHA are conducting a drinking water screening and assessment project related to PFAS. This initiative aims to map the full extent of known and potential sources of PFAS pollution in the state. Since PFAS containing AFFF are not restricted in Oregon, PFAS may be used or distributed by many sectors.

As testing and monitoring efforts continue, PFAS investigations are underway at Portland International Airport and Portland Air National Guard through voluntary cleanup agreements with the Department of Defense and the Oregon DEQ. According to Dan Hafley, Senior Project Manager in the Northwest Region Cleanup Section of the DEQ, investigation efforts aim to “determine the nature and extent of contamination,” particularly with regard to PFOA and PFOS.  

Aerial view from helicopter of Washburn Isle near Bueno Bar on the Columbia River.

Response to PFAS in Washington

In Washington State, the Department of Ecology and Department of Health is in the process of finalizing a Chemical Action Plan (CAP) to address PFAS. The plan comes after a 2016 study detected PFAS in the Lower Columbia River. The interim CAP sets aside funding for additional sample testing of wells and water systems; identification of PFAS-containing AFFF sites; and launch of a pilot project to help various sectors dispose and replace PFAS-containing foams.4Washington State Department of Health

Washington State has passed two laws restricting use of PFAS in fire-fighting foam and food packaging. The former law prohibits manufacture, use, and distribution of PFAS containing fire-fighting after July 1st, 2020.  However, the restrictions do not apply to “military use or Federal Aviation Administration-certified airports, petroleum refineries and terminals, or large chemical plants.” This leaves a large source of PFAS contamination unregulated. In terms of food packaging, the Department of Ecology is conducting an assessment for PFAS alternatives. The latter law falls under the state’s Healthy Food Packaging Act and bans PFAS in microwave popcorn bags and various food wrappers, following identification of alternatives. PFAS will be prohibited in food packaging after January 2022.

Columbia Basin Tribes

Columbia River Tribes have also begun addressing PFAS through coordinated efforts and communications with the EPA. Dianne Barton, Water Quality Coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, has stated, “Based on tribal input, EPA added the goal of looking at fish tissue monitoring to its PFAS Action Plan.” In its comments on PFAS to the EPA in 2018, the National Tribal Toxics Council (NTTC), an EPA Tribal Partnership Group, asserted that, “EPA needs to act now to protect the environment, natural resources and people from contamination,” citing tribal fish-tissue levels exceeding 23 parts per billion in western Washington.

In its call to action, the NTTC says, “Tribes are overloaded with the extensive need to identify PFAS-contamination and remove or clean up the PFAS-contaminated materials.”5Barton, Dianne With more than 14 tribes in the Columbia River Basin, it is crucial to engage the support of tribal members and communicate with state agencies to mitigate the impacts of PFAS on human health.6Barton, Dianne

Chinook Tribe in the Columbia River Estuary

PRIORITIZING PFAS PROTECTION – for all!

In the race to clean up PFAS, different gaps in protection arise.

  • Only a handful of the nearly 4,000 chemicals in the PFAS class are being tested.
  • Key contamination contributors such as the military are exempt from state’s PFAS restrictions.
  • Manufacturers now use replacement chemicals such as GenX, and even short chain PFAS chemicals with similar chemical properties. Thus, these new chemicals must also be addressed.
  • Different types of PFAS found in AFFF (used by the military and others) could also be present, despite cleanup efforts being geared towards only PFOA and PFOS.

There is growing demand that both state and federal governments prioritize public health by ensuring that chemicals like PFAS are not released into the environment. Although a recent EPA rule requires companies to submit certain PFAS-containing products for review, more work needs to be done. If we don’t protect the Columbia River Basin, we threaten the very vitality of the Pacific Northwest.


Sources:

Barton, Dianne. EPA Comments on PFAS.  National Tribal Toxics Council. http://www.zendergroup.org/docs/nttc/10).pdf

Columbia Basin. Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Accessed July 2020 by RR. https://www.dnr.wa.gov/programs-and-services/geology/explore-popular-geology/geologic-provinces-washington/columbia-basin#:~:text=The%20CRBs%20cover%20an%20area,36%20percent%20of%20the%20state.

Columbia Plateau Ecoregion. LandScope America. Accessed Jul 20th, 2020. http://www.landscope.org/explore/natural_geographies/ecoregions/Columbia%20Plateau/#:~:text=State%20representation%20in%20the%20ecoregion,%25%2C%20followed%20closely%20by%20Idaho.

EPA PFAS Drinking Water Laboratory Methods. Accessed Jul 24th, 2020 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/epa-pfas-drinking-water-laboratory-methods

Interim Chemical Action Plan for Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances. Washington State Dept. Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, Jan 2019. Accessed July 20th, 2020 by RR. https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/documents/1804005.pdf

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