A NWNL 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.

Rachel Rebello graduated from Rutgers University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences. She enjoys learning about environmental issues and is currently pursuing a career in environmental law.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our world, forcing governments to take unprecedented action, shutting down businesses and schools, and altering our way of life. All are efforts to safeguard public health. Yet, another threat to public health persists: PFAS, a silent killer that has been pervading our waterways.

Today, PFAS (pronounced PEE-fas) are already present in the blood of 99% of all Americans.1Environmental Working Group These “forever chemicals” contaminate key water bodies, including the Mississippi River. The iconic US river is responsible for “92% of [U.S.] agricultural exports;” is home to “25% of all fish species in North America;” and is a drinking water source for millions of US residents. The health of the Mississippi River is closely entwined with the health of our nation.2National River and Recreation Minnesota

A young boy enjoying a swim in the Mississippi River.

What are PFAS?

Previously used in various products to create non-stick surfaces, PFAS comprise a class of nearly 4,000 chemicals with links to cancer and various diseases.3Gibbens, Sarah PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) are the most-studied PFAS chemicals. Found in Teflon pans, fire-fighting foam, popcorn bags, etc., PFAS accumulate and persist in the environment for long periods of time.4United States Environmental Protection Agency In the case of the Mississippi River, which flows for 2,350 miles, buildup of PFAS can have far-reaching effects, as they also contaminate connected water bodies and nearby groundwater sources thus impacting a multitude of communities.

The Upper Mississippi River, downstream of  St Paul MN.

Background on the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is divided into the Upper and Lower basin. The Upper basin begins at Lake Itasca, Minnesota and forms a junction with the Ohio River in Illinois. Continuing downstream, the Lower Mississippi accepts the White, Arkansas/Canadian and Red Rivers before passing New Orleans en route to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River also joins with the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Des Moines and Illinois Rivers before its confluence with the even longer Missouri River. In total, the river borders ten states, and acts as a drainage basin for 31 states.5United States Environmental Protection Agency

Mississippi River and its Tributaries. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The full extent of PFAS contamination of the Mississippi River is unknown

Mississippi River Lock & Dam #5, Winona MN

A large watershed like the Mississippi River Basin warrants a comprehensive information base. While PFAS have been in use since the 1950s, their effects on ecosystems in the Mississippi River Basin Area are not fully understood. To address this data gap, regional organizations like the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association are conducting PFAS sampling (for screening purposes only) in lock and dam sections, 17-21 of the river as part of a five state initiative. This data will inform states on concentrations of the contaminant in the upper portion of the river and demonstrate whether follow-up sampling will be necessary.6Lauren Salvato

“You have to look for a problem in order to identify a problem” – Sean Strom, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota boat launch onto the Mississippi River.

Although the full effects of PFAS on the agriculture and wildlife of this watershed is unclear, some states have developed fish advisories and impairment assessments. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have placed restrictions on consumption of certain fish due to PFOS.7Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources These rules apply from the river’s Pool 2 to Pool 6, Pool 8, and the portion connected to the St. Croix River, at Stillwater MN. [Editor’s Note: In the Mississippi River, “pools” are the wide stretches of water backed up between the USACE’s series of locks and dams that ensure safe, year-round navigation.]

The Minnesota Department of Health limits personal intake to 1 meal/week for fish with a maximum PFOS concentration of 200 ppb, and 1 meal/month for fish with a maximum of 800 ppb.8Monson, Bruce According to Bruce Monson, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) scientist,  Pool 2 of the Mississippi River is also listed as “impaired” due to levels of PFOS detected in the water. As data collection efforts intensify throughout the country, we may see a growing number of US water bodies listed as “impaired,” as well as changes in monitoring standards. Already the MPCA is working to develop its own criteria for concentrations of PFOS in its assessments. The process of collecting data and refining standards is critical to developing an effective plan for regulation and cleanup of PFAS.  

Key PFAS contamination sites along the Mississippi River

As data collections efforts continue, we can look at likely sources of contamination such as military sites and PFAS manufacturing in industrial complexes, as seen in the Environmental Working Group’s interactive PFAS map. Military sites are of key interest because they often conduct training exercises involving PFAS containing fire-fighting foam.

— Industry: The 3M in Cottage Grove MN site 

Spanning 1,750 acres along the Upper Basin of the River, the 3M Cottage Grove Plant was the first company site to produce large quantities of PFAS. This 3M plant quickly became the city’s “largest private investor” beginning in the 1950’s.93M Cottage Grove Plant In 2012, the 53-km section of the river near this Cottage Grove Site, designated as Pool 2, was listed as “impaired,” due to high levels of PFOS.10Lauren Salvato

Map of Rock Island Arsenal, situated in the Mississippi River in Iowa. Photo from Rock Island Arsenal website.

— Military: The Rock Island Arsenal, between Davenport and Rock Island IA

Military bases frequently use fire-fighting foam which contains PFAS, during training exercises. Further downstream at Rock Island Arsenal military site, the Environmental Working Group, revealed reports showing PFOS and PFOA levels of 7.9 ppt, and 3.3 ppt respectively, in tests conducted between 2016 and 2018.11Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University While these numbers fall well below the EPA drinking water lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, even small quantities of PFAS are dangerous as they accumulate in the body over time. Understanding how these affected areas are working towards remediation can help inform other impacted communities.

What has happened?

— 3M in Cottage Grove MN

Demanding accountability from companies responsible for manufacturing and dumping chemicals is an important step towards protecting rivers and remediating  damage. In 2012, the state of Minnesota reached an 850 million dollar settlement with PFAS manufacturer, 3M, for contamination of the Twin Cities East Metro Area.612Marohn, Kirsti The city of Lake Elmo, situated near the plant, also reached a 2.7 million dollar agreement in 2019 for contamination of key wells and drinking water sources.13Wilkes, Wendi The money for both claims will go towards residential water filters, and associated damages caused by contamination. As of today several PFAS manufacturers are engaged in legal battles.

— Military Sites

In the case of military sites, new legislative measures and legal suits are starting to pressure the US Department of Defense.14NYU School of Law The recently signed, National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 includes special PFAS provisions requiring the department to “prohibit use of PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) during training exercises; phase out “PFAS- containing AFFF by 2024;” and work on cooperative agreements to address and remediate PFAS contamination in water near military sites.15Environmental Working Group In the courtroom, ongoing lawsuits, led by families in Bucks Count PA, aim to hold the military financially responsible for medical monitoring of communities near contaminated sites. 16Lerner, Sharon The success of these lawsuits would safeguard the health of local people, and hopefully deter future use of “PFAS replacement chemicals (e.g., GenX) which have similar properties) at military sites.17United States Environmental Protection Agency

What’s next?

Currently, the EPA has listed PFOS and PFOA (the most studied chemicals under PFAS) on the fourth candidate contaminant list.18United States Environmental Protection Agency With enough input during the public comment period these PFAS can be prioritized for future regulation.

On the legislative side, pending bills such as the H. 535. PFAS Action Plan, which recently cleared the House of Representatives and is now under consideration in the Senate, would address a number of issues related to PFAS, and could notably trigger cleanup of contamination sites.

Safeguarding our health means protecting our environment!

Bald eagle on the Mississippi River. Sean Strom (WI DNR) states bald eagles are excellent indicitator species and used to identify areas for testing fish for PFAS.

The Mississippi River is only one of the US natural resources affected by PFAS. As communities across the nation confront PFAS in their rivers, we as consumers must educate ourselves on consumer products containing PFAS, hold polluters responsible, and reach out to ask local representatives for strong legislation on PFAS cleanup and remediation.

Protecting our rivers is about more than just cleaning our waterways. It is about safeguarding the natural resources that we depend on to preserve public health.


3M Cottage Grove Plant. 3M. Accessed Feb 15th, 2020 by RR. https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/plant-locations-us/cottagegrove/

 A Health Guide for Eating Fish in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2016. Accessed April 6th, 2020, by RR. https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing/documents/consumption/ChooseWisely2016Web.pdf

Basic Information on PFAS. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mar 3rd, 2016. Accessed Dec 11th, 2019 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

EPA Announces Proposed Decision to Regulate PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Feb 20th, 2020. Accessed Mar 18th,  2020 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-proposed-decision-regulate-pfoa-and-pfos-drinking-water

‘Forever Chemicals’: Teflon, Scotchguard and the PFAS Contamination Crisis. Environmental Working Group, Accessed Feb 5th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/taxonomy/term/41/all

Gibbens, Sarah. Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ more common in tap water than thought, report says, Jan 4th, 2020. Accessed Feb 7th, 2020 by RR. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/01/pfas-contamination-safe-drinking-water-study/#close

Lauren Salvato, Policy and Programs Director for the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association.

Lerner, Sharon. EPA Allowed Companies to Make 40 New PFAS Chemicals Despite Serious Risks, Sep 19th, 2019. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://theintercept.com/2019/09/19/epa-new-pfas-chemicals/

Marohn, Kirsti. And Sepic, Matt. 3M, Lake Elmo settle suit for $2.7M, land transfer in drinking water lawsuit. MPR News, May 21st, 2019. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/05/21/3m-lake-elmo-reach-tentative-settlement-in-pfas-drinking-water-lawsuit

Mississippi River Facts. National River and Recreation Minnesota, Nov 24th, 2018. Accessed Feb 5th, 2020 by RR. https://www.nps.gov/miss/riverfacts.htm

Monson, Bruce. Perfluorochemicals in Mississippi River Pool 2: 2012 Update. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, May 2013. Accessed Mar 2nd, 2020, by RR. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/c-pfc1-21.pdf

Navy Asks to Delay Landmark PFAS Case in Federal Court. Environmental Working Group, Nov 27th, 2019. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/release/navy-asks-delay-landmark-pfas-case-federal-court

PFAS Contamination in the U.S. Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University. Accessed Feb 10th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2019_pfas_contamination/map/

PFAS Federal Legislation. NYU School of Law, Jan 17th, 2020. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://www.law.nyu.edu/centers/state-impact/press-publications/research-reports/pfas-federal-legislation

The Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed Feb 15th, 2020 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/ms-htf/mississippiatchafalaya-river-basin-marb

Wilkes, Wendi. PFAS Provisions in the 2020 NDAA. Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, Dec 10th,2019. Accessed Feb 18th, 2020 by RR. https://www.asdwa.org/2019/12/10/pfas-provisions-in-the-2020-ndaa/


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

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:  Graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, Rachel is currently pursuing a career in environmental law. This 2-part post on PFAS in a critical West Coast watershed is Rachel’s final NWNL investigation of PFAS in US waters. Her first post looks at the East Coast’s struggles with PFAS in NJ’s Raritan River Basin; and her next post focuses on the Midwest by addressing PFAS in the Mississippi River Basin.

For centuries, the Columbia River has been an important part of life in the United States. Despite its immense environmental, economic and cultural significance, the river is beset by many universal challenges – from rising water temperatures to plastic pollution. Today, the Columbia River faces a new challenge: PFAS contamination.

Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, courtesy of Nicole Bratt.

What are PFAS?

Produced in the 1940s, PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are comprised of over 4,700 chemicals favored for their unique non-stick properties. They are used in various products including pans, food packaging, and fire-fighting foam. Manufactured by several companies (notably 3M) and used by the military, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are the two most studied chemicals in this class of PFAS. These chemicals have been linked to an increased risk for cancer; immunological hormonal impacts; and raised cholesterol levels.1United States Environmental Protection Agency Over the course of 80 years, PFAS have accumulated in our soil, rivers and in 99% of Americans.2Environmental Working Group

In the Pacific Northwest, the fight against PFAS is the fight to protect the Columbia River.

Map of the Columbia River, courtesy of Creative Commons.

The Columbia River Basin

Beginning in Canada, and touching seven U.S. states, the Columbia River runs about 1,200 miles before reaching the Pacific Ocean. A unique breeding ground to many species from bears to migratory warblers, the basin is home to 61 different fish species and host to massive salmon migrations.3Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Over 14 Native American tribes reside in the basin, their lives intertwined with the river.4Hobaish, Millie For cities and numerous municipalities, the Columbia River is an important source of power. Roughly 274 hydroelectric dams supply enough electricity to meet the yearly demands of 7,998,240 homes. In the agricultural sector, the river irrigates over 5.1 million acres of farmland.5Northwest Power and Conservation Council With so many people, animals and industries deeply connected to the Columbia River, understanding the extent of PFAS contamination is key to securing the livelihood of future generations.

The Columbia River as it heads to Portland International Airport, courtesy of Adam Hill.

PFAS sites along the Columbia River

As shown on the EWG Interactive PFAS Map, military bases and airports make up the majority of PFAS contamination sites along the Columbia River.  These sites conduct fire-fighting exercises using PFAS containing AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam). In particular, there are two sites in Oregon within five miles of the river’s main stem worth examining. Portland International Airport and Camp Rilea in Clatsop County, have tested positive for PFAS as of 2019.6Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University Because of their close proximity to the Columbia River, these facilities are prime suspects for contamination of the river.

According to the Environmental Working Group, groundwater well samples at Camp Rilea contained at least five types of PFAS, with maximum PFOA levels of 0.7 ppt. Portland International Airport showed detectable levels of at least six PFAS in groundwater, with maximum PFOA levels of 24,000 ppt and PFOS levels at 42,000 ppt. Two additional sites close to Portland International Airport – the Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau training facility and Portland Air National Guard Base – have also been cited for PFAS contamination.7Schick, Tony

Portland International Airport beside the Columbia River, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Within the entire Columbia River Basin, there are at least 10 additional military sites with detectable PFAS based on the EWG contamination map. Another notable contamination area includes Fairchild Air-force Base in Washington State which tested positive for 16 types of PFAS. PFOA and PFOS groundwater levels of 22,000 ppt and 150,000 ppt respectively were detected according to the Air Force Administrative Record. Contamination, even where minimal, can be hazardous. Even 7-10 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water may be unsafe according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).8Reade, Anne

A major concern regarding PFAS is that they do not break down in the environment and can accumulate to high concentrations in fish. Thus, PFAS pose great risks to both animal and human communities. According to a review by the Department of Defense, many AFFF products contain additional PFAS not detected by the older EPA method for testing drinking-water. This means that while PFOS and PFOA levels may be monitored, other long-chain PFAS may pass undetected.9Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Capitol, courtesy of Cory Barnes.

Part Two will be published on September 9, 2020 and take a deeper look into how local governments and Indigenous Tribe’s are addressing the PFAS crisis in the Columbia River Basin.


Basic Information on PFAS. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mar 3rd, 2016. Accessed Dec 11th, 2019 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

Columbia River: Description, Creation, and Discovery. Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Accessed June 25th, by RR. https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/columbia-river-history/columbiariver

Columbia River Fish Species. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Accessed June 25th, 2020 by RR. https://www.critfc.org/fish-and-watersheds/columbia-river-fish-species/

‘Forever Chemicals’: Teflon, Scotchguard and the PFAS Contamination Crisis. Environmental Working Group. Accessed Feb 5th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/taxonomy/term/41/all

Hobaish, Millie. Tribes of the Columbia River System. Confluence Project, Oct 10th, 2019. Accessed June 25th, 2020 by RR. https://www.confluenceproject.org/library-post/tribes-of-the-columbia-river-system/

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

PFAS Contamination in the U.S. Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, Jul 20th, 2020. Accessed Jul 24th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/map/

Reade, Anne. CDC Report on PFASs: A Good Start But Improvements Needed. National Resource Defense Council, Aug 21, 2018. Accessed July 20th, 2020 by RR. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/anna-reade/cdc-report-pfas-good-start-improvements-needed

Schick, Tony. Firefighting Foam Contaminated Northeast Portland Groundwater. Oregon Public Broadcasting, Feb 27th, 2019. Accessed Jul 24th, 2020 by RR. https://www.opb.org/news/article/groundwater-contaminated-near-portland-wells-used-for-drinking-water/


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


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.


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


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

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.

NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships since 2007. Now our NWNL NextGen Blog site will further support student voices. We invite students to email us blog proposals on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Rutgers University sits on the banks of New Jersey’s Raritan River, a NWNL case study watershed. With a Rutgers BS in Biological Sciences, author Rachel Rebello’s connections to the Raritan River Basin and the environment make this a great launch for our first NWNL NextGen Blog post. Her research for this article on the critical and complex story of PFAS foretells a successful career for Rachel in environmental law. [For more PFAS info, see our NWNL Voices of the Rivers transcription of a 2018 talk at Rutgers by Dr. Sandra Goodrow on “PFAS in NJ’s Water.”]

The Raritan River in Edison, New Jersey (Photo by Rachel Rebello).

Who Owns the River? Is it you? Is it me? Is it residents, millions of whom get their drinking water from the river?

New Jersey’s Raritan River passes through and/or borders seven counties (Morris, Hunterdon, Somerset, Mercer, Monmouth, Middlesex, and Union) before flowing into the Raritan Bay and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean.1Rutgers University With so many communities depending on the Raritan, one would expect the highest level of care for such an iconic part of New Jersey. And yet, ask any resident about the Raritan River, and she is quickly dismissed as polluted, contaminated, and unclean.

[NWNL Editorial Note: The author’s use of “she” for the river suggests a future discussion of a growing interest in granting the rights of personhood to rivers and ecosystems – an issue which NWNL has followed with interest.]

Many are quick to take for granted or use their local rivers without fully understanding the value of owning those rivers. Ownership demands a commitment to preserving and protecting the river. While perhaps easier said than done, poor ownership has very real and very dangerous consequences.

Consider water contamination in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a rural town upheaved by the actions of the DuPont chemical company. Mark Ruffalo’s new film Dark Waters focuses on DuPont’s ill motivated and unethical disposal of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) a chemical class with a fluorinated, long carbon chain. The recently released movie sheds light on the dire impacts of poor regulations of water usage and poor policing of “forever chemicals” such as PFAS.2Rich, Nathaniel

The DuPont Parlin Facility in Sayreville, NJ (Photo by Rachel Rebello).

PFAS: A Forever Problem?

Beginning in the late 1930s, PFAS were developed for their water- and oil-repellant properties. Their use in various products such as Teflon, waterproof clothing, grease-proof food packaging and firefighting foam have allowed these chemicals to disperse throughout communities worldwide. Unfortunately, their unique characteristics proved toxic and extremely problematic to both public health and the environment.3Jones, Alison PFAS are especially insidious since they are not broken down in the body or in the environment. Thus, PFAS can accumulate to high levels. Per the EPA, “Exposure to PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy….” Other documented effects include cancer, damage to the liver, weakening of the immune system and changes in thyroid and cholesterol levels. 4United States Environmental Protection Agency

As a result of the efforts by environmental attorney Robert Bilott, who led the West Virginia suit against DuPont, the EPA and other government organizations, two specific PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) are no longer being produced in the United States. Other PFAS are currently being phased out in collaboration with the EPA and the top eight PFAS manufacturers.5Goodrow, Sandra Despite discontinuation of PFAS, these forever-lasting chemicals persist in the environment, contaminating key rivers such as the Raritan River.

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The Kin-Buc Landfill has undergone remediation since its closing in the late 70’s (Photo by Rachel Rebello).

The Raritan River Basin lies at the heart of NJ’s contamination by PFAS, as it contains sites representing “four of the most common PFAS sources: fire training/fire response sites, industrial sites, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants/biosolids.”6The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council This PFAS contamination poses a threat to both natural ecosystems and the health of New Jersey residents, since the Raritan River is an important drinking-water source and recreational area for many.

A study conducted by the NJDEP on levels of PFAS in New Jersey’s fish, surface water and sediment found PFAS concentration near the Kin-Buc landfill along the Raritan River that measured 49.4ng/L (nanograms/liter). There was also a PFOA concentration of 8.7 ng/L and a PFOS concentration of 6.9 ng/L.7Goodrow, Sandra While these levels fall below the NJDEP’s 14 ng/L and 13 ng/L maximum contaminant levels for drinking water (for PFOA and PFOAS, respectively), the very presence of these chemicals in the Raritan should be cause for alarm.8NJDEP Site Remediation Program

On March 15th, 2019, the NJDEP sent a Statewide PFAS Directive, Information Request and Notice to Insurers of the eight companies responsible for PFAS contamination in NJ.  The NJDEP cited the DuPont Parlin Facility as a contributor to PFOA contamination in soil, air, ground water and private wells. From the early 20th century on, this Sayreville NJ plant manufactured camera films and car paint in the Raritan River watershed. 9Sullivan, S.P.

While the full extent of PFAS contamination of the Raritan River specifically is unfortunately currently unknown, this map by the Environmental Working Group demonstrates the overwhelming breadth of New Jersey’s drinking water PFAS contamination problem.

The 7 counties in the Raritan River Basin. With permission of Rutgers Raritan Initiative.

Our Responsibility to the Raritan

The Raritan River abutting the Kin-Buc Landfill (Photo by Rachel Rebello).

With our new awareness of use of modern “forever chemicals” in manufacturing, the question of ownership arises once more. Every NJ resident should be aware of the lethal impacts of today’s new PFAS pollutants and come forward to protect the river and preserve the public health of NJ residents by taking ownership of the Raritan. Responsibility also lies on Raritan River Basin communities to ensure that the EPA monitors the Raritan’s water quality; to hold polluting companies accountable for irresponsible disposal of contaminants; to demand legislators prioritize the health of the river; and to take pride in this critical natural resource so that chemicals like PFAS do not jeopardize our way of life.

As consumers we have the power to spend our money on products that do not hurt the environment. Boycotting and avoiding use of products containing PFOS and PFOA can reduce the incidence of these chemicals entering our homes and our waterways. Items imported into the U.S. from other countries can also contain PFAS. The following items MAY contain PFAS, thus be sure to check product information before purchasing the following:10Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Old  Teflon ad, courtesy Creative Commons.
  • Grease-resistant paper
  • Fastfood containers
  • Microwave popcorn bags
  • Nonstick cookware
  • Water resistant clothing
  • Cleaning products
  • Detergents
  • Paints
  • Varnishes
  • Sealants
  • Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss, makeup)
  • Carpets
  • Textiles

We Must Monitor the Raritan River

Organizations such as the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership conduct yearly citizen-science projects that collect data on the health of the river. While these projects do not assess PFAS levels, the EPA uses their data to inform their policy decisions. Data collection also informs ordinary people about the health of the river and its access points. All interested can sign up for free training programs and information on joining the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership. Increases in public engagement in data collection and added pressure for regular and improved contaminant testing of the Raritan River are important steps towards a more comprehensive and thorough understanding of the river.

An EPA Infographic on its efforts to combat PFAS

We Must Raise Awareness

In our own lives, we can spread the word on PFAS. We can educate and mobilize our local community. If enough people grasp the effects of PFAS and the importance of protecting the Raritan River, we can convince representatives and pressure lawmakers to set and enforce high standards of water quality  – a critical priority for New Jersey. Already efforts in North Jersey have begun in order to hold chemical companies such as DuPont and Chemours accountable for damages and costs caused by PFAS contamination in the town of Pompton Lakes.11Northeastern University University Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute

Moving forward we must push for more stringent checks on chemical companies so that “replacement chemicals” for PFAS do not create similar challenges. We may have been too late to prevent the spread of PFAS and consequent damages, however we can proactively address future chemical threats before they are released into the environment. Chemicals and potentially dangerous contaminants should not be in our waterways or in our drinking water.

The Raritan River represents just one watershed flowing through New Jersey. However, it is incumbent upon each of us to take ownership of our waterways in our own communities.


“Basic Information on PFAS.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mar 3, 2016. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

“Contaminants of Emerging Concern.” NJDEP Site Remediation Program. Mar 13, 2019. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.gov/dep/srp/emerging-contaminants/

Goodrow, Sandra. Investigation of Levels of Perfluorinated Compounds in New Jersey Fish, Surface Water, and Sediment.  NJDEP Division of Science, Research, and Environmental Health, Jun 8, 2018, accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/publications/Investigation%20of%20Levels%20of%20Perfluorinated%20Compounds%20in%20New%20Jersey%20Fish,%20Surface%20Water,%20and%20Sediment.pdf

Goodrow, Sandra. “Investigation of Levels of Perfluorinated Compounds in New Jersey Fish, Surface Water, and Sediment.”  NJDEP Protection Division of Science, Research, and Environmental Health, Jun 8, 2018. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/publications/Investigation%20of%20Levels%20of%20Perfluorinated%20Compounds%20in%20New%20Jersey%20Fish,%20Surface%20Water,%20and%20Sediment.pdf

Jones, Alison. “PFAS – Forever Chemicals in Our Water” for No Water No Life, Dec 10, 2019. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://nowater-nolife.org/pfas-forever-chemicals-in-our-water/

NICKRAPP21. DuPont and Chemours sued by New Jersey over pollution in Pompton Lakes and other sites. Northeastern University University Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, Apr 2nd 2019. Accessed by RR. https://pfasproject.com/2019/04/02/dupont-and-chemours-sued-by-new-jersey-over-pollution-in-pompton-lakes-and-other-sites/

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Apr 2015. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by R.R. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/pfas-exposure.html

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Fact Sheets. The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, Nov 2017. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://pfas-1.itrcweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/pfas_fact_sheet_introductory__11_13_17.pdf

Rutgers Raritan River Initiatives. Rutgers University, Feb 2, 2016. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. http://raritan.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Rutgers-Raritan-River-Initiatives-11-x-17_2018-02-06-Draft.pdf

Rich, Nathaniel. “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” The New York Times Magazine. Jan 6, 2016. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html

Sullivan, S.P., “’We’re taking on DuPont,’ Murphy’s AG says.” NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. Mar 27, 2019. Accessed Dec 11, 2019, by RR. https://www.nj.com/passaic-county/2019/03/were-taking-on-dupont-murphys-ag-says-nj-is-suing-over-decades-of-pollution-at-these-4-sites.html


Voices of the Future

By Sarah Ross, NWNL Assistant Director. Photos by Alison M Jones.

INTRO (by Alison M Jones, NWNL Director):  Watershed education is one of three NWNL Mission Goals. Thus since 2007, NWNL has hosted student interns and blog posts. In 2020, NWNL Assistant Director Sarah Ross formalized this focus by creating a NWNL NextGen Blog Series. Our new NWNL NextGen Slack channel allows our growing team of college students, graduates and high school seniors to discuss watershed values, threats and solutions.

NWNL welcomes NextGen Blog Proposals from higher-level students or graduates researching watershed issues.

The last few years have underscored the power of youth in environmental action. Since the completion of our final NWNL watershed expedition to document Egypt’s Nile River Basin (Nov. 2019), one major goal has been to further support watershed education. Thus in early 2020, we launched our NextGen Blog series as a mentoring and publication opportunity for college students and graduates researching freshwater and related environmental issues.

Since school closures began in early March (due to the COVID 19 pandemic), we have worked with 12 passionate students pursuing careers in environmental science, nonprofit stewardship and journalism. Already NWNL has published 20 of their blog posts. To further help these bloggers, NWNL has set up a NextGen Slack channel designed for this NextGen team’s communications, messaging and file-sharing. In this new NWNL community, our student bloggers can pursue their common interests together and brainstorm potential blog topics. Already, our NextGen Blog posts have covered a wide range of critical watershed topics, including PFAS contamination, climate change, Indigenous rights and granting rivers environmental personhood rights.

NWNL has utilized its supportive team of Partners and Advisors to help connect these freshwater stewards and scientists of tomorrow with some of today’s top environmentalists. We are proud to support so many NextGen authors focused on environmental justice and the growing inequities and intensification of global water issues facing minority and low-income populations.

As we continue to welcome more student contributors to our NWNL NextGen Blog, below are summaries of some our most popular and thought-provoking NextGen posts of this year!


A graduate of Rutgers University, Rachel Rebello wrote a 4-part blog series on PFAS (“Forever Chemicals”) that are contaminating NWNL’s 3 US case study watersheds. Her extensive and valuable research looks at PFAS in NJ’s Raritan River Basin, the Mississippi River Basin and the Columbia River Basin (Part 1 and 2). NWNL connected Rachel with our Advisor Dr. Judy Shaw for advice on law school applications, and now congratulates Rachel as she embarks on her first semester at Boston University Law School. This brings her one step closer to a promising future in environmental law.    


Recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta in central NY, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in environmental sustainability. Her blog on the rise of “Environmental Personhood” presents a dynamic solution to today’s critical need to protect global freshwater resources. While the effectiveness of “Environmental Personhood” continues to be debated, the movement does signify “a growing recognition of the critical relationship between humans and the natural world.”


This NextGen Blog post by Stony Brook University student Johanna Mitra highlights the value of “Citizen Science” in New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin. “Citizen Science” is the collaboration between scientists and untrained people that promotes scientific research on a community-level. Johanna discusses her motivating interview with Dr. Heather Fenyk, a NWNL Partner and Founding Director of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership. Water-quality assessments by citizen scientists in the Lower Raritan have allowed decision makers and other stakeholders to determine critical at-risk areas and prioritize their restoration efforts. 


California native, Ruby O’Connor now studies Liberal Arts in Ireland at the University College of Dublin, applying her strong concerns for environmental and social justice. Ruby’s investigation into America’s growing water crisis covers the multi-pronged dangers of aging infrastructure, rising utility bills, climate change challenges, and polluted waters facing communities of color subject to higher risks of a lack of available and clean fresh water.