Camanche has switched to untainted well to avoid PFAS

By: - May 9, 2023 4:15 pm

3M Company facilities that produce so-called "forever chemicals," like this plant in Minnesota, have contaminated land and water near them. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer)

An eastern Iowa town whose drinking water was found to be contaminated with “forever chemicals” has switched to an uncontaminated, backup well to temporarily deplete the chemicals that residents drank for years.

“The city of Camanche has been very proactive in working to address this issue,” said Scott Marquess, a compliance officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a recent meeting with residents.

Camanche, which lies along the Mississippi River, is poised to be among the first cities in Iowa to tackle water contamination by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — commonly known as PFAS — by upgrading its water supply system.

Camanche, a town of about 4,600, is among more than a dozen community water supplies in Iowa where state testing has revealed varying contaminations of PFAS. Camanche has attributed the chemicals to a 3M Company site.

The chemicals are pervasive and prevalent. Nearly all people in the United States are believed to have detectable levels of them in their blood. Long-term exposures have been linked to various health ailments, including cancers.

Federal regulators have indicated that even tiny concentrations of the chemicals in drinking water can have adverse health effects, and they are poised to set maximum concentrations that are allowable in treated water.

Other cities have taken steps to reduce or eliminate PFAS in their water, but Camanche might be the first to drill new wells to solve the problem.

The city’s efforts are aided by an agreement between the EPA and 3M to mitigate the problem in the area of the company’s plant near Cordova, Illinois.

The EPA determined that the facility — which manufactured and emitted PFAS for decades just across the river from Camanche — is likely responsible for the contaminations of public and private wells in the area.

The company has agreed to pay for two new wells for Camanche that are deeper than the two contaminated ones that were the primary sources of drinking water for the city.

City Administrator Andrew Kida said the new wells might not be online for another two years. In the meantime, the city is refurbishing a 1,290-feet-deep well that had long been maintained as a backup for periods of high water demand.

The other, contaminated wells have depths of 65 and 164 feet. Shallower wells are more susceptible to surface contamination.

The city switched to the deep well about three weeks ago. It is operating on a temporary pump that requires more electricity than what is available at the site, so the city is using a generator to supplement, Kida said. The city plans to install a new pump and greater power capacity.

It’s yet unclear what effect the deep well and the idling of the shallower wells has had on drinking water contamination. Recent tests of Camanche water are pending, Kida said. It’s possible that the contamination will gradually reduce as existing chemicals in the water distribution system are flushed out.

Tests in January of the water revealed contaminations by the two most-prominent PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — in concentrations of 7.8 and 6.9 parts per trillion, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The limits proposed by federal regulators are 4 parts per trillion for both chemicals.

Future PFAS contamination from the shallower wells is possible because they will be used as backups during high demand, such as firefighters’ use of water to extinguish a fire, Kida said.

The switch to the deeper well has also presented a new problem: hydrogen sulfide. The city is adjusting how much chlorine is used to treat the water to eliminate a sulfurous, rotten egg smell.

Kida said residents have been largely patient as the city attempts to solve its water woes: “Everybody understands what we’re up against and what we’re working towards fixing.”

He said potential sites for the new wells have been identified and that the next step is to drill test wells to determine whether they are suitable.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.