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State to get money to remedy water contamination | News

BOSTON — Massachusetts is getting a windfall of federal money to help remove lead, “forever chemicals” and other contamination from drinking water systems.

On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the state will receive $188 million next year through its State Revolving Fund programs.

The money comes from a $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last month, which provides more than $50 billion for states to update drinking water and wastewater systems. Initially, the EPA will be releasing $7.4 billion in clean water funds to the states, tribal nations and territories.

In a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, EPA Administrator Michael Regan encouraged the state to maximize the impact of water funding to “address disproportionate environmental burdens in historically underserved communities.”

“Every state in America has disadvantaged communities — rural, urban, suburban — that have deeply rooted water challenges whether it is too much, too little or poor water quality,” Regan wrote. “These communities have never received their fair share of federal water infrastructure funding.”

New Hampshire will get $72 million, according to the federal agency. Overall, the New England region will receive more than $536 million for water projects.

Details about how the money could be spent will be released later, the EPA said, but the overall focus should be on removing lead and so-called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances from drinking water systems.

An EPA spokesperson said the money can also be used to address combined sewer outfalls that spew sewage into rivers during major rain events.

Designed long before the Clean Water Act was written into law in the early 1970s, the systems collect storm water in the same pipes as sewage and are designed to overflow when they become inundated, usually because of heavy rain.

Since May, more than 1 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage have flowed into the state’s rivers from 229 active CSOs located in 19 communities, including the Merrimack River, according to state environmental officials.

Public health officials say overflows pose health risks to those who use the river for boating and swimming, as well as communities that draw drinking water from it. An estimated 600,000 people get drinking water from the Merrimack River.

Lead contamination from the state’s aging pipes and plumbing systems is another major concern for drinking water supplies.

In 2017, Massachusetts officials disclosed that water testing at more than 1,000 public schools found a majority had at least one sample showing lead levels above regulatory limits.

Public health officials say no amount of lead in water is safe. Even low concentrations can be harmful, particularly for young children and the fetuses of pregnant women.

Massachusetts is also dealing with contamination from PFAS chemicals which have been detected in tests of the Merrimack River and other waterways.

The compounds used to make products from rain coats to upholstery have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the human body and can take thousands of years to degrade. Research has found potential links to illnesses such as kidney cancer and high cholesterol, among other ailments.

MassDEP requires drinking water systems to test for PFAS under rules that went into effect this year. The state requires a plan to remove the contamination if tests for any of six types of PFAS 20 parts per trillion.

More than two-dozen communities have drinking water systems that exceed those levels and are working with regulators to remove the contamination, the state agency said.

Tests conducted last fall by the U.S. Geological Survey found a toxic brew of PFAS compounds in each of the 27 rivers and brooks sampled for the substances.

In many cases, levels exceeded the state’s standard for drinking water of 20 parts per trillion. Tests of the Merrimack River detected levels from 9 to 35 parts per trillion.

The highest levels were detected in the Shawsheen River, with contamination exceeding 100 parts per trillion for some compounds.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.


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