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Tucson is one of the first places in line for money to clean up PFAS

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In April, the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, announced it is making another $1,000,000,000 available to clean up so-called forever chemicals in drinking water supplies across the country. One of the first places in line for that money is Tucson, Ariz. Alisa Reznick with member station KJZZ reports.

ALISA REZNICK, BYLINE: Contaminated drinking water has been a problem in Tucson for at least 40 years. Local officials found chemicals from a jet engine cleaner used at military sites in some of the city's groundwater wells in the 1980s. It was water that Roberto Jamarillo (ph) and his neighbors were drinking, swimming in and using in their swamp coolers. He's lived in Tucson's south side since he was 7 years old, and he's in his 70s now.

ROBERTO JAMARILLO: It affects the kids, and it affects the elder. Well, guess what? My age group, we've been both. We are both. We were the kids back then, and now we're the elders.

REZNICK: As part of a Superfund settlement, Tucson built a new water treatment plant in the 1990s. But in the last few years, authorities have identified another contaminant in the water here, PFAS. The human-made chemicals are used in products ranging from nonstick cookware to waterproof jackets. They've been linked to cancer and immune system disorders, and they're known as forever chemicals because they don't break down on their own in nature. It's believed the contamination in Tucson came from firefighting foam used at military bases and airports in the area, the same facilities behind the contamination Jamarillo was exposed to growing up. He says his community has been trying to sound the alarm on PFAS for a long time.

JAMARILLO: Well, it's a long time coming. I mean, we've been waiting for this for, God knows, at least 10 to 15 years - EPA act on it. It's not for the lack of asking.

REZNICK: More than two dozen wells have been taken offline because of PFAS since 2021, and the city has spent millions to remove the chemicals. That's the bad news. The good news for Tucson now, though, is that the techniques used to treat previous water contamination can also remove PFAS.

KALANA BRATZENBAUGH: So this is granular activated charcoal or granular activated carbon that's charcoal based.

REZNICK: Kalana Bratzenbaugh (ph) is a water quality specialist for the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. We're in a buzzing warehouse that's part of Marana's newest water treatment facility. Bratzenbaugh is holding up this big mason jar full of what looks like fine black sand. Groundwater passes through giant vessels full of the material so that PFAS and other contaminants are filtered out.

BRATZENBAUGH: Each one has 20,000 pounds of this inside of it. And to give you some perspective, pretty much they say that this one flake could do up to three football fields of removal of the PFAS.

REZNICK: This treatment plant is one reason the Tucson area is near the top of EPA's priority list for PFAS cleanup funding. The city is already doing the work, and in part because of the scale of the contamination here. Martha Guzman is a regional EPA administrator.

MARTHA GUZMAN: If you lose 30% of your water supply in the Southwest, that is not sustainable. The story here is even better. They're going to be able to bring back that supply into their system.

REZNICK: The EPA established a long-awaited set of nationwide standards for PFAS in drinking water in April. They're the first legally enforceable limits on the chemicals. Water utilities have five years to meet them. Nationwide, the EPA estimates that up to 10% of the roughly 66,000 water systems subject to the new rules will require actions to address PFAS contamination. The Tucson area is receiving $12,000,000 from the new fund EPA has set aside to clean up PFAS contamination. That's on top of another 30 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Reznick in Tucson, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alisa Reznick
[Copyright 2024 KJZZ]