Trustees of two Des Moines metro area drinking water producers have voted to join hundreds of civil claims against manufacturers of firefighting foams that contain PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” which have contaminated Iowa water.
Des Moines Water Works and West Des Moines Water Works are pursuing the litigation to help offset anticipated future costs to remove the chemicals from their treated water. Tests of both systems’ drinking water in recent months have revealed concentrations of PFAS chemicals that exceed federal health advisories.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to set enforceable limits on the chemicals that could force water utilities to remove them as part of their treatment processes. Recent tests of the treated water that might again reveal PFAS contamination are pending.
Firefighting foam is a potential source of contamination in West Des Moines, and it’s the subject of the multi-state lawsuit that the two metro utilities recently voted to join. These utilities were approached by law firms that are helping litigate it.
The foam is believed to have contaminated groundwater near military bases, airports and other sites.
Des Moines Water Works has had to begin operating its nitrate-removal system for the first time in five years after finding elevated nitrate concentrations in their water. The level of nitrate in the utility’s water supply fluctuates, and is attributable to excess nutrients on upstream farmland running off the land and entering Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Standard for nitrate is 10 milligrams per liter, and the nitrate levels in the rivers and groundwater used by the Des Moines Water Works have recently peaked at more than nine milligrams per liter.
The Water Works’ nitrate removal facility initially began operating in March 1992, but was last used in 2017. Drier conditions the past few years have limited the flow of nutrients into Iowa’s waterways, which has led to lower levels of nitrate in raw source water.
Use of the nitrate-removal system is significant because of what it means in terms of water quality and because of the expense. It can cost up to $10,000 a day to operate the nitrate-removal system, the Des Moines Water Works says.
The Des Moines Water Works is Iowa’s largest drinking water utility and provides drinking water to one-fifth of the state’s population.
A wastewater pipe break near Birdland Park in Des Moines caused about 2 million gallons of untreated wastewater to leak into the Des Moines River on Tuesday, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. This leak did not affect drinking water.
The station has an overflow pipe that discharges directly into the river. An estimated 3,500 gallons of diluted wastewater flowed through it each minute. Tom Atkinson, a senior environmental specialist for the DNR, said this likely happened due to cold temperatures, although leaks are most common when there’s heavy rain.
The leak created a murky plume in the river, but the environmental effects were muted because the river is so large. DNR does not believe that any fish were killed due to the leak.
Des Moines, along with other cities in Iowa, combine sewer systems, meaning they transport wastewater and stormwater runoff in the same pipes. Such systems are prone to leaking untreated wastewater into waterways.
A project to separate the systems is expected to finish this year, according to the city’s website.
Chemicals known as PFAS, commonly called “forever chemicals”, were found in treated drinking water that goes to homes, businesses and schools in parts of West Des Moines. The contamination was discovered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR is testing water in at least 59 cities at their sources and after treatment for human consumption. West Des Moines, the sixth-largest city in the state, was the only city to have detectable levels of two prominent PFAS in its treated drinking water, according to early results obtained by Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Based on the recent DNR test results, at least three of West Des Moines Water Works’ groundwater wells have the two most-studied PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). It’s unclear why the wells have the chemicals.
The chemicals have been commonly used in nonstick cookware and stain-resistant clothes and furniture. Groundwater contaminations in Iowa have been previously identified near airports, which have used firefighting foams that have the chemicals. To learn more about PFAS more generally, click here.
Concerns about the chemicals have grown in recent years because researchers have shown they can cause cancers and are widely distributed in the environment. The vast majority of people in the United States are believed to have detectable amounts of PFAS chemicals in their bodies.
On Thursday, November 18, the Iowa Environmental Council will hold a two-hour Bright Ideas 2021 event to discuss sources of clean energy in Iowa, like solar and wind power.
The event runs from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Des Moines but has satellite, group-viewing options in Iowa City and Waterloo. Attendees also have the option to watch a livestream that doesn’t allow participation.
The featured speaker is Destenie Nock, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She plans to address energy equity.
The in-person locations include a brunch. The cost to attend ranges from $25 for online viewing to $65 for the Des Moines location. Students and young professionals will get discounts.More information is available here.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began tearing down contaminated buildings at the Des Moines Superfund site, on Monday.
The 43-acre site has been chosen for the development of a professional soccer stadium, hotel, businesses and residential areas. At the site, groundwater pollution with the cancer-causing solvent TCE had prompted the EPA to begin removing hazardous substances and update the 35-year-old groundwater treatment system in June 2021.
The project is one in a series that were approved to receive a portion of $100 million in state aid aimed at creating jobs and infrastructure development, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Previously owned by Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Company, the site was used to manufacture pesticides, steel wheels, and tires. Operations resulted in the release of trichloroethene (TCE), 1,2-dichloroethene (1,2-DCE) and vinyl chloride into the groundwater before remaining vacant for over 25 years.
In February, a court approved a settlement between Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Co. resulting in the city taking over the property. With the Superfund law used in the settlement, the EPA is able to enforce a “polluter pays” principle which holds Dico and Titan accountable for cleanup and oversight costs. $3 million of the $11.5 million in settlement funds will pay for the EPA’s demolition of the buildings and replacement of the water treatment system.
A Des Moines city design panel approved plans for a $28 million conversion of Des Moines’ Scott Avenue dam into a fishing and kayaking area on Tuesday.
The Scott Avenue conversion is the largest of four major projects planned for water trails development downtown and is one of the first to use portions of a $25 million federal grant arranged by Central Iowa Water Trails and the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The project is a part of the $100 million-plus plan to improve safety by replacing or changing low-head dams while improving recreation. While the biggest project at the Center Street Dam will be voted on later, the other approved projects are at the Prospect and Birdland parks and near Harriett Street.
Plans for the Scott Avenue project add three “drop-offs” for kayaking, a fish passage, seating in areas near the river and a secondary dam to improve safety. At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion was focused around using limestone, granit, or other natural materials, such as planting prairie and lawn grass for stabilization and decor.
Work on the project is expected to take two years, beginning in July 2022.
The U.S. military found high levels of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contaminating water at Air National Guard bases in Des Moines and Sioux City earlier this year.
The Des Moines Water Works, along with representatives from the local, state, and federal governments, formed a working group to better understand this contamination and the effects it may have on drinking water.
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a health advisory for PFAS contamination in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion. At some sites, the levels were nearly 200 times that number. So far no PFAS have been found in the drinking water near these cities, though more testing is being conducted to determine if the contamination has spread to area wells.
PFAS were once found in several consumer products, from carpets to clothing to paper packaging, but they were phased out of production between 2000 and 2006. However, they are still used in a variety of industrial processes, as well as in firefighting foams used at airfields, including these Iowa bases.
Studies have shown these chemicals can adversely affect immunity, cholesterol, liver tissue, certain hormones, and the development of fetuses and infants, as well as increase the risk of some cancers.
Though a few communities have been exposed to PFAS through contaminated water, most people are exposed to them through consumer products and food. Because of this, virtually everyone contains some level of PFAS in their blood, but scientists have found these levels to be decreasing over time.
On April 22, people around the world celebrate Earth Day, spending time cleaning, greening and appreciating the life-giving planet we too often take for granted.
Iowa, of course, will join in on the party. Read below about Earth Day events cities in Iowa will host next week, as well as some activities you can do individually to make a difference.
Des Moines: Festivities in the state capital will begin this weekend. On Friday, Des Moines Parks and Recreation will host an Earth Day Trash Bash, where registered teams will pick up trash around the city. Everyone is welcome to join in on the kick-off party and several other events hosted Friday and Saturday as part of the bash, including a Downtown Earth Day Tour through the science center, botanical garden and riverwalk. A number of other events on Saturday and Monday include wildlife restoration, crafting and stream cleanup.
Cedar Rapids: The city’s 10th annual EcoFest will be on Saturday, April 20. The day’s events include performances, presentations, hands-on activities, tours, awards and more. Last year over 4,000 people attended!
Dubuque: The Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium will participate in a nationwide Party for the Planet event Saturday. Visitors attend presentations, meet animals and do hands-on activities to learn about environmental conservation. Participation in the celebration will be included with general admission and free for children 3 and under.
Davenport: Visit the Freight House Farmer’s Market Saturday morning for speakers, demonstrations, music and activities to learn about problems facing the planet and how you can help fight them.
University of Iowa student organizations have been hosting Earth Month events for weeks, and still have more to come. Consider visiting the Student Garden Open House Saturday, April 27 for food and DIY Chia Pets with the UI Gardeners and attending an environmental benefit concert the following night with the UI Environmental Coalition.
If you’d like to celebrate on your own or with friends consider these activities:
Picking up trash in your neighborhood or at a local park
“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”
Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,” which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.
Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.