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New laws protecting public health may lead to higher water bills in many Colorado communities

Thornton residents see rise in water bills as city battles PFAS
Thornton residents see rise in water bills as city battles PFAS 03:07

New federal laws requiring low levels of PFAS – also called "forever chemicals" – in public drinking water are creating major financial burdens for many water districts nationwide, which experts say will ultimately lead to higher water bills for customers in many areas. The new regulations -- issued by the Environmental Protection Agency -- went in effect in April, and they are aimed at protecting public health after more research has found the chemicals can be harmful to human health even at extremely low levels of exposure.


PFAS -- short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances -- don't break down readily in the environment, and can cause a host of health problems, including reproductive problems and cancer. 

However, removing PFAS from drinking water doesn't come cheap. 

The city of Thornton, for example, is gearing up to pay $80 million for a new PFAS treatment addition to one of its water treatment plants. It's a cost the Colorado city says is necessary, to ensure its resiliency in the future. 


"It's going to be a challenge with a lot of municipalities," says Caleb Owen, a water quality administrator with Thornton. "It's definitely a nationwide issue. The EPA really brought to light the negative health impacts that PFAS might have on people."

Right now, the city has stopped using some of its underground wells along a section of the South Platte River, because they have levels of PFAS that are too high. 

Once the city can build a new treatment system, water officials can begin using the wells again, especially when water supplies are low during a drought. 

In April, Thornton implemented a rate increase on customers to help pay for some of its PFAS efforts. 

Water customers can now expect to pay an average of about $4.79 more a month this summer, according to the city's website.

CBS Colorado Investigator Kati Weis interviews Caleb Owen.

Owen says the city just won a $2.4 million grant from the state to pay for their new PFAS treatment, but that's only a small dent in the upcoming PFAS mitigation costs. 

"There's probably going to be additional rate impacts, but we are really trying to limit those as much as possible," Owen said. 

He says the city is currently looking at special federal loan options to help offset costs passed on to customers. 

Ultimately, he says the city and customers are having to pay more to clean up someone else's mess. He says the city is advocating for better accountability of where the PFAS contamination originated from in the first place. 

"There's ski waxes that have PFAS in them... and any kind of municipal or industrial discharge is increasing the PFAS levels in our source waters, and we are really pushing the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to implement standards on those discharges to reduce the amount of PFAS that is getting into our water so that we have to treat it less, because there would be less," Owen said. 

Thornton has worked hard over the last few years to lower their PFAS levels, using a powdered carbon filtration approach and by turning off some of its wells. 

But Owen says that's not sustainable. 

"We are in compliance with the rule, and we're just looking to build that resiliency into our process," Owen said. 

While their levels are now below the EPA's new legal limits, they are still above the EPA's even lower health advisory guidelines. 

"There really shouldn't be too much of a health impact, unless you are a sensitive population, maybe you are a pregnant woman or an infant or something like that, and in those cases, you might need lower levels, and so that is where the health advisory comes in, and so as we implement new treatment techniques, we should even get our levels even lower," Owen said. 

To see Thornton's latest testing results, click here

He says Thornton's new $80 million PFAS treatment addition will be worth every penny to protect public health. 

"It's why I got into this industry," Owen said. "I really care about the public and environmental health... it's a peace of mind."

He says Thornton's new treatment process will use something called granulated active carbon, which he says is more effective than the powdered carbon they are using now, and it should be up and running by 2027.

He's glad his team is already on the ball with this, because he says as more water utilities scramble to get into compliance by 2029, costs are only going to surge higher. 

"Since the pandemic, construction costs, inflation have really skyrocketed, everybody is putting these things in and the demand increases the cost," Owen said. 

Many public water utilities in Colorado still haven't even begun testing for PFAS, much less adding new filters. 

If you're worried about the safety of your water, contact your water district and ask for their PFAS test results. 

If your district hasn't tested, or has levels higher than the legal limit, consider using a carbon or reverse osmosis filter.

You can also limit your PFAS exposure by avoiding other household products that contain them, like nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, and even some makeup.

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