A labor union’s independent sampling of drinking water in Dalton, Ga., found the presence of a carpet industry chemical EPA has labeled a likely carcinogen.
Perfluoroctanoic acid, also called PFOA or C8, was found in six of seven tap water samples from locations including the city library, a gas station, a home and a residential well.
The chemical largely is unregulated, and some scientists say it is found everywhere. Georgia regulators are trying to decide how to react after news of the substance’s presence at high levels has been reported in the Conasauga River downstream of Dalton’s city water intakes.
The United Steelworkers Union and a number of environmental groups last week formed an alliance, sending the results of the union’s 2006 water samplings to state and federal officials and asking for more studies.
The union, four Georgia river and water groups and an Alabama river group were among about 20 organizations aligning to petition the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to begin monitoring Dalton’s drinking water and groundwater for the acid and its compounds.
“The residents of Georgia deserve no less protection than what has been afforded to residents in other states,” according to the group’s letter dated March 20 and addressed to two federal EPA officials and two Georgia Environmental Protection Division leaders.
Becky Champion, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s assistant branch chief for watershed protection in Northwest Georgia, said the agency had an internal meeting this week to decide how to respond.
“There has been a lot of interest in this PFOA issue in the last six or eight weeks, and we are still deciding what to do,” she said. “I want to talk with EPA first.”
For now, Georgia officials have set no safety standard for the chemical that is used to make carpet stain repellent and to produce Teflon such as that used on nonstick cookware.
EPA officials have said a completed “risk assessment” for the chemical still is years away, but the agency has reported the substance and its compounds pose “potential human health concerns.”
On Thursday, EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young confirmed that the agency has received the letter, but she said the agency will not comment on it until it has replied to the senders.
The steelworkers’ letter also asks regulators to monitor the waste of PFOA users and to require those users to show they are reducing the substance in their manufacturing processes.
Don Cope, Dalton Utilities president and chief executive officer, said he is “very conscious” of the health of the Conasauga River, which is the primary source of the water sold by the utility. But he said he cannot become too concerned about the chemical until the government regulates it, and he would “certainly evaluate” a testing request from the Environmental Protection Division or the EPA.
“(As) in any relationship, there are things we agree on and things we don’t agree on,” Mr. Cope said. He said he would try to “negotiate” with the EPD on monitoring requests that might be considered “overreaching and detrimental to the big picture in our operations.”
The steelworkers’ consultant, Rick Abraham, said that Georgia can and should regulate PFOA before the federal government does.
“A state can do something if it wants to do something,” he said.
Mr. Abraham cited other states, including Minnesota and West Virginia, where limits have been set either in state policy or in consent agreements between PFOA’s manufacturer DuPont and the state. In those states the limit for the chemical in drinking water is four parts per billion, much higher than the four to 10 parts per trillion found in Dalton drinking-water samples.
But other levels found by union sampling were considerably higher than the limits set by Minnesota and West Virginia. The higher levels were found in the surface water of Bear Creek and the Conasauga River.
Previous samples by the University of Georgia in 2006 and 2007 found “staggeringly high” levels of the chemical in the Conasauga. Those levels compared to the highest levels ever found at a nonspill location, according to Aaron Fisk, the former UGA professor who oversaw the graduate students who conducted the study.
Union spokesman Shawn Gilchrist said concern for union workers prompted the group to begin sampling drinking water in several locations and industry areas around the country where PFOA and its compounds are used.
Mr. Abraham said that of the seven drinking water samples he made, only one showed an absence of the chemical.
That sample was taken from the tap of a home on Colin Road with a residential well, he said.
Charlie Bethel, a Dalton City Council member, said he will look to EPD and EPA to assess the merits the group’s water sampling and letter seeking monitoring.
“That’s why we’re paying our tax money, for them to do just that,” he said. “I think everybody recognizes it (PFOA contamination) exists. I’m sure EPD and EPA will take it seriously. I expect them to.”
On March 19 and 20, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy held a “Conasauga Summit” in Rome, Ga., where scientists and other stakeholders discussed potential threats to that river’s species, including PFOA.
WHAT IS PFOA?
Perfluoroctanoic acid, known as PFOA or C8, is used in brand names such as Scotchgard, Stainmaster carpet and Teflon. Scientists say that it is a ubiquitous, persistent chemical that has been found in Arctic ice, polar bears and the blood of the general U.S. population.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...