Park City, Salt Lake City have PFAS in some wells. Here’s how they will comply with the EPA’s new rules.

Agency slices limit from 70 parts per trillion to 4 parts per trillion after study shows toxicity in even small amounts.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bobby Monson, an area manager at Switchback Sports ski repair shop in Park City doesn't use ski wax with PFAS in it. Officials believe ski wax is where the PFAS contamination came from.

They are called “forever chemicals,” and they are as stubborn as they are ubiquitous. As of Wednesday, though, the Environmental Protection Agency intends to put a lid on the toxic compounds.

Officially known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances but collectively referred to as PFAS, the human-made chemicals are used in everything from firefighting foam and nonstick pans to dental floss and rubber duckies. Part of their charm from a commercial standpoint is they are stubbornly resilient to degradation. Researchers estimate it takes up to a thousand years for them to disappear from the earth and between 7-14 years for them to reduce by half in the human body.

[Related: Ski wax contaminated Park City’s aquifers]

And yes, they are in your body.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. The EPA has linked high levels of PFAS to birth defects, cancers, infertility and thyroid problems, among other medical issues. Recently, a government study indicated almost half of the nation’s tap water contained at least one type of PFAS.

Previously, the EPA had limited PFAS to 70 parts per trillion in public drinking water. Last week, it minced that standard. Signaling a new understanding of the toxicity of the “forever chemicals” even in small amounts, it set the limit for PFOA and PFOS chemicals — which together make up the PFAS class — at four parts per trillion. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of four drops of water in the Rose Bowl or slightly more than two drops in Rice Eccles Stadium.

Park City and Salt Lake City both have found PFAS in their groundwater at levels higher than the EPA’s new limit. According to one report, 26 of 85 water systems statewide have discovered at least trace amounts of PFAS.

“Given the impacts and national attention associated with exposure to these forever chemicals, we take this rule seriously,” Michelle De Haan, Park City’s water quality and treatment manager, said in an email. “Our highest priority is our community’s trust in the reliability and quality of the drinking water supply.”

Park City started proactively testing for toxic chemical compounds in its water supplies almost four years ago. It found PFAS in three of its ground wells, which are connected to a common aquifer that sits under a golf and cross-country ski course. The wells, which are tapped only on peak water-use days, contained PFAS concentrations of up to eight parts per trillion — nearly twice the EPA’s new limits. Officials later linked those compounds to fluorinated ski wax, which the city banned in 2023.

Since the fluorowax ban, which the city enacts mostly via education and a take-back program, preliminary reports show PFAS levels have remained mostly unchanged in the wells. Still, the “forever chemicals” already there won’t be going anywhere soon.

De Haan said most of Park City’s water comes from uncontaminated surface sources. When demand rises, however, she said the city blends that water with water from PFAS-contaminated sources to dilute the concentration of chemicals.

If the city wants to continue to do that to meet the new EPA standards, it will need permission from both the EPA and Utah Division of Drinking Water. If that option is denied, De Haan said the next best avenue is investing in something like a massive Brita filter. The chemicals would be absorbed into a giant carbon block that would need to be incinerated and replaced annually.

She estimated the filter would cost between $7 million and $14 million to build. Replacing the carbon block would add an additional cost of about $250,000-$550,000 per year. Plus, the EPA acknowledges incineration of PFAS could create smaller PFAS products “which may not have been researched and thus could be a potential chemical of concern.”

The city hopes it can rely less on its groundwater wells once its 3Kings water treatment plant becomes operational this summer. That plant specializes in removing contaminants from former mining operations in water flowing through the Judge and Spiro mine tunnels.

The Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities also found PFAS in levels surpassing the EPA’s new regulations in two of its wells.

One of the wells sits near a superfund site and has not been used in years, according to public utilities director Laura Briefer. The other, located at 4th Avenue near Memory Grove, is more of a mystery. The department has been investigating the source of the chemicals in that water, which mostly feeds through City Creek. It was recently replaced, and Briefer surmised that the chemicals could have seeped in from the tape holding the pipes together.

The levels of PFAS found in that well are nearly twice the EPA’s limit. The city tested for the chemicals in October in anticipation of the EPA’s order. The well, which is typically only used on summer peak-use days, was already offline. It will remain that way, Briefer said, until her team can find the cause of the contamination and address it.

Briefer said no other PFAS have been found in the city’s drinking, most of which comes from surface water.

Municipalities will have until 2027 to comply with the EPA’s new regulations.