New water standards impacting Island supplier

Oak Bluffs town hall. —Eunki Seonwoo

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is setting new, strict standards over the class of substances commonly known as PFAS — informally known as “forever chemicals” — in public drinking water systems, which could mean infrastructure upgrades for some Island towns.

The new regulations will require public water agencies to remove PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, from their supply within the next five years at a much more stringent standard than existing state regulations.

While Edgartown and Tisbury water districts have not detected the substances since testing for them, the Oak Bluffs public water supply has had readings that could call for some type of remediation, the details of which are still being sorted out. 

The Biden-Harris administration announced the new rules on April 10. The regulations say that the two most common compounds of PFAS cannot exceed 4 parts per trillion in drinking water, which is about the lowest level detectable.

In the Oak Bluffs district’s most recent available testing results, from October of last year, the highest level of PFAS detected is 3.79 parts per trillion, falling just below the new federal benchmark. The year before, during testing done in October 2022, the highest detectable level was 9.09 parts per trillion. The level was 3.37 in 2021.

Water district superintendent Michael Silvia tells The Times that the 2022 reading wouldn’t count under the new federal regulations. The EPA has changed how readings are measured, and Silvia says the prior rules acted more as a health index, and were more of an estimate.

Ultimately, Silvia says, the water in Oak Bluffs is safe to drink. “Absolutely,” he said. “100 percent safe to drink,” noting that the most recent readings are below the 4-parts-per-trillion federal threshold. 

But Silvia says they are working with engineers to understand what solutions may be available to remove or treat the PFAS contamination within the public drinking supply, though he declined to give details. The superintendent said the options would be made public when the engineers have completed their recommendations, which he expects in the coming weeks.

“Oak Bluffs Water District has been working with our engineers to determine the best course of action to get ready for compliance when the new standard takes effect in Massachusetts,” said Greg Dankert, Oak Bluffs district assistant superintendent, said in a statement. “A comprehensive plan is expected before the end of 2024.”

At the same time, and unrelated to PFAS contamination, the water district is considering building an entirely new well, a substantial capital undertaking. Silvia said that the town’s population in the summertime has outgrown its existing capacity. If a well were to go down in the summer, whether due to mechanical issues or PFAS, Silvia worries about having enough water pressure needed for fire response. 

“There are times when we can’t keep up with what people are using,” he said. 

Silivia said that a new well requires a complicated permitting process, so they are still several years away from building.

In other Island water districts, the forever chemicals have not made an impact, at least according to the past few years of testing. 

The Edgartown Water Department has tested for PFAS over the past four years, and they have recorded a non-detect reading each time. 

But Edgartown water superintendent Bill Chapman says it could be only a matter of time before they are forced to undertake some kind of mitigation. 

Chapman says the PFAS issue is frustrating. While he is obviously in support of having the cleanest water possible, more stringent regulations will mean that the price of water will be more and more expensive, with capital projects and operational costs. Meanwhile, people are more heavily exposed to PFAS contamination from common, everyday products like dental floss, frying pans, rain jackets, synthetic fields, food wrapping, and other sources, none of which are regulated the same way that water departments are. And water is regulated down to a very minimal level, at the parts per trillion.

Across the Island in Tisbury, Tisbury Water Works has also not detected the presence of PFAS since testing began.

Tisbury water superintendent James Clearly says that they are not considering any infrastructure changes, although the new federal regulations may require additional testing. But he says that more stringent regulations can only be a good thing. “It might create more work, but it’s never a bad thing to create cleaner water,” he said.

With the new regulations, the EPA also announced $1 billion in funding to help homeowners with private wells that have been impacted by PFAS.

A good portion of Island residents do not rely on a public water supply, but instead private wells, including in West Tisbury. In West Tisbury, several private wells have been impacted with PFAS. The state, last year, identified Fire Station 1 as a possible “epicenter” of proliferation.

Town administrator Jennifer Rand said that they’ve taken samples from nearly 60 properties in West Tisbury, and PFAS concentrations have been detected at 14 locations. Rand says that not all of the contamination is necessarily from the fire department, but all of the homes with positive detections are offered bottled water. She says that four point-of-entry treatment systems have been installed since the testing was done, and an additional four systems are currently being coordinated.

Rand tells The Times in a statement that they are reviewing the new regulations, but says that the “changes in standards will likely impact the ongoing project,” and that they will adjust accordingly.

At the state level, officials are still figuring out what the federal changes ultimately will mean.

“The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new PFAS regulations for drinking water,” MassDEP spokesman Ed Coletta said in a statement. “Massachusetts has been a national leader in addressing PFAS contamination, setting the state drinking water standard at 20 parts per trillion for the sum of six PFAS in 2020, and will update our standards to align with the new federal level. We have provided more than $504 million in grants and loans directly to communities to combat PFAS contamination and build new treatment infrastructure. Additional federal funding is both welcomed and necessary to keep our drinking water safe for all, and help our cities and towns implement these health-based protections.”


  1. The Airport reported this contamination a few years ago and is also a contributor to this serious problem. Several properties directly south of the airport have been impacted and had water filtration systems put in place by the airport – assuming the federal government paid for it. I have had my water tested every opportunity when it’s offered. So far so good. Eventually the entire islands aquifer will be impacted, it’s just a matter of time. All residents within the potential impact zone should be given water filtration systems that are capable of removing PFAS, but I have heard the technology cannot remove the new guideline amounts as small as 4ppm.

  2. You are correct about homes south of the Airport being impacted by PFAS, actually more than several, for which the Airport has taken responsibility because of the fire-fighting foam that had been used there historically contained PFAS. The entire cost of the research and mitigation, including all the systems installed in private homes, has been funded entirely by the Airport without any reimbursement by either the federal or state governments. These systems have reduced the concentration of PFAS to non-detectable levels in the domestic water supplies, which comes from individual wells. The total cost so far is not yet $1M, but getting closer, and will probably exceed that number as there are ongoing annual monitoring and maintenance costs for the installed systems.
    Richard Knabel, Airport Commissioner, and Treasurer

  3. the obvious thing to do is ban the manufacture of these chemicals.

    Did we learn nothing from lead, PCB’s, and mercury, to name just a few ?
    Of course , some people will be against this , citing things like peeing
    in the ocean and how much it’s going to cost.
    That’s all that matters to some people , especially to some old people
    who do not have enough compassion or foresight to give a rats behind
    about what happens to future generations. These are “forever chemicals”
    after all.
    I have grandchildren, and I hope that if they can survive the inevitable
    impending climate disaster, they won’t die an early death from ingesting chemicals
    that their ancestors so recklessly contaminated their environment with.

  4. Isn’t OB considering special permits for TWO boatyards in the Holmes Hole Road area in the water protection district within immediate proximity to Tisbury’s three wells?

  5. The serious contaminates are not limited to the airport or any other piece of land on MV. I believe the larger issues is . . . What will we do as an Island to deal with the PFAS contamination. It holds the potential to ruin not only this generations lives but will continue to hold serious health risks for generations to come.

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