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Water authority to spend $13.5 million to remove toxin in Spring Hollow reservoir

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A chart showing the levels of the PFAS found in Spring Hollow from January 2020 to July presented Tuesday by Scott Shirley, the chief operating officer for water quality for the Western Virginia Water Authority to the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors/

The Roanoke Valley’s primary supplier of public water took steps Thursday to curtail a contaminant found in the Spring Hollow reservoir and the nearby Roanoke River.

In a unanimous vote, the board of the Western Virginia Water Authority approved a $13.5 million package of improvements at Spring Hollow, including an upgrade to a carbon filtering system designed to lower levels of a so-called “forever chemical.”

Tests of the reservoir and river water have detected hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, better known by its trade name of GenX, at concentrations that exceed what is recommended for long-term consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency.

An EPA health advisory calls for no more than 10 parts per trillion. The level at Spring Hollow has been as high as 62 parts per trillion, and more recent tests in the Roanoke River just upstream of the reservoir’s intake have shown more than twice that.

“There is an urgent need to implement improvements for GenX removal,” a memorandum presented to the authority’s board of directors stated.

Although the EPA’s health advisory is not enforceable, “obviously we want to be providing water that is safe and healthy to drink,” Michael McEvoy, executive director of the authority, told the board.

The improvements will be financed through tax-exempt bonds over an extending period of time and are not expected to result in higher rates for the authority’s 69,000-some customers.

The first phase of the project will be to upgrade an existing granular activated carbon filer system, first installed when Spring Hollow was built in the 1990s.

Although the system has been successful in reducing the levels of GenX to some degree, a $2.5 million upgrade of its infrastructure is needed to deal with the amount of the chemical believed to be in the reservoir.

The water authority stopped pumping water from the river into Spring Hollow earlier this summer. Even so, McEvoy estimated that it will take about two years to remove the GenX that has accumulated there.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to determine the origin of the chemical — believed to be an industry or business upstream of the 3.2-billion gallon reservoir, which is close to the Roanoke-Montgomery county line.

“I feel confident that we’re going to find the source,” McEvoy said.

GenX is not widely used by industries in the area. Not an end product in itself, the compound is used in the making of fluoropolymers, which in turn are ingredients in the manufacture of non-stick plastics, semiconductor chips, automotive parts and other products.

Also known as HFPO-DA, GenX is one of more than 6,000 compounds that are commonly referred to as forever chemicals because they are slow to break down and can last for generations in the environment.

Concerns about their toxicity have grown in recent years, although there are currently no federal or Virginia regulations to limit the release of the chemicals. The EPA is considering action, as is the state Health Department.

Water with more than 10 parts per trillion of GenX, when consumed in large amounts over a lifetime, can cause liver and kidney complications for some people, according to the EPA.

At Thursday’s meeting, the water authority’s board also approved two other improvements at Spring Hollow — construction of a 2-million gallon storage tank estimated to cost $4.8 million and an upgrade to a water pump station that will cost another $5.2 million — that were seen as complementing the carbon filtering system.

“The trend is positive; we’re moving in the right direction,” McEvoy said. “But to make it work we’re going to have to spend some money.”

“We know it’s there,” he said, “and we need to remove as much of it as possible.”

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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