Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s new “forever chemicals” map draws criticism

State agency says new map is accurate, updated
Environmentalists say Arizona water map hides areas with concentrated "forever chemicals."
Published: Sep. 8, 2023 at 5:39 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Critics from the environmental movement say a new online map that contains levels of so-called forever chemicals in Arizona water wells is confusing and plays down the threat to public health.

“If you look at that map, you would not get any sense of how bad this really is,” said Steve Brittle, an environmental activist who is the president of Don’t Waste Arizona.

The new map replaces an older version, which used a color-coded system to display the amount of PFAS chemicals found in water wells. Red meant there was a high level. Green means there were no PFAS chemicals found. “If I were a legislator, I could have looked at the previous map and said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I could look at this now, and it wouldn’t tell you anything,” said Brittle.

The new map replaces also the color-coded scheme with gray dots, which indicate a well that’s undergone a test. If a user clicks on one of the dots, a pop-up screen appears with numbers indicating specific levels of several PFAS chemicals. But users must also follow a formula, adding some of the numbers together, to gauge whether the numbers exceed proposed EPA standards.

RELATED: Learn more about Arizona’s drought.

“Somebody who clicks on a point on the map, somebody who goes to the map, they see the well that is providing their drinking water. They click on that map. They’re gonna see concentrations,” said Matthew Narter, Ph.D., a senior hydrologist at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Narter defends the new map. “The way that we have the map now, without the color-coded system, it actually allows us to display more data and keep that data more accurate for the user,” said Narter.

When asked if water companies had input on the change in the map, Narter said that was not a big factor. “The biggest factor is just transparency in the data and allowing people to understand what that means and not have confusion about what those colors may mean,” said Narter.

The EPA is in the process of establishing limits to the amount of PFAS chemicals it will allow in drinking water. At this point, no laws or regulations require water companies or well owners to shut off the water if high levels are found.

PFAS chemicals are used in many industrial and manufacturing processes. The chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can build up in people and animals over time.

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