Tribal Nations Don’t Have Equitable Access to Water Systems Testing

Federal PFAS Testing and Tribal Public Water Systems
Kira Mok, Derrick Salvatore, Martha Powers, Phil Brown, Maddy Poehlein, Otakuye Conroy-Ben, and Alissa Cordner
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Significant research over the past decade shows the serious consequences exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has on human health. Exposure to these human-made chemicals, which are widely used in industry and consumer products, has been associated with decreased ability to fight infection, decreased fetal and infant growth, increased risk of some types of cancer, and thyroid disease, among other health effects. Today, scientists can monitor our water, air, soil, food, and even rainwater for PFAS. It’s estimated that 200 million (6 in 10) people living in the US receive PFAS-contaminated drinking water, yet no federal standards for our water currently exist, although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released draft regulatory levels in March 2023 for six PFAS compounds that are likely to be finalized later this year.

Though water monitoring is the first step in addressing this emerging safety hazard, not all harm reduction resources are available equitably, particularly for tribal public water systems (PWS). Tribal nations in the United States are disproportionately burdened by systemic racism, which has resulted in lower quality of life and shorter life expectancy. Tribal water systems are poorly researched, but there is some concerning documentation of high rates of unsafe levels of inorganic contaminants, nitrates, and foul odor and taste. This raises serious concerns and underscores the urgent need for greater attention and resources to address water safety in tribal PWS.

To better understand the testing efforts of PFAS on tribal and nontribal PWS, researchers compared completed and planned federal drinking water testing programs for these systems. The authors used data from the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rules 3 (2013–15) and 5 (2023–25) (UCMR3/5). The UCMR3 tested for more than 21 water contaminants, including 6 PFAS chemicals, and UCMR5 will include 29 PFAS. The researchers also used data from the EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System. EPA representatives provided the researchers with additional information about PFAS testing on tribal lands, such as sampling plans, engagement with state programs, and funding sources.

The analysis showed that previous and future water safety monitoring efforts are failing to equitably include tribal drinking water systems. Tribal PWS were tested less frequently and served a smaller proportion of the population compared with nontribal PWS. These findings highlight the need for improved efforts to ensure equitable access to safe drinking water for all communities.

Key findings
  • Tribal PWS under UCMR3 were less likely to be tested than nontribal PWS (3.2 percent versus 7.2 percent).
  • The people served by tribal PWS are disproportionately served by small water systems (68.5 percent), compared with the people served by nontribal PWS (18.8 percent). Smaller water systems are more likely to experience challenges to meet regulatory safe drinking water standards because of limited resources and treatment options.
  • Though the authors project that 12.7 percent of the tribal PWS and 15.7 percent of the nontribal PWS will be tested in UCMR5 in 2023–25, just 65.5 percent of the people served by the tribal PWS will be included, versus 91.5 percent of the people served by nontribal PWS.
  • Six in 10 EPA Public Water System Supervision State and Tribal Support Program Grant regions plan to conduct “limited, voluntary” sampling in tribal PWS for PFAS in 2021–22. EPA representatives cite policy, funding, and staffing as limitations. These EPA representatives anticipate challenges if PFAS are identified in tribal PWS because of a lack of federal regulations, lack of EPA-certified water testing labs, and insufficient remediation funding.
Policy implications
  • The authors posit federal regulatory standards for safe PFAS levels should be set along with increased funding and support measures for implementation.
  • Tribal communities need to be explicitly and equitably accounted for in water safety testing efforts from local, state, and federal regulators. These relationships need to be built on respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance, honoring federal trust and treaty responsibilities, protecting tribal homelands, and conducting regular, meaningful, and robust consultation.