Water Department faces questions about PFAS reporting

Systems engineer calls accusations by Councilor Kristen Mello ‘below the dignity of an elected official’

WESTFIELD- The City Council Public Health and Safety Committee discussed the testing and reporting of polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances in the city’s water supply.

Heather Stayton, P.E., Systems Engineer with the Westfield Water Department. (AMY PORTER / THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

Before the meeting last week, some councilors sent a list of questions to city Systems Engineer Heather Stayton. Many of the questions submitted by councilors pertained to the state of PFAS in Westfield water and the results of recent tests of certain parts of the city water supply. When asked by Councilor Bridget Matthews-Kane whether there was a PFAS breakthrough in the city’s water filters, Stayton simply said that there was not. 

The vast majority of the submitted questions were asked by Councilor Kristen Mello, who claims that the results of recent PFAS testing samples were reported incorrectly. 

At-large Councilor Kristen L. Mello (THE WESTFIELD NEWS FILE PHOTO)

In one of her questions, Mello cited an email chain from December in which the city’s Head Treatment Operator Brenda Lopez told Michelle Koch from Contest Labs that, “We do not want to see results that are below the reporting limit.”

Mello asked who instructed Lopez to say that, to which Stayton replied that nobody had. Stayton continued by saying that Lopez’s statement was made in accordance with the current Department of Environmental Protection regulatory language.

“Further, according to instrumental analysis curriculum taught to undergraduate chemistry students, results that fall between the MDL and the MRL, also referred to as the limit of quantitation (LOQ), should be reported as “detected but not quantifiable” due to the fact that they are estimates that cannot be determined quantitatively,” said Stayton.

Stayton also noted that in the December email chain, Lopez had been inquiring with the Department of Environmental Protection about why results reporting had been changed so significantly from what she had seen before. 

“In subsequent communications, it was clarified that with the promulgation of the new MCL, there were specific ways that MassDEP was looking for results to be reported, and the lab reports were revised multiple times beginning with our questions back in November, and continuing through March 8, when they were revised again based on the lab’s own quality control officer,” said Stayton, “As the results were revised by the lab itself, more information was added, not less information reported.”

Mello also claimed that lab reports had listed valid PFAS detections with concentrations below the reporting limit as “non-detect.” Stayton fired back by saying that Mello is making assumptions, and that nobody in the Water Department had asked the lab to list valid PFAS detections “as anything other than what they are.”

“However, assuming that quantities below the limit of quantitation are valid indicates a lack of understanding of what constitutes a valid PFAS detection. As defined in Mass DEP’s regulation: ‘PFAS Detection shall mean a concentration of any PFAS measured in accordance with 310 CMR 22.07G (12) which is greater than or equal to the analytical laboratory’s applicable Minimum Reporting Level (MRL).’ All reliable results show no valid detections in the water provided to Westfield customers,” said Stayton.

Near the end of the meeting, one of Mello’s questions was, “Is it the official position of the Westfield Water Department that residents/customers do not have a right to know if man-made, toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative, biomagnifying poisons are in their water as long as that water meets all state and federal regulatory requirements?”

Stayton replied, “It is the position of this employee of the Westfield DPW-Water division that this inflammatory accusation is below the dignity of an elected official who purports to have the best interests of the citizens of Westfield in mind and instead is furthering an unscientific and politically motivated agenda while scaring vulnerable people into not trusting the agencies that are qualified to oversee these departments.”

Stayton concluded her answers by saying that one cannot declare the water to be “PFAS free,” as such a claim cannot be definitely proven by the scientific method.

“Sampling can only show below a certain threshold,” said Stayton.

Following the meeting, Mello said, “Monitoring for breakthrough is about watching for valid detections, not specific numbers that can be set in stone. But then again, that was one of the questions they chose not to answer. If they could defend this on the merits, they would not need to resort to personal attacks. We must do better.”

Mello also said that the numbers below the reporting limits may have just been estimates, but the detections of PFAS compounds were still valid.

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