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Tampa is bringing a new water filtration system to the U.S. that will help remove forever chemicals

Water filtering through weirs.
City of Tampa
Water filtering through weirs.

Once completed, the Suspended Ion Exchange plant in Tampa is expected to be the first in the U.S. and largest in the world.

Tampa officials are bringing a new technology to the U.S. that removes organic matter from drinking water, and it's supposed to make it easier to filter out forever chemicals, known as PFAS.

The city gets its water from the Hillsborough River and is hoping to remove things like decaying vegetation through a Dutch technology called Suspended Ion Exchange, or SIX.

The initial installation at the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility will cost $200 million and should be done by 2032. Once completed, it’s expected to be the first in the U.S. and largest in the world.

There’s only a couple other SIX plants in existence: one in North Holland that filters 32 million gallons of drinking water per day, and another in the United Kingdom that supplies 24 million gallons per day.

The planned design for Tampa is for 140 million gallons a day.

Suspended Ion Exchange process to filter organic material out of drinking water.
City of Tampa
Suspended Ion Exchange process to filter organic material out of drinking water.

Tampa officials said in a press release that this infrastructure will reduce the amount of chemicals needed to treat drinking water, and that it will save the department approximately $1.4 million each year.

Sarah Burns, with the city's water department, said this advancement means Tampa is getting ahead of the federal government's expected limits on PFAS in drinking water.

"You might not even be able to get to the PFAS at all if you didn't remove the organics first," she said.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that break down slowly over time and have been linked to negative health effects in humans. Burns said they are “everywhere” ... in cosmetics, clothing, even paper straws. And they end up in the water supply.

"We are passive receivers so we don't generate a single drop of PFAS. It just comes to us in our source water," she said.

The utility is part of a lawsuit against manufacturers of PFAS, including 3M and DuPont, to recover the cost of removal.

Tampa recently found slightly elevated levels of two kinds of PFAS chemicals in its finished drinking water: PFOA and PFOS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limit for these is at 4 parts per trillion, and the highest the city found in its water was just over 6 ppt.

The city discovered this while taking part in the EPA’s monitoring program this past year.

City officials said more than 33% of Florida’s water treatment facilities exceed the proposed limits.

The EPA proposed limits for six PFAS chemicals, but the agency is expected to release its finalized regulations by the start of 2024.

Burns said the city will then need additional filtration to meet those PFAS limits.

In September of 2019, Tampa City Council approved SIX as part of a plan included within the Progressive Infrastructure Planning to Ensure Sustainability program.

It’s a $2.9 billion strategy for large-scale sewer and water infrastructure improvements.

Increases in water and wastewater rates take effect for Tampa water customers every Oct. 1 until 2040. In addition to increases in usage rates, the city’s website said it added monthly base charges to cover fixed costs.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.