Water contaminated with PFAS has become the first major test of interim Dallas City Manager Kim Tolbert’s administration since she assumed office on May 2 this year.

This issue was not of her making, yet it will test her mastery of governance now and in the event she becomes the permanent city manager.

PFAS is a deadly chemical often used in fire retardants and moisture repellants that has purportedly caused billions in damage across the United States. The chemical frequently leaks from cookware, firefighters’ gear, fabrics, and materials that contaminate the water supply.

The Biden administration recently announced a ban against the known carcinogen in an attempt to keep it out of American waterways. The new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) restriction is supposed to ban the chemical at levels greater than the parts per trillion in tap water and, in many cases, require water treatment centers to acquire new filtration systems within the next five years.

However, Texas has 49 public water utility systems reporting levels of these “forever chemicals” that far surpass the EPA’s new limits, according to KERA. Moreover, many localities, including major cities like Dallas, allegedly cannot afford to comply with the mandates.

Cost and compliance were among several issues then-Deputy City Manager Kim Tolbert, then City Manager T.C. Broadnax, the Dallas City Council, and other City staff raised with Texas senators and congress members during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.

The delegates from Dallas met with Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as Reps. Beth Van Duyne (R-TX), Jasmine Crockett (D-TX), Collin Allred (D-TX), Pat Fallon (R-TX), Marc Veasey (D-TX), and Jake Ellzey (R-TX).

According to documents obtained by The Dallas Express, the talking points issued to Tolbert and the council before the meetings began with the following words: “PFAS liability: Although this issue is our last one [on a list of several they were asking for congressional assistance on], it may be the most important in terms of impact on the City’s budget.”

The documents noted that staff “fully support addressing these harmful chemicals.” However, even if the EPA implements this rule through “selective enforcement,” it “threatens to impose major legal costs and potentially prohibitive cleanup costs on local government utilities and their ratepayers.”

Staff highlighted that this would increase water bills, and any increase in expenses would impose “an especially tough burden on low- and moderate-income ratepayers.”

The end of the talking points page, which was nearly identical for every lawmaker the delegates met with, concludes with a request that the legislator support several proposed laws “that would provide liability protection under CERCLA for PFAS” to various wastewater and other treatment facilities.

“The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and provided broad Federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment,” the EPA website reads.

The Dallas Express reached out to Council Member Cara Mendelsohn (District 12) to see if any legislator gave the delegates an indication that there would be an amendment to legislation or other appropriation that would help cover the costs of the PFAS mandate. “Too early to say,” Mendelsohn responded via text.

Likewise, the PFAS legislation (S. 1429 and S. 1430) that the delegates encouraged the legislators to support has not advanced. Congress now stands in recess until after Labor Day.

In April, Tolbert sent out a memo saying Dallas Water Utility (DWU) had tested its three water treatment plants — Eastside, Bachman, and Elm Fork — for PFAS contamination. Amounts of PFAS, numbering in the parts per trillion, were found at Bachman and Elm Fork.

“The results indicate that the expected levels for PFAS in DWU’s drinking water will comply with the new regulatory limits at this time,” Tolbert wrote.

She then directed all questions to herself and then-interim DWU Director Sarah Standifer. Tolbert elevated Standifer to permanent director of DWU on Tolbert’s first week in office.

However, Standifer has come under fire from left-leaning outlets like D Magazine because of questions about her competence. Standifer led the department that was charged with watching over the management of the Trinity River and the watershed when environmental and administrative issues were recurrent. These included dredging a pond in Trinity Forest for sand to use on a private golf course that resulted in action from the state’s environmental agency and numerous environmental protection law violations at the site, the damaging of forest, and possible water contaminations, D Magazine reported.

In the aftermath, D Magazine wrote that the City “shirked” responsibility and refused to deliver the oversight it promised or prosecute potential violations of law referred to prosecutors over the Trinity Forest case.

In one instance, the magazine reported that environmental activists had not received the official emails they had requested in a Freedom of Information Act request. These emails allegedly showed officials within Standifer’s department attempting to strong-arm inspectors into not reporting violations.

If true, it reflects issues within the City of Dallas more broadly. During an investigation by The Dallas Express into Tolbert’s work product regarding DEI, the City of Dallas claimed relevant files did not exist. Then, less than a handful of documents, all from a brief period in 2021, materialized without explanation.

The Dallas Express asked the city secretary if they had destroyed documents or if some were missing. The city secretary’s office did not respond.

Environmental mishaps were not the only negative occurrences under Standifer’s leadership. Standifer was also in charge during the failure of the Margaret McDermott Bridge. This incident included City contractors and staff not reporting cracks in the bridge caused by high winds to the city council and a fateful agreement not to stress test the bridge’s cables, according to the Dallas Observer.

Nevertheless, Standifer’s newly solidified position in the organizational chart comes when there may be less oversight in the Transportation and Infrastructure Division in which she serves.

Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry was recently hired as the city manager of DeSoto. Given other high-profile departures with the City, including Assistant City Manager Robert Perez, it is unclear when a permanent replacement will be found for him.

Although Tolbert quickly appointed interim replacements to the assistant city manager positions, this action comes as citizens have signaled concern over a decline in City services.

Likewise, Tolbert’s first challenge in tackling PFAS contamination and EPA mandates comes as questions have been raised about her use of taxpayer dollars to fund first-class trips to feminist conferences, her professional focus on DEI, and her possibly unconstitutional blocking of The Dallas Express on X.

The Dallas Express reached out to both Tolbert and Standifer to seek their comments on how they plan to tackle the PFAS mandate. Only Standifer responded with a statement from a city spokesman after publication. The spokesman assured DX the city would be fully compliant with the law and would “closely [monitor]” EPA regulations, while also continuing to conduct water testing for PFAS.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 9:53 a.m. on July 9, 2024, to include a comment from Standifer.