SUEZ Water - Water Technologies & Water

The Changing Regulatory Environment Regarding PFAS Contamination

Growing concern regarding the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in surface water, groundwater, wastewater, soil, and air affecting the quality of resources is leading industries to prioritize the installation of effective treatment solutions. Despite the presence of PFAS in commercial and industrial products since the 1940s, authorities have only recently investigated the consequences and deployed mitigation measures. PFAS are of great concern because they are highly resistant to biodegradation (complicating their treatment) and are bioaccumulative (increasing their health risks).

The lack of reliable data on the extent of the PFAS contaminant challenge causes uncertainty about how much treatment is necessary. However, industries and water management facilities are taking an active approach; the provision of safe water and the treatment of water and waste containing PFAS is a priority. In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified certain types of PFAS as potential human carcinogens.  The Biden–Harris administration announced accelerated efforts to address PFAS as a priority issue, presenting the EPA’s PFAS Roadmap with commitments through 2024.  This roadmap includes steps to control PFAS at their sources, hold emitters accountable, ensure science-based decision-making, and address the impacts on disadvantaged communities.

Municipal drinking water treatment plants were some of the first to investigate solutions to the problem of PFAS in water sources. These municipal initiatives drove increased scrutiny of the origin of PFAS contamination. Firefighting foam, industrial emissions, and biosolids surfaced as 3 of the most prominent sources. The presence of PFAS complicates the disposal of biosolids from different treatment systems and municipal and industrial sources. This complication means that municipalities and industries are eager to trace, mitigate, and reduce the contaminants’ upstream sources and properly dispose of biosolids. In turn, the industry is planning for increasing regulatory actions. Removing pollutants such as PFAS poses additional treatment and disposal costs for industries and water utilities. Regulation and relevant compliance requirements drive the environmental and water markets. Also, associated liability concerns remain for incipient pollutants and environmental risks; moreover, regulators’ and courts’ legal risk and compliance penalties increase the need for urgent action.

Water utilities must provide the citizens with clean and reliable drinking water. Failure to do so results in the loss of public trust, an adverse impact on public health, and lawsuits. Because of the municipal water company’s responsibility to address emerging contaminants, once Federal or State regulations are in place, the providers must meet the specifications in the new law, following the timeline established in the rule. This issue does not concern municipalities alone, and the level of treatment performed in drinking water plants often drives efforts to have industrial organizations pay for some of the costs.

As research and knowledge about PFAS-generated pollution increases, the EPA is increasing its activity. For example, the EPA’s Strategic Roadmap related to PFAS outlines an action plan for 2021–2024.  This plan sets forth the following goals and objectives:

  • Research: Invest in research, development, and innovation to increase understanding of PFAS exposures and toxicities, human health and ecological effects, and effective interventions that incorporate the best available science.
  • Restrict: Pursue a comprehensive approach to prevent PFAS from entering air, land, and water at levels that can adversely impact human health and the environment.
  • Remediate: Broaden and accelerate the clean-up of PFAS contamination to protect human health and ecological systems.

The EPA is expected to place limitations on PFAS in commerce, establish regulations, and require permits to restrict emissions and discharges from industrial plants. It is likely that manufacturers will be required to provide data on PFAS compounds produced. Further, the EPA plans to designate some compounds as hazardous chemicals under the Superfund Law. ,  These limitations will increase PFAS reporting requirements but will challenge companies and industries using, manufacturing, treating, and disposing of PFAS-containing materials to comply with regulations.

 

Concern over the possible health
effects PFAS is increasing. Industries
are developing comprehensive plans
to respond to this situation. 

PFAS image

As the EPA is developing and revising standards, different states are showing an interest in prioritizing PFAS containing source water issues and taking measures to treat them. For example, the State of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued a new drinking water standard to promote PFAS treatment. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) created new regulations to limit the presence of PFAS chemicals in municipal drinking water, landfills and manufacturing facilities. These new regulations limit perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to 8 parts per trillion (ppt) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) to 16 ppt.  The EPA’s Health Advisory Limit, which is non-enforceable standard, is 70 ppt. The MPART has established itself as a national leader in responding to PFAS contamination, and many other states are generating new regulations that limit the use and discharge of PFAS.

Taking advantage of the early stages of regulatory implementations to change the use, treatment, and disposal of PFAS allows companies to tackle the problem effectively, avoiding future environmental and legal issues. Industrial organizations cannot continue with business as usual because in the next few years allowing the same levels of PFAS discharge into the environment will be too high a risk. Companies are ensuring sustainable operations by considering the new standards and legislative changes that will emerge and the knowledge and awareness regarding PFAS’ harmful effects on health and the environment. Companies must approach this issue with a knowledgeable and experienced partner in PFAS remediation that will help them navigate complexities and deliver effective solutions. Having the right partner will position companies to avoid higher costs, liabilities, and unforeseen problems.