U. S. EPA Releases PFAS Action Plan
PFAS update – biosolids, residuals, and wastewater
Interest and concerns related to per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) continue to increase. Drinking water quality remains the focus of public, regulatory, legislative, and media attention. Most states are using U. S. EPA’s long-term public health advisory screening level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for evaluating the extent and significance of PFAS contamination. But several states – including several in the Northeast – have been more proactive, testing for PFAS widely and in varied media. Some are implementing lower screening values and regulatory standards (e.g. Vermont’s 20 ppt groundwater standard for 5 PFAS chemicals combined). All have been wishing that U. S. EPA would provide clear guidance, standards, and actions on PFAS.
On February 14th, U. S. EPA released a long-anticipated “PFAS Action Plan.” It was immediately met with criticism and cynicism by citizen and environmental groups and some state agencies who decry its lack of specific, immediate actions to establish tough regulatory standards for all PFAS, to advance cleanups, and to stop human exposures. Meanwhile, water quality professional groups, including NEBRA, recognized the realities EPA put forth in the Action Plan: that addressing PFAS is complicated, most of the PFAS compounds are not well researched, health implications are still being figured out, and the two most prominent PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – have been phased out and are diminishing in people and various media (e.g. wastewater - see graph below). And EPA did commit to several significant short-term actions (for 2019 & 2020), including:
· continuing the Agency’s regulatory process of listing PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA hazardous substances,
· establishing Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) in drinking water for PFOA and PFOS,
· developing and publishing analytical methods for PFAS in non-drinking waters (e.g. surface water) and solids (soils, sediments, biosolids),
· adding more PFAS chemicals to the next round of unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR) testing of drinking water nationwide,
· advancing enforcement and assisting states with enforcement to reduce exposures, and
· increasing risk communications related to PFAS.
Wastewater utilities and associated programs (e.g. biosolids management) are having to pay attention. Because PFAS are so ubiquitous in modern commercial products and myriad industrial uses, all test results to date show some PFAS compounds in every wastewater influent and effluent tested. And, in many cases, the levels measured are significant in relation to some of the regulatory standards being proposed. For example, in NH, the Department of Environmental Services is already wrestling with the likely need for some form of exemption or dilution factor for wastewater effluent discharges to groundwater, because such wastewater facilities cannot cost-effectively meet the ambient groundwater standards for PFAS.
NEBRA has been tracking this issue for the past two years and has extensive information available to its members and other water quality professionals. Contact the NEBRA office for access.
Other recent PFAS developments of note:
· NEBRA has opened a public-facing webpage on PFAS and biosolids/residuals: https://www.nebiosolids.org/pfas-biosolids
· A few biosolids and residuals (e.g. paper mill residuals) recycling projects have been disrupted or cancelled because of concerns about PFAS, even though the materials to be used contain typically low, background concentrations of PFAS. Regulatory uncertainty continues to increasingly impact biosolids management.
· Some landfills are questioning whether or not to take in sludges/biosolids/residuals because of PFAS concerns; one or two have decided not to, for now, pending further regulatory clarity.
· Litigation is imminent in Maine, with a landowner suing wastewater treatment facilities and others because of purported land application activities in the 1980s and 1990s. While this litigation seems unlikely to be successful, it adds to the uncertainty around PFAS.
· In December, NY health officials voted to recommend drinking water MCLs for PFOA and PFOS of 10 ppt each – the lowest proposed standards yet. The limited minimum cost estimates for compliance across NY state were indicated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. NEBRA considers these estimates to be very low and inadequate, because they focus solely on cleaning up drinking water and do not account for public utility and municipal spending on the management of waste and wastewater.
· At the New Year, NH proposed drinking water MCLs for four PFAS, as required by a 2018 state law. Hearings on these new regulations are scheduled for March 4th, 5th, and 12th. Details… On February 21st, DES stated that they may revise the proposed MCL numbers lower.
· 2019 legislators around the region are considering bills related to PFAS, including one in the NH Senate that would impose specific, very low PFAS MCLs in drinking water (presumably overriding the regulatory process mentioned above, which many of the same legislators created in 2018!).
· Comments from citizen and environmental groups are urging PFAS drinking water MCLs in the 1 – 2 ppt range – very close to analytical minimum reporting limits and unattainable in many waters throughout the environment, where, today, urban, suburban and even some rural surface and groundwaters have typical “background” levels up to 10 or more ppt.
NEBRA continues to track the science on PFAS related to wastewater, residuals, biosolids, and soils. It is notable that, already, source control - phasing out common uses - has proven effective in reducing human exposure, as evidenced by Centers for Disease Control testing over the past 15+ years (see below). NEBRA strongly supports source control for any chemicals that pose significant risk to human health and/or the environment; phasing them out protects biosolids quality as well as public health.