A PFAS & Biosolids/Residuals Update
This spring may well be remembered as a major inflection point in biosolids management in New England - and likely beyond. In March, Maine imposed a moratorium on land application. Now, New Hampshire is adopting the nation’s first set of enforceable drinking water MCLs (announcement by DES June 28th), which also become groundwater standards; they are low enough to significantly impact the viability of biosolids and residuals recycling to soil - as well as myriad other activities, perhaps including septic systems and numerous small businesses. Already, Vermont has a low groundwater limit of 20 parts per trillion (ppt), which is, in effect, difficult to enforce and apply equitably, because PFAS chemicals are found so widely.
These few state agencies are being driven by pressure to be seen as proactive advocates of public health. It’s happening in this region, as well as in Michigan and a few other states, in the wake of failed past drinking water crisis responses (think Flint). Public fears of PFAS - the “forever chemicals” – and organized community advocates in the social media age are pressuring states to act quickly – ahead of U. S. EPA (which is caught in the political turmoil in Washington) - without much assessment of what it means for other aspects of public health protection programs like wastewater, septage, and biosolids management. Municipalities and publicly-owned utilities - the ones actually performing water quality work for us all - are left to bear the costs of what is being seen by an increasing number of people as a major, shared societal error: the widespread use of PFAS since the mid-1900s.
How did we get here?
PFAS are perfluorinated compounds that have been in use for decades but are now of concern because of associations to negative health effects. In the past few months, awareness and discussion has grown across the nation regarding contamination of water with PFAS. Contamination of drinking water is the major focus of concern, and these New England states, along with Minnesota, New Jersey, Michigan, and North Carolina, have been out ahead in investigating and regulating PFAS. For more than two years, NEBRA has been tracking the PFAS issue as it relates to wastewater, biosolids, and residuals. Search the News Archives for further coverage. Abundant additional PFAS and biosolids information is available on our Members-Only pages.
The spring that’s hastening a fall of biosolids recycling
This spring of 2019 has seen stunning impacts on biosolids management markets in the New England region. Managers of wastewater and biosolids are now fully aware and paying attention, talking of the disruptions and growing crisis driven by state regulatory decisions, some of which are being viewed as poorly thought-out. Already, bids and other indicators of pricing in the biosolids management markets show prices increasing. Each week now, there are wastewater agencies here and there in the region stymied by where to send their solids for recycling or disposal.
The impacts of Maine’s moratorium and required biosolids testing regimen were lessened some when, in April, Maine DEP permitted continued distribution of biosolids compost products, which make up a large percentage of recycled solids in the Pine Tree State. But some public utilities have been hit hard. Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority (LAWPCA) – one of the leaders in biosolids recycling in New England for more than two decades, has been hardest hit by DEP’s sudden actions (see recent Sun Journal articles June 22 and June 25). As NEBRA and municipal representatives continue to point out, the biosolids PFAS screening levels being used by Maine DEP are based on inappropriate modeling. Data indicate no significant water quality threats from higher levels. And the issue that triggered Maine DEP’s initial response was misrepresented.
On Friday, June 28th, NH DES announces Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for drinking water for PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, and PFHxS - and they are low enough to impact many activities, including wastewater and biosolids management. Prior to that date, the only formal MCL in the country was New Jersey’s MCL for PFNA. By NH law, MCLs automatically become ambient groundwater standards.
NEBRA and other organizations representing municipalities are worried about the implications of NH DES setting such low standards for waters. NEBRA has commented numerous times to DES in writing and meetings that regulators have not adequately considered the costs and benefit trade-offs of setting these MCLs - even though the law requiring this regulatory action specifies consideration of costs and benefits. NH has sued the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, hoping for money to help pay for the costs of addressing PFAS - an appropriate step. But, until and when that happens, municipalities and water and wastewater utilities will be required to bear the costs of meeting the new drinking water and groundwater standards. And DES is already looking ahead to surface water standards, which they must begin development of by January of 2020, according to a 2018 NH law. Most wastewater facilities discharge to surface waters, and today’s low MCLs directly affect tomorrow’s surface water standards. What will it mean when wastewater effluent cannot meet the standards? Data shows all wastewater effluent contains PFAS at levels close to the new MCLs - mostly commonly because of ubiquitous PFAS in our homes and daily lives.
NEBRA and other organizations representing municipal interests have provided multiple comments to NH DES over the course of the MCL-setting process. (See this recent collaborative position statement.) Currently, NEBRA is concerned that:
In setting lower MCLs than originally proposed in January 2019, NH DES has created a new regulatory proposal with enough substantial differences that another round of public comments is warranted;
NH DES has rushed the MCL-setting process without adequately completing the cost and benefit analysis required by law;
NH DES has, so far, ignored opportunities to plan with municipal stakeholders on how water and wastewater systems will address, plan, and budget for new PFAS requirements;
NH DES has indicated that setting low MCLs will appease community advocates and relieve political pressure and that variances and exemptions that will be needed to allow at least some wastewater systems to continue critical operations will be worked through later; and
NH DES has obtained substantial funding (~$6 million) in the new state budget for the Agency’s ongoing PFAS work, but it appears little (if any) of that money will be used to offset local and municipal costs of addressing PFAS.
In the meantime, NH DES has begun to set precedent that small businesses, municipal systems, and others involved in wastewater and biosolids management will be hit with liability for PFAS they may have received and conveyed, unknowingly, to the environment - a potentially huge liability for many communities and businesses that have been involved in beneficial recycling of biosolids and residuals.
The Bay State, much larger in population and commitment to biosolids recycling than its neighbors to the north (Boston metro’s 4.8 million people depend on MWRA’s highly-successful heat-dried biosolids fertilizer program) has started public meetings on setting MCLs. Mass DEP’s strategy appears to be taking a more thoughtful, cautious approach, following existing regulatory structures, and refraining from use of crisis decision-making. For example, required testing of biosolids for PFAS is being implement as part of the normal permit renewal process, rather than imposed on everyone at once (as happened in Maine).
Driven by sensitivity around the mismanaged Flint lead contamination crisis, the Michigan DEQ (now Environment, Great Lakes, & Energy, or EGLE) has sprinted ahead of most states in addressing PFAS. The agency has done some preliminary evaluations of wastewater and biosolids and is now focusing more sharply on biosolids management. Public awareness is just beginning to understand the large costs involved.
Wisconsin has joined the regulatory race to the bottom, just recently announcing plans for groundwater standards of 20 ppt, similar to Vermont’s lowest-in-the-nation groundwater number (http://madisonstatejournal.wi.newsmemory.com/publink.php?shareid=4c9a700bf and https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/water/gws.htm). And at least one biosolids program has been disrupted because of PFAS concerns.
In North Carolina, a PFAS chemical GenX, which has been used to replace the phased-out PFOA and PFOS, has been the focus of intense investigation in the Cape Fear River basin. Past investigations in that region have included evaluation of biosolids land application.
And California is also beginning to address PFAS. Even as biosolids are poised to play an important role in helping the state achieve its landmark climate change mitigation strategies of the Healthy Soils Initiative and greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the state will be testing wastewater and related materials - including groundwater at some land application sites - beginning late this year.
What is U.S. EPA doing?
Regulators in a growing number of states have been urging more action from U. S. EPA. But experienced EPA staff scientists understand that the science is still developing and may not yet be adequate to support some regulations. EPA’s Action Plan, released in late winter, reflects this caution and, when released in late winter, was seen by some as moving too slowly. But it is noteworthy that, by facilitating a phase-out, EPA has achieved the most significant immediate reduction in potential risk from the two most prominent PFAS: PFOA and PFOS. That one action 15+ years ago has helped reduce the levels of PFOA and PFOS in the vast majority of Americans by 60% or more (demonstrating that source reduction - phase-out of non-essential uses of chemicals of concern – is by far the most cost-effective risk-reduction strategy).
Some EPA scientists are focused currently on further development of analytical methods - critically important for developing reliable data and necessary for enforcement of standards. The only EPA-approved method to date is Method 537 for drinking water only. Commercial laboratories have been modifying this method for other media, such as groundwater, wastewater, and solids. But the data between labs may not be reliably comparable. Now, EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery (ORCR) recently released SW-846 Update VII, Phase II – Method 8327: Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Using External Standard Calibration and Multiple Reaction Monitoring (MRM) Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) for public comment. This Method 8327 applies to non-potable waters, including wastewater. The method, an executive summary, an in-depth statistical report, and a validation summary report can be found on the SW-846 website. The comment period for this method will end on July 22, 2019. Comments can be submitted through the EPA docket at http://www.regulations.gov, ID# EPA-HQ-OLEM-2018-0846.