NEBRA Advances Understanding of PFAS and Biosolids/Residuals
Background: PFAS regulations can lead to disruptions in biosolids recycling programs
Since January 2017, NEBRA has provided members and an expanding list of biosolids professionals across the continent with current science, legislative, and regulatory developments related to PFAS and biosolids and residuals. NEBRA has engaged WEF and NACWA and other organizations in collaborative efforts to understand the implications of the fast-moving developments in PFAS policy at the national and state levels. NEBRA’s work has been supported by a large number of moderate contributions from organizations around the continent.
Now, as discussed in news in June, there is beginning to be a clearer picture on the regulatory situation. Some states have set a new playing field. New Hampshire has formally finalized the lowest-in-the-nation MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) for PFAS in drinking water, which are also enforceable groundwater standards - in the teens of ppts for four PFAS. Earlier in the year, Maine required screening for PFOA and PFOS in biosolids and land-applied soils, using very low screening values, resulting in significant reductions in biosolids recycling. Additional state actions - and proposed federal legislation - have the potential to create ongoing liability on wastewater utilities, municipalities, and biosolids/residuals programs for site remediations and groundwater cleanups because of past management practices. In those states where PFAS laws and regulations have come down on biosolids, there are now large obstacles to cost-effective recycling - unless regulatory adjustments or exemptions are provided. Already, the market for managing biosolids has been shaken, with prices for taking and managing biosolids from a water resource recovery facility (WRRF) increasing dramatically. For example, a MA facility reports a current increase from ~$87 per wet ton to $120 per wet ton.
In the vast majority of U. S. states, actions on PFAS have been slower, and it is unclear whether NH and Maine will be unique or whether they have started a domino effect. The many demonstrated benefits of recycling biosolids to soils - lower net greenhouse gas emissions, use of local resources, closing nutrient and carbon loops, increasing community sustainability, replacing fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, helping local agriculture, cost effective management of solids that must be managed - all may be jeopardized in states that head toward very low standards without figuring out how to navigate unintended consequences.
Recently, NEBRA has been focused on helping figure out how to navigate this, applying current science.
1. Modeling of PFOA & PFOS applied in biosolids & meeting with Maine DEP, CDC, and Dept. of Ag.
Stone Environmental of Montpelier, VT has completed initial modeling work assessing the potential for leaching of PFOA and PFOS (the two concerning PFAS chemicals regulated by Maine DEP) in soils on which biosolids are applied. The goal is to better define what would be appropriate screening values for PFAS levels in biosolids. They used a formal, widely-accepted model (PRZM) to estimate migration to groundwater, providing conservative (toward worst-case) inputs to the model that were tailored for Maine. Preliminary results were provided in a memorandum to NEBRA in late July. So far, it suggests that a high level of protection of groundwater is provided if biosolids are limited in PFOA and PFOS content to between 19 and 29 ug/kg (and higher levels are protective of groundwater if biosolids application rates are not as high as modeled). These are preliminary data; peer review is ongoing and NEBRA continues further refinements and further calibration and ground-truthing of the model with field data.
2. Testing for PFAS on Maine farms with long histories of biosolids use
NEBRA conducted limited sampling and analysis for PFAS in various matrices on several Maine farms where biosolids have been used annually for many years. This was done as a private, NEBRA initiative in collaboration with individual farmers/landowners. Two farms permitted sharing of their data with Maine DEP and the Maine Dept. of Agriculture. All milk on all farms tested shows non-detect for PFAS in milk; this is the same result that Maine Dept. of Ag found in their testing on farms and in samples of milk from grocery stores. (The Stoneridge Farm in Maine, which has been in the news, remains the one and only exception, with continued PFOS in the milk, the cause of which is not likely municipal biosolids, as discussed in our “Information Update” at the upper right here: https://www.nebiosolids.org/pfas-biosolids). In addition to the milk data, NEBRA data for these two farms show no impact on on-farm drinking water wells (a few hits of low levels of PFAS, <12 ppt total of PFOA+PFOS, below all low standards) and silage (all non–detects, except for a couple <2 ppb of very unusual PFAS).
NEBRA continues to assist in and encourage further data collection from real-world field conditions and is compiling data from state investigations and other sources for comparison.
3. Litigation in Maine: Stoneridge Farm suit against PFAS companies & 2 WRRFs
The lawsuit filed by Stoneridge Farm last winter is still pending. The main defendants are 3M, Chemours, Solvay, etc. (the big PFAS companies). The two towns named as co-defendants have not been formally served. This is because the original lawyers for the plaintiff (Stoneridge Farm) withdrew and a new firm has taken on the case recently – Berman & Simmons. These new lawyers have been asking other Maine farms that used biosolids to join their lawsuit; NEBRA is not aware of any other farms joining the suit. Copies of the court documents (the filed lawsuit, etc.) are available from NEBRA. The plaintiffs have until November to provide formal service of the lawsuit to the two wastewater facilities/towns. (The Stoneridge Farm situation is described in our “Information Update” at the upper right here: https://www.nebiosolids.org/pfas-biosolids).
4. NH has created a new playing field
NH has formally adopted MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) for drinking water that are to become effective Oct. 1. These are the lowest MCLs in the country, a real game-changer; in ppts: PFOA=12, PFOS=15, PFNA=11, PFHxS=18. These automatically also become groundwater regulatory values. Already, immediately, wastewater facilities in NH that are discharging to groundwater are being given exemptions: they will be able to continue discharging, despite PFAS levels above these new groundwater standards, because NH DES recognizes that there is no treatment for removing PFAS from 100s of thousands to millions of gallons of wastewater effluent. But biosolids and other activities are impacted. Obviously, if such groundwater standards spread to other states, biosolids, wastewater, septage, and waste management become even more challenging. Most formal MCL-setting processes include robust evaluation of costs and benefits; NH DES chose not to do that; they adopted what would better be called MCLGs – MCL goals, pure health-based values and not values that include cost and benefit analysis as well.