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What Will a Federal PFAS Rule Mean?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally announced long-awaited proposed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) drinking water limits.

Arlene Karidis

March 22, 2023

5 Min Read
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally announced long-awaited proposed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) drinking water limits. 

The federal rule targets six PFAS including PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA, and PFHxS. The proposed MCL, 4 parts per trillion (ppt), applies to PFOA and PFOS; that value applies to a mix of the remaining four PFAS. In addition, the agency set a MCL goal, specific to identified cancer risk, for PFOA and PFOS of zero. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires finalization of the standards by September 3, 2024. Municipal water systems will likely need to comply within three to five years—not only maintaining PFAS levels below the MCLs but testing routinely and disclosing water quality information to the public. The majority of these operators will also soon be required to test drinking water for 29 PFAS to inform on the extent of contamination.

The rigorous clampdown will call for huge infrastructure ramp ups. More than 5,000 water systems will have to either find new water sources or install advanced treatment. On top of that, 2,500 water systems that already treat PFAS will be required to adapt their existing systems, estimates the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

AWWA, a nonprofit scientific association dedicated to managing and treating water, publicly advocates for national drinking water standards for PFAS as well as for transparency among utilities.

In response to the EPA announcement last week, it stated, “We support sound scientific process to create regulations in which the public health benefits outweigh the costs … AWWA appreciates EPA’s progress on this rulemaking as states, water systems, and consumers have been waiting for a clear and consistent path forward to address PFAS.”

Going back a few months –to June 2022—the EPA proposed updated lifetime health advisories (LHAs), which consider exposure throughout a lifetime. The new LHA radically reduces a 2016 recommendation of PFOS and PFOA limits of 70 ppt, down to .02 ppt for PFOS and .004 ppt for PFOA. The sharp adjustment is based on recent data from a growing body of scientific studies, says the agency.

By the latest estimates of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), about 30,000 industrial entities release PFAS into the environment, including in drinking water. The nonprofit, focused on research, advocacy, and education around health and environment, knows of these toxic compounds’ presence in the drinking water and groundwater of more than 2,800 communities, but believes this pales to actual impact.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, describes the EPA’s move as “historic progress.”

“More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water. Americans have been drinking contaminated water for decades. This proposal is a critical step toward getting these toxic poisons out of our water,” he says.

Ten states (ME, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, and WI) have already established and enforce PFAS MCLs for drinking water. Delaware and Virginia are working on similar policies.

With a federal mandate that imposes stricter limits than exist anywhere now, upgraded PFAS treatment infrastructure will come at very high cost. A study commissioned by AWWA estimates that PFOA and PFOS removal systems designed to maintain the proposed levels will be upward of $3.8 billion annually.  (The U.S. EPA estimates that operating, maintenance, and capital costs to utilities to comply will be $772 million a year as reported by CNN).

The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help; it provides $1 billion in grant funding each year for five years to tackle PFAS contamination, including in drinking water, with a focus on disadvantaged communities.

But for now, most of the costs will fall on ratepayers, said Jennifer Pederson, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association as reported in wbur.

"We have quite a bit of infrastructure backlog that needs to be addressed. And so unfortunately when we have to deal with new regulations like this, some of the other really important public health items get pushed back," she added.

Massachusetts, with a 20-ppt drinking water limit, among the most stringent of the few state mandates, has so far budgeted  $170 million for PFAS cleanup and will receive $38 million in federal funding to address emerging contaminants in drinking water, including PFAS, to help meet stricter standards on the way.

And it’s not just the water utilities that will be accountable. Landfills come into the picture too—the most common destination for the thousands of wasted PFAS-laden packaging and product types.

“The drinking water standards proposed by EPA have the potential to change how landfills manage leachate prior to sending it to wastewater treatment plants. Pre-treatment and other operational changes would likely be necessary in some cases. But we do not want to see an end to the beneficial relationship that exists between [these two types of facilities],” Jesse Maxwell, Advocacy & Safety senior manager, SWANA told Waste360.

Over 60 percent of active landfills discharge PFAS to wastewater treatment plants, which in turn send over 40 percent of their biosolids back to landfills, she says.

The proposed rule will be open to public comment for EPA’s review, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan anticipates finalization later in 2023.

In a press conference last week, announcing the latest on the PFAS policy front Regan said, "These toxic chemicals are so pervasive and so long-lasting in the environment that they've been found in food, soil, and water, even in the most remote corners of our planet. When fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses."

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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