What is the future of PFAS, wastewater & biosolids?

Dec. 18, 2023
U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox discusses the agency’s PFAS Progress Report and its next steps in researching, restricting and remediating PFAS in wastewater.

U.S. EPA released its PFAS Progress Report Dec. 14, and while most listed accomplishments point toward regulating drinking water, impacts on wastewater are also listed.

The most critical accomplishment listed in the report is proposing Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water. As for clean water, key accomplishments include the agency’s proposal to add PFAS chemicals to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as CERCLA or the Superfund; $1 billion in infrastructure funding in 2023 for PFAS projects; new PFAS reporting requirements for the Toxic Release Inventory; and changes to the pretreatment and monitoring programs for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System requirements.

These accomplishments reflect the goals outlined in the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which the EPA Council on PFAS is charged with meeting.

EPA Council on PFAS

U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator to the Office of Water, Radhika Fox, said the agency has made PFAS issues a priority, as evidenced by the EPA Council on PFAS.

“The council brings together leadership from across all of the national program offices from Office of Air and Radiation, the Office of Chemical Safety, Pollution Prevention, Land and Emergency Management, etc., as well as our EPA regional leadership to drive programs together,” Fox said.

The genesis of this council came from U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan. Fox said he recognized the work being done to regulate PFAS in the air, water and from land across all the agency’s offices and that it was important to centralize those conversations to truly address the problem of PFAS.

The council was established in April 2021 and released the PFAS Strategic Roadmap in October of that same year. Fox said the council aims to meet the milestones of that strategic vision by researching, restricting and remediating the manmade chemicals.

“So we’ve been investing in the science,” Fox said, “then we’ve got to restrict PFAS. We’ve got to turn the tap off PFAS so we’re using a range of statutory authority to again turn the tap off on PFAS. And then we’ve got to remediate.”

The investment in the science has primarily been conducted through the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 5, which monitors for 29 PFAS compounds and lithium. While that data is preliminary, the data does validate the current understanding of the proliferation of PFAS chemicals in the environment.

Fox said the preliminary data lines up and tracks with findings of other studies on the man-made chemicals, and said the information UCMR5 provides to professionals is vital for future restriction and remediation efforts.

“It’s going to be a real game changer having all of that UCMR data. It’s really going to support our local water agencies to understand what’s happening, what they’re drinking water source is, and to plan,” Fox said.

Mike McGill, president of WaterPIO, is a communications consultant for water and wastewater systems in the United States. He said the data so far sheds light on how widespread the issue of PFAS is, and pointed at that scale of the problem as a major headwind.

“Based on the first couple of rounds of UCMR 5, we’re looking at thousands of water providers needing advanced treatment to be added to their systems, and all within the next three to five years,” McGill said. “That’s untenable. There won’t be enough systems or media to go around, and the systems that are available will jump in cost to the providers and — because we’re not punishing the polluters enough — the customers.”

Fox noted the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed $15 billion in funding for PFAS projects into law with $1 billion being issued in 2023. She encouraged water and wastewater utilities to apply for state revolving funds, the primary vehicle for federal funding to states and their utilities, to pay for advanced treatment equipment, products and services.

Superfund & wastewater plants

In the fall of 2022, Wastewater Digest interviewed Fox at WEFTEC where she said the agency was working on a risk assessment of PFAS in biosolids. At the time, the agency had planned to produce data in 2023 to inform wastewater utilities on the risks of the man-made chemicals in the solids produced at the end of the wastewater treatment process.

In Maine in 2022, PFAS in biosolids became such a concern that the state adopted new rules on biosolids disposal, which banned beneficial reuse such as land application. Portland Water District began exploring options with Brown and Caldwell to identify alternatives for addressing this biosolids matter as landfills no longer accept them for disposal.

This issue is further compounded by EPA’s proposal to add PFAS chemicals to CERCLA. In April, Wastewater Digest published a report on the impacts of this proposal, citing a grave concern from utilities as it could effectively deem every facility in the U.S. a Superfund site. Industry leaders at Water Environment Federation and at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, among others, called for the proposal to exempt drinking water and wastewater systems from liability under CERCLA because those systems do not manufacture or produce PFAS chemicals.

“If we in wastewater do not get exemptions under CERCLA, there will be legal chaos,” McGill said. “The why is obvious. Without exemptions, we will technically be polluters under the law, and we already know some law firms have stated we should be treated like 3M, Dupont, and Chemours when it comes to legal action.”

This puts EPA in a tough position because the agency’s intent in naming PFAS as a hazardous substance under CERCLA is to enable its authority to hold manufacturers and polluters of PFAS accountable rather than target municipal systems. McGill said taking the position of targeting municipal systems is a losing proposition for addressing the problem of PFAS.

“That we should be sued as if we are a polluter on par with companies that have made billions while dumping these compounds into our waterways, it’s not just short-sighted, it’s just plain wrong,” McGill said.

Researching PFAS in biosolids risk

Fox said the agency is on track to have the risk assessment of PFAS in biosolids completed by the end of 2024, but noted EPA has been working with key figures on the biosolids and wastewater portions of PFAS research. In particular, she pointed to collaborative efforts with the Environmental Council of the States and work with the National Association of State Department of Agriculture to develop “Joint Principles for Preventing and Managing PFAS in Biosolids.”

“We know this is a very top of mind issue in some states, so we’ve developed a set of joint principles around space of sustainable biosolids management as it relates to that,” Fox said. “In addition to that, we’re doing a lot of work with our federal family partners, including USDA and FDA to really understand these issues and make progress together.”

About the Author

Bob Crossen

Bob Crossen is the editorial director for the Endeavor Business Media Water Group, which publishes WaterWorld, Wastewater Digest and Stormwater Solutions. Crossen graduated from Illinois State University in Dec. 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in German and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. He worked for Campbell Publications, a weekly newspaper company in rural Illinois outside St. Louis for four years as a reporter and regional editor.