Is Superfund the Future for PFAS?

Sept. 23, 2022
As the U.S. EPA considers a CERCLA designation for PFAS chemicals, water industry leaders muse about the impact on utilities.

In the U.S. EPA's  ongoing efforts to hold per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS) polluters and other responsible parties accountable, those representing water and wastewater utilities are trying to sort out the designations and its impact on them.

As noted by the EPA, PFAS are synthetic chemicals that continue to be released into the environment throughout the life cycle of manufacturing, processing, distribution in commerce, use, and disposal life cycle. Some PFAS persist in the environment, with many having properties preventing their complete breakdown. Even removing PFAS from contaminated areas can create PFAS-contaminated waste, which in most cases is currently unregulated.

CERCLA & RCRA Designation?

Chris Moody, P.E., American Water Works Association (AWWA) regional technical manager, said the EPA is preparing to propose a rule to designate PFOA and PFOS this summer, finalizing the designation by summer 2023. AWWA has raised concerns about the EPA’s approach to listing PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA), Moody noted.

“While a CERCLA listing for PFAS could facilitate communities seeking compensation from manufacturers or industrial users, the statute has the potential to impose liability onto water systems and ultimately innocent communities,” he added.

AWWA has joined others in the water sector requesting Congress directly provide an exemption to the water sector under CERCLA for PFAS-related activities.

Moody said a separate effort underway is the rulemaking to designate PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS as hazardous constituents under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), prompted by a petition from the state of New Mexico, which sought to facilitate contamination cleanups at RCRA facilities.

“This listing will initially only impact cleanups for these facilities,” Moody said. “But as the EPA framed in their response to the petition, this action is a foundational step towards listing these PFAS as hazardous wastes.”

Hazardous waste rules will require a cradle-to-grave approach to PFAS wastes as well as establish requirements for wastes, which could include water treatment residuals such as spent GAC or IX resin and biosolids, Moody notes.

Under RCRA, wastes can be listed as hazardous by either a characteristic listing such as corrosivity and toxicity or categorical, such as waste streams produced by a specific process, Moody says.

Alternative Designations

AWWA discussed a listing strategy with the EPA that relied on listing PFAS wastes through a categorical listing instead of a characteristic listing as there are various waste streams with a wide range of PFAS levels present, such as waste streams produced by manufacturers and industrial users, Moody said.

“These waste streams would also represent a much lower volume that would need to be managed appropriately in comparison with the potential extent of wastes that may contain PFAS at any level,” he said.

The 4 Pillars of PFAS Regulations

AWWA has developed four pillars of PFAS regulation to emphasize to its member utilities: the importance of protecting public health, science-based regulations, strategic source protection, and research.

That will help utilities understand the importance of communicating with consumers about PFAS and what they are doing to address PFAS, Moody said. It also conveys to utilities that PFAS cleanup and remediation costs should be placed on the polluters responsible for it.

“As EPA works to address contamination from decades of unmitigated discharge, water systems have had to bear the burden of cleaning up drinking water supplies and a CERCLA or RCRA designation for waste streams generated from the treatment of PFAS will only further burden systems and their end users – consumers of public drinking water supplies,” Moody said.

PFAS Disposal Remains a Challenge

Alan Roberson, P.E., Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) executive director, said his organization is considering how the EPA’s designations and numbers would be used in a clean-up and how that might impact what both water and wastewater systems do with residuals or biosolids.

“Both water and wastewater systems have treatment that takes out solids,” he points out. “One issue with the potential designation is if that disposal mechanism becomes problematic, then what do water and wastewater systems do?”

The systems are not generating the designated PFAS but are merely carriers, Roberson added.

“It's in their source water for the water plant," he said. "They treat it and then it ends up in the wastewater plant because it goes in the sewer. We’re trying to understand all the nuances.”

Roberson says while he is not disputing the EPA’s endeavors, it is confusing for those in the industry to figure out compliance not just with drinking water standards, but also clean-up standards and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for wastewater plants.

Roberson says there is a lot of potential for companies that provide remediation services to help with solutions.

“What I don’t know is if we have these updated health advisories, how does that affect clean-up numbers and how well do their technologies take it down to those numbers?” he added.

Economics of PFAS Remediation

REGENESIS provides solutions designed for groundwater and soil remediation. Its colloidal activated carbon (CAC) technology is designed to immobilize PFAS in situ at or near their source. PlumeStop is designed to remove PFAS from groundwater and eliminate the exposure risk to downstream receptors such as drinking water supplies and surface water bodies. 

Scott Wilson, Regenesis CEO and president, said “PFAS are certain to become the most economically consequential groundwater contaminants since the EPA was formed more than 50 years ago. This is true even though the understanding of human health and ecological risks due to PFAS is still in the early stages.”

Wilson notes PFAS contaminants’ impact encompasses their pervasiveness, non-degrading nature and pending federally enforceable action levels for PFOA and PFOS, which will be established at “unprecedented, low concentrations.”

He notes that in mid-June, the EPA published its Interim Updated Lifetime Health Advisories (HAs) for PFOA and PFOS, setting the concentration limits at 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively. 

“For comparison, the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for benzene in drinking water is 5,000 parts per trillion or over 1 million times more than the [health advisory level] for PFOA,” Wilson added. “When you consider PFAS are frequently detected in groundwater and other environmental media – even rainwater – with enforceable action levels multiple orders of magnitude lower than most hazardous substances regulated under the Clean Water Act, you can begin to imagine the long-term economic consequences of PFAS.”

In time, wide-ranging industrial, municipal, and federal entities will be required to respond to PFAS contamination at their sites, Wilson said.

“Although there are currently thousands of sites with confirmed PFAS contamination, this number is small relative to the total population of sites yet to be discovered, since most PFAS-impacted sites have not been sampled for them,” he added. “Of those known, most are associated with firefighting training sites at airports and military bases where aqueous film-forming foams containing PFAS were used.”

Wilson says many other PFAS-contaminated sites will be soon revealed following the EPA's April 2022 directive to add PFAS to the NPDES sampling list at facilities where it is the permitting authority.

“The EPA has also begun requiring publicly-owned treatment works to identify upstream industrial users potentially discharging PFAS,” he said. “State permit-issuing authorities will follow the EPA's lead. These actions will cast a wide net on potential PFAS sources, although tracking them down and assigning them to specific point sources and responsible parties promises to be technically challenging and highly litigious. It will be fascinating to watch this process unfold.”

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer for Wastewater Digest. Brzozowski can be reached at [email protected].

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Image courtesy Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ).