The Biden administration and Congress are stepping up efforts to control the release and cleanup of poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water sources and elsewhere, joining states that have expanded scrutiny of the chemicals, which are used widely in manufacturing and are extremely persistent in the environment.
President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget and $2-trillion infrastructure program would provide new funding to accelerate toxicity study and remediation, while a bipartisan House bill would deem the compounds hazardous substances. But manufacturers in at least one state are pushing back on planned regulation of “forever chemicals” in a lawsuit to limit the scope.
“There are about four water infrastructure bills in play now, plus Biden’s, and they all address PFAS in some fashion,” says Tommy Holmes, legislative director of the American Water Works Association, which represents water and wastewater utilities and water sector participants.
$10 Billion Cleanup Infusion
Biden’s infrastructure program designates $10 billion to monitor and remediate PFAS in drinking water and to support cleanup of rural and small water systems and household well and wastewater systems, including drainage fields.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) on April 13 introduced a bill, with 25 co-sponsors, to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a national drinking water standard for two compounds—perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA—within two years and designate them as hazardous substances within one year.
The chemicals have been found in the drinking water of more than 2,000 U.S. communities. PFAS are suspected of disrupting human immune, reproductive and developmental systems. The administration estimates that up to 110 million Americans use PFAS-tainted drinking water.
The bill also orders EPA to determine whether to list other PFAS compounds, of which there are hundreds, as toxic within five years and to set discharge limits on industrial releases. It also would provide $200 million annually for wastewater treatment.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan on April 27 established an agency council to take an “whole of EPA approach” to address PFAS contamination and accelerate scientific study and regulatory action to reduce the risk caused by the chemicals. He asked the council to develop a multi-year strategy to deliver public health protections by reviewing all ongoing actions and proposing new or changed strategies within 100 days.
President Biden’s discretionary budget seeks $75 million to accelerate PFAS toxicity research to inform regulation and enforceable limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Funding also would provide technical assistance grants to state and local governments.
EPA’s current “advisory” limit on PFAS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion, but some states have set or proposed required levels from 6.5 to 20 ppt, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Vermont. A Virginia standard takes effect in 2022.
Regan recently issued an updated toxicity assessment for perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, a short-chain PFAS, and made a final determination to regulate PFOA and PFOS that would lead to national drinking water limits. The agency also proposed a rule to provide new data it says is needed to better understand how often 29 PFAS chemicals are found in U.S. drinking water systems and at what levels, an EPA spokeswoman told ENR. Research also continues into how people are exposed to the chemicals and how to remove them from drinking water.
The military will phase out use of AFFF firefighting foam, known to contain PFAS, by October 2024, but still but has more than 650 sites with known or likely contamination, reports say. At an April 21 House budget hearing, Regan told legislators he will meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss mitigation, with tougher regulaton efforts fought by DOD during the Trump administration, according to Politico.
Following the Science
EPA’s focus on the health risks of PFAS is “about following the science,” says Chris Moody, AWWA regulatory technical manager. “If the science is sound, we support it.” The group is confident PFOA, PFOS and PFBS compounds pose risks. More information on four others will be known by 2025, he says.
A key question is whether drinking water contamination can be more effectively addressed at point of release into the environment rather than in water systems. EPA also is focused on data linked to the presence of PFAS in wastewater discharges from manufacturers and downstream users and their treatment. The agency is evaluating whether such discharges need regulation through national effluent limitation guidelines.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a statewide trade association, sued the state Dept. of Natural Resources in late March for steps being taken to develop PFOS and PFOA water quality standards, which the group claims only the Wisconsin Legislature can set because of the rules’ anticipated compliance cost for businesses and local governments. “It is uncertain if this regulation will even be allowed to move forward,” the business group said.
Manufacturers Push Back
Manufacturers also claim the state intends to test for more than 30 PFAS compounds, beyond the two that are the focus of the ongoing state rulemaking, and say emitters risk being “publicly stigmatized as polluters” because of the state effluent sampling. The state agreed April 1 not to publicly release most effluent sampling results. “Businesses, and the brands they have spent decades to develop, will be irreparably harmed by the stigmatization flowing from ... the sampling program,” the manufacturers say.
A National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) official said Wisconsin is following Michigan’s lead, which found PFAS in wastewater plant effluent.
New Jersey in 2018 was first in the U.S. to issue a statewide PFAS order, but compounds were found in fish last year, prompting a state consumption advisory on some species. The state’s 13-ppt PFAS drinking water limit “should be around five,” says Jeff Tittel, local Sierra Club director. “There was pushback from the chemical council, but treatment options were set by scientists … so we knew the level could be cleaned up.”
Tittel predicts a federal PFAS drinking water standard and hazardous substance designation will happen in 18 months. “PFAS affect many different congressional districts, whether they are represented by Democrats or Republican,” he says,