The Biden administration has announced a two-pronged initiative aimed to reduce exposure, through drinking water, to the “forever chemicals”—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

Environmental groups and their Capitol Hill allies praised the administration's PFAS program as a major benefit for public health; but industry organizations and EPA critics in Congress raised concerns about the cost to implement it.

One part of the program is regulatory: the first legally enforceable national drinking water standard for PFAS. The other is financial—nearly $1 billion just made available from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and directed to states and territories to fund PFAS detection and treatment systems. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 6% to 10% of 66,000 public drinking-water systems may have to take steps to reduce PFAS to meet the new standard—called “a comprehensive and life-changing rule” by Administrator Michael S. Regan during an April 9 briefing. The goals “can be achieved using a range of available technologies and approaches that many water systems are using today," he said.

White House Council of Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said in the briefing that the standard "will protect 100 million people from PFAS exposure, prevent tens of thousands of serious illnesses and save lives." 

New Limits Set

The standard sets limits for five types of PFAS, including the most prevalent, PFOA and PFOS. Limits also are set for any combination of four PFAS, including so-called GenX chemicals.

The rule requires public water systems to monitor and reduce levels for PFOA and PFOS. Under the standard, the maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS will be 4 parts per trillion, and it is an enforceable goal. For PFNA, PFHxS and GenX chemicals, the levels are 10 ppt.

The maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS, each set at 4 parts-per-trillion, "remain the most challenging provisions for many water systems to comply with," Mark White, drinking water practice leader at engineering firm CDM Smith told ENR. "These are near the current U.S. practical quantification levels for these PFAS, and sampling water to assess the concentrations at these low concentrations requires strict adherence to sampling protocols." 

White says other nations, such as Denmark, have even stricter drinking-water limits "with the sum of PFOS, PFOA, PFNA and PFHxS regulated at a maximum of 2 ppt."

In explaining the reason for limits on mixtures of PFAS, EPA said that the chemicals frequently can be found together in mixtures "and research shows these mixtures may have combined health impacts."

More specifically, EPA's mixture limit applies to any mix of two or more of the following: PFAS, PFNS, PFHxS, PFBS and so-called GenX Chemicals.

Drinking Water System Impacts

Water systems will have three years to complete initial monitoring for the chemicals and must inform the public about PFAS levels found in their drinking water. If it is determined that PFAS levels are exceeded, systems must reduce the chemicals within five years. 

"A significant change in the final rule is the two-year extension in the compliance deadline to provide utilities that need to construct treatment modifications the time required to complete those capital projects," says White. The change "is key given the anticipated extended lead times to procure treatment components vessels due to the simultaneous demand from water systems across the nation."

Regarding the $1 billion in IIJA funding, a senior administration official, speaking on background, said the aid would be distributed to the states and territories through the existing drinking-water state revolving fund program as grants, not loans.

Funds can be used for drinking-water systems and also for private wells, he said.

Reaction to the administration's PFAS actions was mixed.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) hailed the program as "a historic step to protect public health." He praised EPA for taking "a thoughtful approach to allow utilities time to deploy new and emerging technologies" to address contamination.

But the committee's top Republican, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), said the PFAS rule "takes the wrong approach, which will result in increased costs for local water systems and ultimately, ratepayers."

Concerns Raised

The American Water Works Association said in an April 10 statement that it was studying the content of the final regulation but referred to its comments on EPA's earlier proposed version of the rule, saying it is "concerned that the rule's health and financial impacts are not accurately characterized." The group estimates the standard's cost "is more than three times higher" than agency calculations. "The magnitude of these additional costs will lead to affordability challenges in many communities," it said.

White notes particular utility cost concern related to "uncertainty linked to potential future regulations and long-term costs associated with disposal of PFAS-containing waste streams from drinking water plants."

Asked in the briefing about possible "pushback" to the standard from critics, Regan said, “We feel very confident that we have designed a very durable rule, well within our statutory authority, that begins to protect people from harmful pollutants that are showing up in their drinking water."

Eliot Cooper, vice president of technology at PFAS remediation contractor Cascade Environmental says "having a final rule now removes uncertainty for those who have identified PFAS contamination already or in the future." John LaChance, also a company vice president, adds that the final rule "will drive market segments associated with PFAS investigation, fate and transport modeling, design and installation of containment systems and barriers, and removal and cleanup of soil and sediment impacted with PFAS that may leach into groundwater."

The rule "will also make it more difficult and risky to dispose of PFAS impacted soils in landfills as even small leaks could result in threats to water resources and supplies," LaChance says. PFAS site owners "will be looking for solutions that can effectively destroy all PFAS, not just PFAS that are targeted or regulated today in impacted soil to limit long term liability," he adds.