Organizations have mixed responses to EPA’s proposed PFAS MCLs

March 20, 2023
National organizations across the water sector have voiced concerns for the consequences of EPA’s proposed MCLs and MCLGs for six prominent PFAS compounds.

Prominent organizations across the water, environment, and chemical industries have had mixed responses to the U.S. EPA’s proposed regulations for key per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

On March 14, EPA had proposed enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) for six prominent PFAS compounds.

The proposal would establish National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for the following six PFAS compounds: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), and hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, also known as GenX Chemicals).

The announcement has already prompted responses from the American Water Works Association (AWWA), National Groundwater Association (NGWA), Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), Water Environment Federation (WEF), and more.

Most groups have applauded the fact that EPA has finally introduced regulations to protect communities from these “forever chemicals.” However, they have also brought criticisms about the costs of compliance, the effects of this regulation on supply chains and the workforce, and the Hazard Index approach for four of the six compounds.

An expensive problem

EPA has estimated that the quantified capital and operations and management (O&M) costs for this rulemaking would be about $772 million per year nationally. This estimate has been contested by AMWA, AWWA, WEF, and more.

AMWA noted that its utility member, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, has an estimated capital cost for PFAS treatment as high as $43 million, with an annual operating cost of $3-5 million.

“If about 16 utilities of similar size to Cape Fear nationwide had to implement comparable treatment techniques,” said the association in a statement, “the total cost would exceed EPA’s estimate.”

AWWA noted that a recent study, conducted by Black & Veatch on behalf of the group, had estimated the cost of national drinking water treatment installment to remove only PFOA and PFOS to exceed as much as $3.8 billion annually.

WEF had also pointed out that the estimated annual cost of $772 million was far below the estimates that other entities have found when analyzing the expected costs of PFAS drinking water regulations.

These excessive costs would spell trouble for the nation’s water providers.

With these MCLs, utilities’ budgets would see another compliance requirement that competes with other challenges, such as operational resilience, aging infrastructure and cybersecurity.

 Ratepayers would likely bear the burden of these increased operational costs. This could harm water affordability for many communities and damage utilities’ public relations.

Supply chain, workforce stress

ASDWA noted that the proposed MCLs could introduce new problems for supply chain development and workforce maintenance.

The association estimated that thousands of public water systems across the country would need to add advanced treatment to their current processes. The supply chain for these advanced treatment systems, and their corresponding treatment media, vessels, etc. is not prepared for a sudden, national-scale spike in demand.

As the last few years have shown, shocks to supply chains can have far-reaching consequences. This spike in demand could spell trouble not only for systems working to comply with the new MCLs, but also for any maintenance/operation requirements that might have components in common with these treatment systems.

The water sector already faces challenges with workforce development, and ASDWA noted that the proposed MCLs might aggravate this issue. The addition of new treatment systems/processes could greatly increase utilities’ need for water operators nationwide, introducing another shock to a vital part of water systems’ operations.

In addition, many existing operators could need higher levels of training and certification to maintain these new systems, requiring significant staff time and resources.

Analytic critiques

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) supported drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, but voiced serious concerns for the underlying science behind EPA’s proposal. The council has often been critical of EPA’s use of science in PFAS management.

“EPA’s misguided approach to these MCLs is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs,” said ACC in its statement. “The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it’s critical that EPA gets the science right.”

ACC noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) has a much less stringent health threshold for PFOA and PFOS. WHO, stating that it couldn’t set an official Health-Based Guidance Value with confidence, proposed provisional guideline values of 100 ppt for PFOA and PFOS, and a provisional guideline value of 500 ppt for other measurable PFAS.

ACC also criticized the Hazard Index approach, which measures a unitless value from the combined weighted concentrations of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA. ACC said that EPA hasn’t yet evaluated two of the four chemistries included in the Hazard Index.

Test out our Hazard Index calculator here!

The council also argued that EPA’s Hazard Index approach may be flawed in itself, because it combined substances affecting different health endpoints into a single index. The council pointed out that EPA, in its document Guidance for Identifying Pesticide Chemicals and Other Substances that Have a Common mechanism of Toxicity, said it would not use cumulative risk assessments for substances with largely different toxic effects or mechanisms of toxicity.

In one of its public review draft documents for the proposed MCLs, EPA has said that, “although current weight of evidence suggests that PFAS vary in their precise structure and function, exposure to different PFAS can result in similar health effects; as a result, PFAS exposure are likely to result in dose-additive effects and therefore the assumption of dose-additivity is reasonable.”

A short window for comments

With many organizations voicing concern for the effects of these proposed MCLs, another challenge is the proposal’s open comment period of 60 days.

As part of the proposal’s announcement EPA provided 12 PDF documents describing different aspects of the proposal for each PFAS compound. In total, the documents provide over 4,013 pages of information.

Many organizations have issued statements about the broad implications of these MCLs — but, with a proposal of this magnitude, it will take quite some time for the nation’s affected parties to review all the relevant information.

AMWA said that it would request an extension to the 60-day public comment period, noting that EPA’s Office of Management and Budget took five months to review the proposed rule.

About the Author

Jeremy Wolfe

Jeremy Wolfe is a former Editor for WaterWorld magazine.

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