Solving the PFAS Problem

Sept. 7, 2022
Nothing is more critical to the health of our communities than ensuring the safety of our water supply.
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Nothing is more critical to the health of our communities than ensuring the safety of our water supply.

As we were finalizing this issue of WaterWorld, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they are proposing to designate two of the most widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund. This rulemaking would increase transparency around releases of these compounds — often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their lingering effect on the environment.

Used in the manufacturing of everyday products like nonstick cookware, fabrics, and food packaging, these chemicals have been linked to several types of illnesses, including cardiovascular problems and low birth weights. Recent studies have also reported that the substances can be found in alarming levels in the drinking water used by millions of Americans.

The proposal applies to PFOA and PFOS and includes their salts and structural isomers, a move motivated by research that points to the substantial danger that these specific compounds pose.

This EPA designation is a major step forward in getting harmful chemicals out of our drinking water. It also seeks to hold the polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination, rather than laying the burden on water treatment plants that receive the compounds via polluted water downstream.

The ruling would also assist EPA, state, Tribal nation, and local community understanding of the locations of PFOA and PFOS contamination, and provide more resources to the communities impacted by such pollution. EPA will also conduct outreach to impacted communities and wastewater utilities.

In the event the ruling is finalized, any release of either PFOA and PFOS would need to be reported to EPA immediately, and a plan for managing the cleanup will need to be implemented. EPA would “be able to recover cleanup costs from the responsible party or to require said party to conduct the cleanup,” the agency said in a press release.

While this move by EPA is a big development, and the industry has been eyeing it for a while, just naming something as a hazardous substance doesn’t really affect its use — only a ban could do that. There are also thousands of other PFAS compounds that the EPA has not yet addressed. Additionally, a host of other chemicals still lack regulation, despite calls from the industry to also issue maximum contaminant levels for them.

While the rule is expected to cost more than $100 million annually if finalized, there is still little information about how the cleanup would be paid for, or who would be responsible for covering cleanup costs. If the agency spends government funds to clean up a site, it can sue polluters to recover those costs. But, in the case of small utilities working to keep their water supply clean from these toxic chemicals, the upfront spending required for cleanup could have detrimental effects while they wait for reimbursement. I’m hoping that the industry will get more clarity about what this designation means.

Our annual coverage of the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Conference and Exhibition (WEFTEC) begins on page 11. If you’re at WEFTEC this year in New Orleans, stop by and say hello at the Endeavor Business Media booth 137. Thanks for reading! WW

Published in WaterWorld magazine, September 2022.

About the Author

Alanna Maya | Chief Editor

Alanna Maya is a San Diego State University graduate with more than 15 years of experience writing and editing for national publications. She was Chief Editor for WaterWorld magazine, overseeing editorial, web and video content for the flagship publication of Endeavor's Water Group. In addition, she was responsible for Stormwater magazine and the StormCon conference.