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PFAS in drinking water: What utilities need to know about contaminants in water

July 12, 2023

By Nicolle Boulay

Anxious about the EPA’s proposed new limits for PFAS in drinking water? A water treatment expert discusses solutions for drinking water utilities.

You hear about PFAS all the time now. If you’re a utility or municipality concerned about chemical contaminants in your water supply, you were on high alert in March when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new limits for PFAS in drinking water.

Consumers are aware of PFAS in drinking water. The new standards only heighten that. That means demand for solutions is going to increase, too—from the largest utilities to the smallest towns.

But we can’t address PFAS in drinking water overnight. It takes a holistic approach that will stand the test of time.

Maybe you’re thinking, “now what?” Or you suspect that you might have high levels of contaminants in your water. Now is the time to develop an action plan toward meeting these proposed water regulations.

It’s always a good idea to arrange additional PFAS sampling. It provides data to support decision-making in the future.

In this blog I’ll discuss basics around PFAS and the EPA’s water regulations. We’ll then dive into the benefits of creating a PFAS action plan and pilot study, as well as options on how to fund them.

A PFAS primer

Short for “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances,” PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals that have been around since the 1940s. Manufacturers use PFAS to make products resistant to oil, heat, stain, or water. You can find the chemicals in everything from cosmetics to outdoor gear. They are part of nonstick pans, food wrappers, firefighting foam, and countless industrial processes.

As the nickname suggests, “forever chemicals” do not break down easily—their carbon-fluorine bond is extremely strong, which makes the compounds difficult to remove and destroy. Experts estimate that more than 10,000 PFAS compounds have been released into the environment. Because of this, PFAS has also made its way into both groundwater and surface water drinking water supplies. And now water utilities are required to monitor and clean them up.

Proposed primary drinking water standards

Let’s look back for a minute. In 2016, the EPA established health advisory levels for two PFAS—perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—at 70 parts per trillion (PPT). The agency then changed that advisory in June 2022, lowering the “safe” threshold to much closer to detection levels.

The EPA’s recent proposal marks the agency’s first enforceable standard of its kind for PFAS in drinking water.

Now, let’s get to the latest water regulations when it comes to drinking water. In March 2023, the EPA proposed an enforceable national primary drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS, as well as for four additional PFAS and their mixtures. The rule establishes maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and unenforceable maximum contaminant level goals for PFOS and PFOA. It also includes a hazard index approach to regulating four other PFAS compounds. The EPA’s proposal marks the agency’s first enforceable standard of its kind for PFAS in drinking water.

Under the proposed regulation, the limit for the likely carcinogens PFOA and PFOS would be 4 PPT—which is as low as many labs can reliably measure.

The EPA would regulate four additional compounds as a mixture and assess them through a hazard index calculator, a tool commonly used in public health and environmental settings. That formula would determine if combined levels of those compounds would pose a human health risk and require treatment.

The proposed rule would require public water systems to monitor for these six PFAS. Utilities would also need to notify the public of the levels of these PFAS and reduce the levels of these PFAS in drinking water if the contaminants in water exceed the proposed MCLs.

The EPA expects to finalize the proposed drinking water regulations in late 2023 or early 2024. The time allows for a public comment and response period. Drinking water utilities will then have three years to comply.

As a first step, most municipalities and utilities should develop an action plan when they realize that their PFAS levels are a concern.

Develop a PFAS action plan

So, your PFAS levels are above the proposed regulatory levels. Where do you start?

As a first step, most municipalities and utilities should develop an action plan when they realize that their PFAS levels are a concern. This is important because it shows stakeholders that you have a plan in place and you’re taking the situation seriously.

Here are four key components of an action plan:

  • Investigations: Consider if more inspecting can help you find the source and extent of your PFAS contamination. For example, it’s always a good idea to arrange additional sampling. This provides data to support your decision-making in the future. Early on, you may also want to consider source water vulnerability assessments—to assess how watershed characteristics may impact PFAS levels in your source water—and PFAS source identifications.
  • Mitigation strategies: Decide which mitigation strategies best suit your specific needs. Think about interim vs. long-term solutions. Also look at alternative sources of supply and potentially make operational or treatment changes.
  • Treatment feasibility study: If it looks like PFAS treatment will be a likely mitigation strategy for you, then a treatment feasibility study is an important part of an action plan.
  • Identify next steps: The action plan should also document any next steps. These could include pilot testing, new source development, or the design of a PFAS treatment facility.

At this point—and throughout the entire process, really—it’s important to maintain communication with your stakeholders so they know what’s going on. Also start to think about how you might proceed with funding for PFAS mitigation projects if they’re needed.

Consider a pilot PFAS study

Along with an action plan, you can work with a consultant on a pilot study—or even just a bench scale study. This preliminary study will help you select the best treatment technique, minimize your costs—particularly your life-cycle costs—and optimize the treatment you’re using.

Here are five things we’d want to learn from a pilot or bench-scale study:

  • Treatment process: What water treatment technology are we looking at? Perhaps you need a combination of multiple treatment technologies. If you need pretreatment, will there be any complications? Depending on the treatment process, your regulators may have requirements for you to do a pilot study. So, it’s important to nail down the right process train for your water quality.
  • Treatment performance/efficacy: Does the treatment work? How does it perform under pressure? What’s the efficacy for removal for PFAS? We’d learn about the life of that treatment technique.
  • Capital cost investment: It’s good to discuss this point. If you need pretreatment, you may require an extra wing of a building to hold the equipment. That will increase your building’s footprint and the cost of the project.
  • Operational costs: Do you need to replace your PFAS treatment element? That could be the highest contributor to operational costs. But you can also investigate other costs, such as energy and disposal costs.
  • Overall life-cycle costs: It’s important to know the overall life-cycle costs, because the costs for many of these improvements will be passed along to customers. You want to have the opportunity to prepare customers for what those costs are going to be.

Here’s another point to mention: your water is unique. Your situation is different from someone else’s. Different things can affect the success of PFAS treatment, like total organic carbon, hardness, mineral content, and other contaminants. Those elements can make water treatment tricky—and that’s why a pilot study is helpful.

A pilot study can help utilities minimize costs and optimize the treatment plan.

Look at PFAS funding

I’m sure you’re probably thinking: “I need to find a way to pay for this.” There are different ways to fund water infrastructure and operations. Some costs are recovered through user fee revenue (rates, fees, etc.). Some utilities can levy tax revenue or leverage private financing. Now, with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) in place, federal grants are also a major source of funding.

Grants can typically fund 40 percent of capital infrastructure spending. There are three main federal funding programs for PFAS in drinking water in the US, which went into effect with the BIL. These are all distributed through state programs. Keep these in mind:

  • EPA Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities Grant
  • EPA Clean Water State Revolving Fund Emerging Contaminants
  • EPA Drinking Water State Revolving Fund

Each grant program has specific eligibility criteria that projects need to meet. Programs also can specify how funds can be used. Navigating these programs can be complicated, but we’re here to help.

The $10 billion in federal funding is just beginning to flow, and we have recently helped two clients submit applications for their state’s funding programs. From funding research and strategy to the application process to grant administration, our Financial Services team is familiar with the ins and outs.

PFAS solutions

It’s not a great feeling to discover that your PFAS numbers are above the regulatory levels, especially because how they got there is outside your control. But it’s important to develop a plan that will work for you—and show your stakeholders that you are taking action to reduce chemical contaminants in water. Consider an action plan or pilot study and look into funding options.

If you have questions or concerns about how to develop comprehensive water treatment solutions, you’re not alone. Thankfully, there are options to help you develop a long-term solution.

  • Nicolle Boulay

    A water treatment sector leader in our Fairfax office, Nicolle leads water and wastewater treatment programs from the design to construction phase, including community outreach and stakeholder engagement.

    Contact Nicolle
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