Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of widely used man-made chemicals often referred to as “forever chemicals,” due to how slowly they break down over time. PFAS have been widely used in industrial and consumer products since the 1940s and have been since found in the air, soil, and water supply.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Many states are rapidly imposing restrictions on the use of PFAS in new products and developing state-specific health advisory levels ahead of the expected federal rule in 2023.
If the proposed ruling is successful, CERCLA liability risks and environmental response costs could increase exponentially. Under CERCLA, there usually is no numerical threshold for the amount or concentration of a hazardous substance that triggers cleanup liabilities. Therefore, any detection of PFAS – including in comingled pollution sources – could form the basis of a CERCLA claim by the government or private parties.
PFAS contamination – and the proposed regulation – may also have a substantial effect on drinking water. In fact, PFAS health advisories are already starting the process.
PFAS and the Drinking Water Supply
In summer 2022, the EPA unveiled updated interim advisories for PFOA and PFOS (two PFAS components) in a four-part announcement regarding PFAS in drinking water. Those guidelines are 4 parts per quadrillion for PFOA and 220 ppq for PFOS, down from the 70 parts per trillion advisory put in place in 2016. Both chemicals are now considered to pose a health threat even if they appear above "near zero” levels.
In one case study, the local government in Anaheim, California is suing 3M, DuPont, and other companies for PFAS contamination that prompted a shut-down of contaminated water sources and implemented a clean-up effort. The city is spending $150 million to construct a new water treatment program and $1.5 million per month to ship in non-contaminated water until a decontamination facility is complete.
Since then, water districts from coast to coast either have or are contemplating bringing similar lawsuits. Ever-increasing public and media pressure have caused PFAS to be among the most prevalent toxic tort agents discussed in mainstream media.
This has resulted in a slew of passed and proposed state legislation that would regulate PFAS, as well as increased pressure on the EPA to regulate PFAS at the federal level. In turn, agencies such as water districts and wastewater treatment facilities fear they could become lawsuit targets for allegedly contributing to the dispersion and spread of PFAS pollution.
Potential for Litigation
Such lawsuits could assert claims under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, possibly indicating that facilities failed to install costly technology that would adequately filter PFAS from water sources and that by failing to do so, these facilities (knowingly or unknowingly) sent PFAS-contaminated water further downstream to other water districts.
As lawsuits pile up, some water district and wastewater treatment facilities have begun to proactively install state-of-the-art multi-million-dollar filtration systems that eliminate PFAS. In other cases, districts have begun to fight back, many looking for contribution from companies that discharge PFAS into the air, water, or soil.
More municipalities, water boards, and treatment facilities are likely to follow in Anaheim’s footsteps as the cost of cleanup continues to increase, and parties look to municipalities and treatment facilities to pay damages for PFAS pollution in drinking water. With regulations new and unknown, it’s critical to be deliberate in your approach to addressing PFAS in your water supply.
Steps for Addressing PFAS in Your Water Supply
Step 1: Evaluate Potential Sources
The best way to address PFAS in your water supply is to keep them from ever entering. Using a team of expert hydrogeologists will help you evaluate PFAS in your water supply by identifying potential sources of PFAS in water wells. Isolating these affected wells and performing isolated treatment of only the PFAS-impacted water is a more cost-effective approach than constructing a new decontamination facility.
Step 2: Test Distribution Sources
PFAS have been widely used in industrial and consumer products for many decades. As such, they have the potential to appear in municipal water supplies as a result of using PFAS-contaminated materials in construction of the water distribution system. Engaging a third party to evaluate the contribution of water distribution systems to the overall PFAS load in a given water stream can help you isolate and replace components contributing to the PFAS contamination in a water supply system, which can minimize or avoid costly water treatment.
Step 3: Treatment Technologies
A standard practice for PFAS removal from water is adsorption onto granular activated carbon (GAC). While effective for removing PFAS from water, this approach generates a new waste stream known as PFAS-laden GAC. Considering the recalcitrance of PFAS molecules in the environment, inadequate disposal (such as in a landfill or incineration) of PFAS-laden GAC may allow PFAS to reenter the aquatic cycle. Developing approaches for PFAS-laden GAC management presents unique opportunities to break the continuous circulation within the aqueous environment.
The only current method of regenerating spent GAC is to reactivate it at temperatures greater than 1,000 degrees Celsius, which requires large amounts of energy and funding. While all regeneration technologies can be expensive and energy intensive, spent carbon can be regenerated at lower temperature using microwave irradiation.
Ethanol with 0.5% (v/v) NH4OH is the optimum performing solvent regenerant. Laboratory-contaminated and spend-field GAC can be regenerated for future use with this method. In fact, PFAS-laden GAC can be regenerated multiple times using a solvent-based technology.
Similar PFAS sorption – and improved PFAS removal – also was observed from solvent-regenerated GAC. Additionally, PFAS-containing regenerant solvent can be concentrated for destruction or disposal.
Unique PFAS Situations
Your approach for addressing PFAS in your water supply will be unique and dependent upon your specific toxicity levels, sources, and available funding. With continually changing regulations and cleanup efforts still new to many, it is important to consult with experts to take a holistic view of your situation and options.
Cameron-Cole, an ADEC Innovation, specializes in assisting our clients with complex environmental liabilities. We provide technical support to clients addressing regulatory response and litigating against the manufacturers of PFAS. Contact us for a free consultation to discuss your current and potential future obligations and how to prepare for the response to the latest PFAS regulations.
This article was a collaborative effort from our Cameron-Cole experts.
Michael Stephenson. As principal scientist and regional manager, Mike has over 25 years of experience in project management, multimedia risk assessments, soil and groundwater characterization, database management, and technical support for closure projects for commercial and government clients. He has managed various soil and groundwater investigation projects designed to specialize in human health and ecologically-based risk analyses. As an accredited Environmental Risk Manager, Mike also prepares environmental liability estimates for large industrial clients.