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Publicly owned clean water utilities are “passive receivers” of PFAS, since they do not produce or manufacture PFAS but de facto “receive” these chemicals through the raw influent that arrives at the treatment plant. This influent can come from domestic, industrial, and commercial sources and may contain PFAS constituents ranging from trace to higher concentrations, depending on the nature of the dischargers to the sewer system.
Although the influent is not generated by the utility, the utility is responsible for treating it under the Clean Water Act. Municipal clean water utilities were not traditionally designed or intended with PFAS treatment capabilities in mind. Today, there are no cost-effective techniques available to treat or remove PFAS for the sheer volume of wastewater managed daily by clean water utilities.
NACWA’s advocacy priorities on PFAS include urging source control, empowering the Clean Water Act pretreatment program, preventing public utilities and their customers from unintended liabilities and costs of PFAS management, and advancing research to support sound rulemaking that protects public health and the environment.
Potential Concerns for Clean Water Agencies
Public clean water utilities receive and treat a broad range of influent from heterogenous sources including domestic, industrial, and commercial sources. Given the ubiquity of PFAS compounds, it is highly likely all POTWs are receiving some level of PFAS in their influent, with significant variation across communities. These PFAS chemicals can then be present in both POTW effluent and in biosolids, presenting potential legal and regulatory liability for public clean water utilities.
However, wastewater utilities were designed prior to awareness of PFAS concerns and thus not designed to treat or remove PFAS chemicals. Because new standards could mandate costly investments and/or impose costly liability for utilities which did not generate or profit from PFAS, NACWA’s position is that the manufacturers of these chemicals should bear responsibility for the costs of clean up and treatment – a “polluter pays” model.
One of the most challenging current aspects of the PFAS discussion is that there are no uniformed, approved testing methods or established risk thresholds. Science has not yet determined which PFAS compounds and at what levels pose actual risk to human health. Accordingly, NACWA has been advocating with Congress and EPA to promote further analysis into risks and appropriate remediation to ensure that federal the PFAS response is based on sound science.
Regulatory Action – Federal and State
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its PFAS Action Plan in February 2019 detailing a strategy moving forward, and updated it in February 2020. The Plan outlines significant regulatory actions being considered under several federal environmental statutes. However, it will take time for each piece to move through the regulatory process. In April 2021, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced a PFAS Council to build on EPA’s ongoing work to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by PFAS.
In the absence of immediate federal action, a ripple effect is happening at the state level where states are mimicking each other on PFAS legislative or regulatory efforts. This aggressive approach across the country is being seen particularly for drinking water sources (e.g., Vermont and New Jersey), but also where states are beginning to ask municipal utilities to voluntarily sample or establishing screening levels for PFAS in wastewater effluent and biosolids (e.g., Michigan, Maine, and Wisconsin).
The municipal clean water community supports source reduction and pollution prevention in the case of PFAS, just as it has with other chemicals in the past. Controlling and reducing the prevalence of those PFAS that are of known significant concern must also be addressed through federal laws and regulations that prevent their use in commerce and/or release to the environment. Those who manufacture these chemicals should be responsible for any needed remediation and the ultimate elimination of PFAS from uses that pose a threat to the environment.
In addition, greater attention to evidence-based science and the development of thorough risk assessments in needed to determine appropriate human health and environmental protection thresholds. It is equally important to identify the actual sources of PFAS and mitigate these chemicals from entering water resources in the first place through proper statutory and regulatory authority. As consumers buy and use PFAS-containing goods, there must be an understanding that the day-to-day contact with these materials is also a proximate source of exposure and contributor to PFAS in the environment.
Legislative Developments and NACWA Advocacy
Beginning around 2019, Congressional attention to PFAS ramped up substantially and remains high. NACWA is working to ensure Congress is informed about how these proposals could impact the clean water sector and to ensure that any final legislation is workable for utilities and advances the goals of clean and safe water.
During the 116th (2019-2020) Congressional session, significant legislation that was considered that could impact the clean water sector under several statutes. NACWA’s advocacy focused on working productively with key Congressional offices to improve legislative proposals which would regulate PFAS under the Clean Water Act and to educate Congress on the potential impacts of a CERCLA designation and urge a limited exemption to protect public utilities and customers. In the end, the 116th Congress took several steps on PFAS regulation but did not pass major legislation under the statutes EPA was most closely engaged upon.
The 117th (2021-2022) Congressional session has moved a bit slowly on PFAS, deferring to the new Administration and EPA to see what regulatory action it might take. NACWA anticipates that Congressional interest will soon pick up speed, however, and remains closely engaged on legislative proposals moving forward..
- Clean Water Advocacy Asks – (April 2021)
- NACWA Comments on EPA’s Interim Guidance for PFAS Destruction and Disposal (March 12, 2021).
- NACWA/WEF/NEBRA Cost Analysis of the Impacts on Municipal Utilities and Biosolids Management to Address PFAS Contamination (October 29, 2020, revised January 2021)
- Review of Models for Evaluating PFAS in Land Applied Residuals and Biosolids (Version 1.1 - June 24, 2020)
- NACWA comments to EPA on Listing PFAS on Toxic Release Inventory (Feburary 2, 2020)
- Notable State Activity on PFAS (February 1, 2020)
- A Clean Water Utility's Guide to Considering Source Identification, Pretreatment, and Sampling Protocols for PFAS (November 25, 2019)
- National PFAS Fact Sheet developed by PFAS receivers (November 1, 2019)
- NACWA legal considerations on CERCLA liability
- Hot Topics Webinar – The PFAS Tsunami: A Regulatory, Legislative, & Legal Dive into the Current Wave of Issues Facing the Clean Water Community; Webinar Slides *Full webinar recording available upon request (June 11, 2019)
- NACWA Statement for the Record – U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Hearing (May 21, 2019)
- NACWA Communication Committee meeting – Crisis Communications Strategy for PFAS: The Emerging Public Issue; Audio Recording (May 1, 2019)
- NACWA media talking points on biosolids and PFAS
- NACWA Comments on EPA Request for Input on PFAS (July 20, 2018)