Are PFAS Regulations Going Too Far?

Aggressive PFAS regulations are placing a strain on treatment facilities and municipalities dealing with biosolids. Ned Beecher of the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association calls it the most challenging issue of his 25-year career.

Are PFAS Regulations Going Too Far?

Biosolids land application may become an unintended casualty of increasingly strict regulation of PFAS. Some municipalities aren't sure where to go with their biosolids material.

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As if the wastewater industry didn’t have enough public perception issues, the conversation around per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has reached a fever pitch.

PFAS are a group of chemicals commonly used in everything from firefighting foams to stain-resistant carpets. They've been linked to health issues including hormone disruption, child development and increased cancer risk, among others.

As a result, many states and municipalities across the country are moving toward tougher PFAS limits in water and wastewater treatment.

“In 2016, EPA changed its drinking water advisory level by an order of magnitude,” says Ned Beecher, special projects manager for the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (NEBRA). “The key point here is they went down to 70 parts per trillion, which is a very small amount. Some states have gone further in screening values for drinking water lower than that.”

Several states in New England are pursuing aggressive changes. For example, New Hampshire adopted standards of 12 and 15 ppt for two specific types of PFAS chemicals in drinking water. For a state of around 1 million people, 10% of drinking water wells will exceed the standards, potentially affecting 100,000 individuals.

“Managing wastewater and biosolids, PFAS are going to impact waters at levels close to those regulation numbers,” Beecher says. “It’s a whole new ballgame because of that — this is a whole new scary universe because of that.”

Regulations based on strong data aren’t inherently a bad thing, but in the case of PFAS, a lot of misinformation hovers around treatment plants’ roles in eliminating PFAS from the environment.

“Drinking water that’s been impacted at high levels should be addressed, but the question is whether or not society can really deal with going down to the ambient background levels that are in domestic wastewater and biosolids,” Beecher says. “It’s remarkable that there seems to be this continuing rush to lower and lower numbers in the name of trying to protect public health or drinking water.

“The bottom line is all of this is complicated. We spent 50 to 60 years getting into this issue by using these chemicals widely in society. We’re not going to have success getting it all dealt with in a matter of two or three years,” he says. “A few groups seem to think we can rush to a solution.” 

Explaining PFAS to the public

One of the great challenges on this topic is educating the public with limited data available.

“The key point for operators and engineers is that PFAS are not something they add to the waste stream,” Beecher says. “Wastewater treatment facilities and biosolids programs are not the sources of these chemicals, they are receivers or conveyors of them. Sometimes the public doesn’t understand that.”

Unfortunately for municipal utilities, treatment facilities are an easy target for legislators, acting as a bottleneck for PFAS already in the environment.

“PFAS chemicals have quickly become the only common chemical used in society that’s regulated in the parts per trillion,” Beecher says. “Standards generally regulate chemicals in the parts per billion. A few very unusual chemicals are regulated in parts per trillion, but PFAS is a common chemical, widely found in the environment.”

Opponents of the strict regulations contend that the conversation too easily neglects the existing presence of PFAS in today’s environment, at levels treatment plants cannot possibly remove on their own.

“PFAS have been widely used for decades. They are ubiquitous not only in the environment, but every piece of wastewater test data I’ve seen has PFAS. There are no nondetects anywhere. We’re all discharging a little from our bodies, but also from washing clothing, carpets, cosmetics and other sources,” Beecher says. “There are health concerns, but when correlations have been seen, it’s at very high levels in the blood. We all walk around with several parts per billion of PFAS in our blood now, and I think there’s debate about how significant that is, whether it’s a real concern.

Early indicators have also inspired fears that wastewater facilities will not only be held responsible for removing PFAS, but may end up bearing the financial burden as well. Some estimates on the New Hampshire regulations predict $260 million for drinking water systems and groundwater-discharge wastewater facilities to address PFAS.

“It’s a huge price that they believe these new drinking water standards will impose. And they’ve provided no funding to municipalities for this. So municipalities are getting very worried, saying ‘How are we going to actually meet the standards, because we don’t have the money,’” Beecher says. “It’s a broader societal issue. Those programs and municipalities that own the public utilities, and the ratepayers, should not be burdened — alone, at least — with the cost of addressing PFAS.”

Biosolids an unintended casualty

Another concern is blowback these policies could cause to programs that aren’t directly regulated. In particular, biosolids.

“Wastewater utilities are just getting PFAS down the pipe, they have no control over that. But the regulators look at the levels, and because they’re on par with the numbers seen in drinking water, they get concerned. So they go out and test wastewater and biosolids, and start jumping to conclusions.”

Though most states are moving slowly on any reform, those that have are already causing problems for biosolids recycling programs. In March, Maine imposed a moratorium on land application due to concerns that PFAS would leach into groundwater from farms.

“‘Polluting farms with PFAS,’ that’s how they put it,” Beecher says. “Maine was our leader for biosolids recycling in the region for decades, with 80% to 90% every year. That’s dropped dramatically. Bulk land application at farms has been cut by probably two-thirds this year, and will likely not go up again in the next year or two at least.”

Municipalities in those cases are left with questions about where they’re supposed to offload the material. “Because this is politically driven, people are rushing into decisions that aren’t making sense,” says Beecher. “There is not incineration or landfill capacity in this region to manage that material, period. It’s a real crisis.”

Prices for biosolids management have skyrocketed as a result of the surplus. Where a municipality would have paid between $70 and $80 per wet ton in 2018, they’re now paying $120 to $130. Some utilities have even been blacklisted by biosolids contractors due to industrial waste streams and the liability of increased PFAS — even when it’s not above the EPA recommendations.

“Even at sites where land application has been going on for decades, year after year, with fairly high application rates, we’re not seeing groundwater impacts above the 70 parts per trillion of the U.S. EPA recommendations,” Beecher says. “Having worked on this for two years, I’m still not convinced that land application has to be abandoned. PFAS in domestic wastewater is coming from our daily lives, and it’s in the environment already.”

Getting rid of PFAS

Beyond the sheer incongruity of expecting treatment plants to take the burden of eliminating PFAS, there’s the matter of practicality. It’s a major challenge getting rid of those chemicals.

“We can get it out of drinking water — but there is a cost,” says Beecher. “A moderate small city with a typical drinking water system might spend up to $15 to $20 million on installing systems to get PFAS out. It’s not cheap, but it’s doable. Once it’s out, then you have the second issue — where do you go with the concentrated PFAS waste? The challenge is that full destruction requires incineration at about 1,000 degrees Celsius, which is pretty hot. Most sewage sludge incinerators are not burning at high enough temperatures to destroy the PFAS.”

None of the current regulations, proposed or in effect, have guidelines or rules for disposal of PFAS byproduct. It’s one of the biggest issues with the rushed legislation, because unless there’s full-cycle treatment, PFAS isn’t going away, it’s just shifting into a new problem.

Beecher says there are tests in progress that aim to understand where PFAS goes in sewage sludge incinerators, but there’s no solid research available yet. “PFAS is probably ending up spewed out into the air, so in the long term, that would not be considered acceptable either. There’s a whole variety of different systems being tested to get it out of water, but again, they still have to deal with that concentrated waste product.”

Reasonable expectations

At the end of the day, treatment plants will undoubtedly have a role to play in the ongoing struggle with PFAS. It seems industry players can only hope that they’re given the resources to do their part without unreasonable expectations about the impact they have.

“Wastewater utilities and biosolids programs should not have the sole burden of figuring out how we as a society will deal with this issue, and they should not bear the cost,” Beecher says. “States need to be very careful in what they decide to do in terms of PFAS regulation, because they’re going to bump up against and potentially disrupt important programs like biosolids and wastewater treatment — it’s the most challenging issue that’s come up in my 25-year career.”



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