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Persistent Pollutants

US EPA recommends testing wastewater for PFAS

Environmentalists call for mandatory limits on releases of “forever chemicals”

by Cheryl Hogue
December 1, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 47

Photo shows an aerial view of a wastewater treatment plant.
Credit: City of Fall River, Massachusetts
The Fall River, Massachusetts, wastewater treatment plant is one of many facilities in the state that obtains discharge permits from the US EPA.

Some facilities may have to test for the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their wastewater, under a new strategy from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The effort could eventually help reduce the level of environmentally persistent and toxic PFAS in drinking water drawn downstream of such facilities as well as in fish and river sediment.

But environmental advocates say the guidance amounts to little for people who have drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

“The EPA should be issuing tough, mandatory standards to regulate PFAS discharges from thousands of industry facilities,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, says in a statement. Faber notes that PFAS are virtually ubiquitous in the blood of Americans. The EWG estimates that 2,500 US manufacturers likely discharge PFAS to rivers and lakes or to wastewater treatment plants, which aren’t designed to remove these chemicals.

The guidance, announced Nov. 30, affects only facilities governed by discharge permits that the EPA issues under the Clean Water Act. The agency is responsible for wastewater permits in the District of Columbia, Indian Country, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico as well as at some federal facilities.

Nonetheless, the new guidance potentially could become a national model for the 47 states authorized to issue wastewater permits within their borders.

The policy directs EPA regulators drafting wastewater permits to consider requiring facilities to monitor for PFAS if these chemicals are expected in discharges, the agency says. In addition to wastewater, this covers precipitation runoff from industrial sites or flow from municipal sewers that only carry stormwater.

Requirements for wastewater monitoring will only cover PFAS for which the EPA has validated analytical methods. The agency says these methods will become available as they are validated by multiple laboratories­, which the EPA anticipates will happen in 2021.

The EPA says it is working with the US Department of Defense to develop those methods, with efforts focused on 40 PFAS widely detected in the environment.



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