EPA addresses contamination from “forever” chemicals

EPA has unveiled a nonenforceable strategy for addressing contamination from so-called forever chemicals in wastewater — a proposal that is drawing everything from harsh criticism to cautious optimism.

In a memo sent to all 10 regional offices, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water David Ross laid out an interim strategy for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) through federally approved wastewater permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). EPA also released information about progress toward developing analytical methods for detecting PFAS in wastewater.

Critics blasted the agency’s voluntary approach, accusing EPA of moving too slowly on developing ways to detect more than 9,200 PFAS, and called for faster action and mandatory limits.

But at least one former EPA official said the agency’s strategy offers a promising first step that the incoming Biden administration could build upon.

“Biden’s EPA will want to keep this strategy but will also want to accelerate work on an effluent limitation guideline for PFAS discharging industries since that guideline will provide permit limits to reduce discharges, not just monitor them as this strategy does,” Betsy Southerland, a former career official in EPA’s Office of Water, said in an email.

EPA also said it anticipates phasing in validated wastewater analytical methods for detecting PFAS. The agency said it is developing those methods with the Department of Defense and anticipates multilab validated testing for the chemicals to be finalized next year.

EPA released a list of 40 PFAS currently targeted for analytical method development, including the most notorious of the chemicals, PFOS and PFOA.

PFAS in the waste stream are inevitable given their presence in everyday household items like nonstick pans and dental floss. Experts from trade organizations like the Northeast Biosolids and Residuals Association have said PFAS are likely in all wastewater as a result. That reality is proving costly for water utilities, and lobbying disclosures show those entities have been active on the issue (E&E Daily, June 11).

One major source of concern for water utilities is the possibility of PFAS being declared hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law. EPA yesterday said it is still working on a proposed rule designating PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances.

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