Tag Archives: AWWA

The PFAS Predicament II

This is the second post on poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), those problematic “contaminants of emerging concern.”

Writing about PFAS is difficult because the landscape is changing so fast.  During the last year, this family of 5,000 human-made chemicals has caused increasing consternation among drinking water and wastewater professionals and regulators.  As awareness of their prevalence — in our bodies, food, consumer goods, industrial products, and water – grows, at least 20 alarmed state legislatures have crafted policies to confront the problem.

Above: Firefighting foam is among the most concentrated sources of localized PFAS contamination.

In the last couple of months, national and regional water and wastewater organizations have jumped into the issue with member advisories and Congressional testimonies. As GMWEA’s Government Affairs committee members can attest, water quality professionals’ inboxes are often jammed with PFAS-related bulletins from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), Water Environment Federation (WEF), American Water Works Association (AWWA), and many others.

Coherent, consistent policy related to PFAS is hard to establish for a number of reasons:

  • The scientific and regulatory issues are complex — and hard to quickly convey to preoccupied policy-makers.
  • There are so many PFAS, with so many vehicles for human exposure; their sources, transport and persistence characteristics, and health effects vary widely.
  • Their health effects have, for the most part, not been confidently ascertained.  As WEF states about H.R. 2500 (see below), “With limited research into the health effects of the 5,000 PFAS compounds and no established analytical methods and treatment methods for wastewater effluent, this amendment is bad policy.”
  • Misconceptions abound, sometimes prompting hasty decisions in attempts to protect the public health.

Above: PFAS foam on a Michigan lake, residual from mining operations. Photo thanks to the Detroit Free Press.

Where things stand in the U.S. Congress:

In July, both houses of Congress passed legislation on PFAS as part of the National Defense Authorization Act – but the House and Senate versions differed.  As of this writing, the House bill, H.R. 2500, has provisions that would regulate PFAS under CERCLA, the Superfund legislation passed in 1980. CERCLA has strict stipulations about retroactive liability, which WEF says “could place the burden on FPAS ‘receivers,’ such as wastewater and drinking water agencies.'” 

The Senate version, S.1790, does not include these provisions, and the various water associations are advocating for terms more like the Senate’s; the bills will have to be reconciled in conference during September.  However, to add to the confusion, President Trump has signaled he’ll veto the bill in either form!

Key points:

The national and regional drinking water and wastewater associations strongly support government action to protect public health, but warn of “unintended consequences” of legislation.  The sheer lack of information about PFAS and the risk of local liability are their chief concern.

  • Of particular concern is the misconception that wastewater treatment plants generate or add PFAS. They don’t — treatment facilities only convey what they receive from influent.
  • The best solution is to prevent PFAS from entering the wastewater stream — to identify sources, prohibit certain commercial uses, and focus on origin-specific mitigation.
  • Wastewater treatment plants — that is, the communities that they serve — are unable to afford the expense of measuring, monitoring, and removal of PFAS arriving at facilities.
  • Trace amounts of PFAS in wastewater plant effluent, and in biosolids, could potentially enter groundwater and thus drinking water sources. However, according to the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA), except in “a few worst-case scenarios” when treatment plants have received exceptionally high concentrations from industrial and other points of origin, impact on drinking water sources is not likely to exceed established concentration limits.  NEBRA stresses that PFAS do not “originate” with biosolids but from sources higher up the wastewater stream – the best place to intercept them.

Next: PFAS regulation in Vermont and indications — or lack thereof — of the likelihood that PFAS show up in public drinking water systems.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.


Water’s Worth It!

Water awareness is growing, thanks to a number of increasingly coordinated celebrations, activities, and public outreach efforts by public agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Here in North America, most people have ready access to clean drinking water.  In fact, we’re so used to water being available, on demand, that we forget how important it is.  Much of the world’s population lives without the assurance of safe drinking water.

If we’re going to keep our water wealth, we need to recognize its real value, in the many ways we use and enjoy it.  We need to learn more about how our natural water ecosystems and human-made water infrastructure works.

To that end, May has been declared Water’s Worth It Month – a time to remember, learn about, and celebrate water.  Many communities, municipal water and wastewater utilities, schools, and environmental organizations are presenting entertaining and informative events in May. For an overview of the month, useful facts, ideas for ways your community or company can participate, along with schedules of local activities, visit  http://www.waters-worth-it.org/

Appropriately, May 6 through 12 is National Drinking Water Week.  First established over 40 years ago by the American Water Works Association, this week-long observance  was declared in a joint congressional resolution and signed by President Ronald Reagan.

We’re often most aware of water when we’re having fun with it, so Vermont Rural Water Association has been hosting an annual Drinking Water Tasting Contest, a contest between competing municipal water systems’ for product flavor, to be held on May 10 at in Fairlee, Vermont.

To get a more comprehensive overview of the week, you can view a recent post by the national Centers for Disease Control : https://www.cdc.gov/features/drinkingwater/index.html

Check out the Water’s Worth It link above for more water-related activities.  If you can’t catch one this month, though, remember that water awareness through fun and informative events won’t end in May.

Every year since 2014,  GMWEA has presented Water Quality Day, featuring open houses and tours of water and wastewater facilities throughout the state, in May.  This year, however, we’ve decided to hold the event in conjunction with Vermont Clean Water Week activities, July 30 through August 3.  The week, established by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and proclaimed by Governor Phil Scott, will also include a wide range of recreational activities, contests, and facility tours, presented by GMWEA and over 100 other organizations!