Due to high costs, organizations representing water utilities want an exemption from having to remove PFAS if the ever-present chemicals are classified as hazardous. And they might get it despite public safety.
You may have heard of sites like the town of Hinkley, California from the movie Erin Brockovich, where hexavalent chromium contaminated the groundwater. Had PG&E not been found responsible for, and subsequently stopped, the toxic plume, Hinkley could have been a “Superfund” site. An area is deemed a Superfund site when there’s been environmental contamination and no one person or entity is responsible for the cleanup, or the responsible party is held financially responsible for an EPA-led cleanup. Additionally, the contamination may be so bad that the cleanup would be too much for one entity to handle, and yet human health is at imminent risk. What happens then? The government steps in. Under CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as the Superfund, the government will coordinate the cleanup so as to protect human health and lives.
Currently, the water that comes out of your tap if you live in the United States likely contains PFAS chemicals. PFAS is a generic term referring to a group of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It’s no secret that these chemicals, which the EPA plans to classify some as hazardous soon, are present and likely detrimental to human health and safety. However, no one seems eager to take responsibility for the cleanup of these chemicals. And on April 28, 2022, ten water organizations* representing American utilities that treat public wastewater, drinking water, stormwater, and reuse water, submitted a letter to Congress for an exemption from PFAS liability under CERCLA.
If and when the EPA classifies certain PFAS compounds as hazardous, organizations will be fined if they don’t track the use, transportation, and disposal of PFAS contaminated water, if discharged water contains levels of PFAS above a certain amount. Naturally, these ten organizations want an exemption because they don’t want to be responsible for something being in the water if they didn’t even put it there. PFAS removal is high cost because it requires new infrastructure and ongoing additional maintenance and sampling efforts.
Why PFAS is the new ‘Erin Brockovich contaminant’ of our time
Part of the reason you don’t hear about PFAS is that they are a group of thousands of chemicals of which only two (so far) have been classified as hazardous: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Two more are lined up to be classified as hazardous by the EPA: perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), and GenX. It's an up-and-coming issue that you won't hear about until they are regulated under the Drinking Water Act next year.
On one hand, putting the burden of cleaning up PFAS chemicals on the water and wastewater utilities seems unfair.
The ten associations contend that those who put the contaminants in the water should be responsible for cleaning it up, not the utilities on the receiving end. While there is an argument there, providing the public with safe drinking water ought to come first.
Unfortunately, removing PFAS is high-energy and high-cost operation. Reverse osmosis (RO) technology, the most reliable form of removing PFAS chemicals, requires electricity and frequent membrane replacement. It’s high on the cost side as well as manpower and maintenance sides.
Should the public be responsible for paying for it?
No. After all, the 'public' didn't put it in the water either.
But would they pay for it, given the alternative of drinking PFAS-laden water while the courts dawdle with lawsuits and chemical forensics to prove where the PFAS came from? I think so.
Even when the contamination source is found, will the culprit have to pay a fine or remediate? How long will the remediation take? Will the public trust that the treatment solution lasts forever?
Because the answer to these questions will depend on the type of PFAS, the amount of PFAS found, the hydrogeology of the site, and the in-situ remediation options available, the best option is to treat the water before it goes into our taps.
*The 10 water sector associations signing the letter include:
American Water Works Association
Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies
National Association of Clean Water Agencies
National Association of Water Companies
National Rural Water Association
National Water Resources Association
Water Environment Federation
Association of California Water Agencies
California Association of Sanitation Agencies
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