December 4, 2020

EPA announces ‘interim strategy’ for addressing PFAS in wastewater

Cannon AFB courtesy photo: VIRIN: 101010-F-YG475-003.JPG

PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released what it’s calling an “interim strategy” for addressing PFAS chemical contamination in wastewater discharges regulated through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process.

While the vast majority of states in the U.S. have taken over NPDES permitting authority from EPA since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, New Mexico is one of only three states that still rely on EPA to handle NPDES permitting. 

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The new PFAS guidance recommends EPA permit writers “consider including PFAS monitoring at facilities where these chemicals are expected to be present in wastewater discharges, including from municipal separate storm sewer systems and industrial stormwater permits.”

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, refer to a family of at least 600 synthetic compounds that are widely used in commercial products ranging from fire-resistant carpeting to fast-food wrappers. 

Research has linked exposure to the chemicals to a long list of health concerns, including increased risks for certain types of cancers, increased cholesterol, pregnancy complications and other health impacts. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health linked exposure to PFAS chemicals in infants to a decreased immune response to vaccinations at five years old.

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The synthetic compounds have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they are not easily broken down. And research over the past 20 years indicates these chemicals are ubiquitous, according to David Andrews, senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

Andrews told NM Political Report earlier this year that monitoring PFAS chemicals in recent years “has led scientists to conclude that nearly every single person in the world has PFAS chemicals in their blood.”

The sheer number of different PFAS compounds used in commercial products today has raised questions as to how to best regulate the chemicals. Concerned scientists have called for regulating PFAS chemicals as a class, which would ensure that companies do not continue to use different iterations of PFAS chemicals in their products. 

The EPA said it is currently developing new analytical methods to test for PFAS compounds in wastewater and other environmental media. The EPA said it can now detect 29 different PFAS compounds using analytical methods. 

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The EPA said permit writes would only consider PFAS compounds for monitoring that “will have validated EPA analytical methods for wastewater testing,” and that such monitoring will only occur once those analytical methods are finalized, sometime in 2021. 

Terry Morse, CEO of the National Groundwater Association (NGWA), said the organization is encouraged by the EPA’s interim strategy. 

“As future strategies and guidance is drafted, NGWA urges the EPA and its partners to be thoughtful of how PFAS transmissions from wastewater and stormwater into our nation’s surface water in turn affect our groundwater supply,” Morse said in a statement. “The U.S., and the world, is highly dependent on groundwater as a source of clean drinking water and crop irrigation. PFAS contamination in groundwater must be a top priority for future study and actions by the EPA.”