Bloomberg Law
April 28, 2022, 7:06 PMUpdated: April 28, 2022, 10:15 PM

EPA Updates Water Pollution Discharge Permitting to Cut PFAS (1)

Bobby Magill
Bobby Magill

The EPA is developing new water quality criteria for PFAS to protect aquatic life while updating its pollution discharge permitting to address the “forever chemicals,” the agency announced Thursday.

Those measures—in addition to a new testing method that will help the agency detect per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in water—advance the Environmental Protection Agency’s strategy announced last October to cut down on PFAS, the agency said.

The EPA is using “all available tools to address PFAS contamination,” Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “Today’s actions help protect the health of all Americans as we deliver on our commitment to research, restrict, and remediate PFAS.”

The EPA in October released a three-year “roadmap” for PFAS, which included possible regulations and research that will help the agency decide how best to control the substances.

PFAS are a group of thousands of human-created industrial chemicals used to make nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, water-resistant clothing and other products. They remain in the environment indefinitely and are associated with health problems, including increased risk of cancer.

Environmental groups said the EPA needs to do more to regulate PFAS.

“Today’s actions are a step in the right direction, but stronger federal regulations are still urgently needed to curb industrial PFAS pollution,” said Melanie Benesh, an attorney at the Environmental Working Group, which advocates for strong pollution controls. “The EPA should also speed up its efforts to limits discharges from polluting industries.”

‘Good Housekeeping’

The EPA will use the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, to cut PFAS pollution in streams and other water bodies while the agency writes its PFAS regulations, Radhika Fox, EPA’s assistant administrator overseeing the Office of Water, said in a memo Thursday.

Permits issued by the federal government allowing companies to pollute streams will require PFAS monitoring and include “product substitution and good housekeeping practices” and practices to cut discharges of firefighting foam into storm water, the memo said.

“This program will enable EPA to obtain comprehensive information on the sources and quantities of PFAS discharges and will use these data to inform the agency’s” guidelines for effluent limits, Fox wrote.

At the same time, the agency said its new PFAS testing method will help regulators detect the substances in wastewater. The test screens for PFAS using a process called combustion ion chromatography, which detects organofluorines, which are rarely naturally ocurring.

“The method is labeled as a screening method because it does not quantify all organofluorines with the same accuracy,” the agency’s description of the method says. “The method tells the user that the organofluorines are present, but does not identify which organofluorines are present.”

The EPA said it is encouraging those testing for PFAS to use the new method “with the understanding that it is subject to revision and is not nationally required” for monitoring for Clean Water Act compliance until the agency has completed a rulemaking.

Saving Aquatic Life

Protecting aquatic life is the primary goal for the agency’s development of a new recommended ambient water quality criteria for PFAS, the agency said. The optional criteria can be used by states for their own water quality standard for PFAS, but they’re not a requirement.

“States and Tribes may consider adopting the final criteria into their water quality standards or can adopt other scientifically defensible criteria that are based on local or site-specific conditions,” EPA said in a statement.

The criteria will focus on two of the most understood PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)— and help aquatic life avoid their toxic effects.

EPA will issue its final recommended criteria after a public comment period.

(Adds statement from the Environmental Working Group in sixth and seventh paragraphs.)

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