Urban water PFAS Americas

America’s big PFAS clean up: polluters must pay

Thursday, 16 May 2024

In the USA, the administration of President Biden and Kamala Harris has finalised the country’s first National Drinking Water Standard designed specifically to protect people from exposure to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), while the EPA has pledged to make polluters pay for cleaning up waters supplies.

Q: What are PFAS chemicals?

A: They are everywhere these days, literally. They are all over the news, they are on every government’s agenda, they are re-shaping and re-defining the future of manufacturing, industry, and water treatment.

More appropriately known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the term PFAS encompasses a group of almost 10,000 chemicals that are used in everything from fire-fighting foam, waterproof clothing, and non-stick cooking pans, and much more. 

Q: Why is PFAS removal such a big deal?

A: You’ll hear the term, ‘forever chemicals’ used in relation to PFAS, and for good reason. They are highly persistent and resilient chemicals that have been used since the 1940s. They do not naturally break down and so build up in the environment and enter the food chain. 

According to a study by researchers at Stockholm University, PFAS chemicals have been found in penguin eggs in Antarctica and polar bears in the Arctic. They have also been found in human breast milk.

Long-term exposure has been linked to cancers and other illnesses, and exposure during pregnancy and early childhood can have adverse health impacts.

Q: What does the National Drinking Water Standard set out to achieve?

A: Quite simply, the standard sets out to reduce ‘PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses’. It is a legally-enforceable standard.

The standard forms one of the many strands of the EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap and complements President Biden’s government-wide action plan to combat PFAS pollution.      


Q: What impact will this have on public water systems in the US?

A: The EPA estimates that approximately 6-10 per cent of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to the rule will need to take action to meet these new standards. 

Public water systems have three years to complete initial PFAS monitoring. They are obligated to inform the public of the level of PFAS in their drinking water. 
Where PFAS is found at levels that exceed these standards, solutions to reduce PFAS in drinking water must be in place within five years.                                         

Q: How much money is the US government investing?

A: A lot! The EPA has announced almost $1 billion to help states and territories implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems, in smaller and disadvantaged communities, and to help owners of private wells address PFAS contamination. That’s a just shy of €929 million. This comes from a $9 billion pot of money that will be available to help ‘communities with drinking water impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants’.

But there’s more, the EPA has made an additional $12 billion – just over €11 billion for ‘general drinking water improvements, including addressing emerging contaminants like PFAS’

Q: That’s a lot of money, what about the polluters?

A: The EPA has succeeded in having the US government designate the two most widely used PFAS chemicals - perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) - as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). 

This act is also known as Superfund. It means that any ‘entities’ releasing PFOA and PFOS need to immediately report any quantities of one ‘pound’ within a 24-hour period to the National Response Center, State, Tribal, and local emergency responders.

Under CERCLA, the EPA has a strong legal tool to enforce polluters to pay for investigations and clean-up operations. 

Q: Sounds impressive, are there any exceptions?

A: Of course, the law is rarely simple. Under the CERCLA listing, the following ‘entities’ are exempt from enforcement, though there may be other agreements and costs involved (it gets very complicated):
Community water systems and publicly owned treatment works (POTWs); 
Municipal separate storm sewer systems
Publicly owned/operated municipal solid waste landfills
Publicly owned airports and local fire departments
Farms where biosolids are applied to the land.

The law is all about the producers of the chemicals, rather than where they end up.

Q: Is anyone else taking legal action over PFAS?

A: Yes, for example, the city of Spokane, Washington (pictured), is taking action to protect its community’s drinking water by joining a lawsuit against manufacturers responsible for PFAS/PFOA contamination. The city filed a complaint as part of a larger lawsuit, listing 11 causes of action, including negligence and product liability, against 3M, DuPont and others.

Ken Sansone, senior partner at SL Environmental Law Group, which is representing the city of Spokane, told Aquatech Online: “The manufacturers and sellers of PFAS containing products knew that these products would likely pollute the water, yet they failed to take reasonable and available steps to avoid the use of PFAS in products and failed to provide warnings that using these products as directed could result in groundwater contamination. 

He added: “It is the corporations whose products are responsible for contaminating the water that should shoulder the clean-up costs.”

Failed to provide warnings that using these products as directed could result in groundwater contamination

Other cities have also filed lawsuits against companies using PFAS: the city of Wausau filed against 15 manufacturers in late 2023, following action by Eau Claure, residents in the town of Campbell, and many more. 

In 2023, 3M reached a €11 billion settlement with water utilities to address clean-up costs in drinking water. While a separate multidistrict lawsuit raised in South Carolina against Chemours, Corteva, and DuPont was settled out of court for just shy of €1 billion.

What has been said about PFAS in drinking water?

A: Plenty has been said, for example EPA administrator Michael S. Regan, said: “Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long. That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide.

“Our PFAS Strategic Roadmap marshals the full breadth of EPA’s authority and resources to protect people from these harmful forever chemicals.”  

Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long

Tony Spaniola, co-chair, Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, said: “This is a monumental victory for the American people. Simply put, these PFAS drinking water standards will save the lives of countless Americans for generations to come.”

Meanwhile, Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said: “President Biden believes that everyone deserves access to clean, safe drinking water, and he is delivering on that promise. The first national drinking water standards for PFAS marks a significant step towards delivering on the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing environmental justice, protecting communities, and securing clean water for people across the country.”

Q: What is happening about PFAS in other parts of the world, e.g. Europe?

A: Europe is tackling the PFAS problem as well. The EU has just published its wastewater strategy which makes monitoring for PFAS a requirement for all wastewater treatment plants and calls for polluters to pay up to 80 per cent of the costs of removing PFAS from treated water.

Denmark has announced plans to ban the import and sale of clothing containing PFAS as part of a wider action plan. If agreed by parliament, the ban will be enforced from 2026. This follows a ban on paper and cardboard containing PFAS in food packaging in 2020. 

Meanwhile, France is also assessing proposals to ban certain products containing PFAS including clothing, cosmetics and ski wax.

The European association of water services, EurEau, has called for commission president Ursula von Leyden to support its efforts to restrict usage of the ‘forever chemical’ by endorsing proposals put forward by the European Chemicals Agency.


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