New U.S. reports question financial feasibility of municipal PFAS removal at WWTPs

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A new survey suggests that operational costs for wastewater utilities could increase by more than 60% — some three times higher than federal projections — as a direct result of new PFAS regulations in the U.S.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), which led the survey, says that U.S. wastewater utilities and their customers will be responsible for tens of billions of dollars in additional costs to address the treatment of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) should have near-zero legally enforceable Maximum Contamination Levels (MCL) of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) each, or nanograms per litre, the lowest concentration most laboratories can reliably detect.

Various technologies can be employed for PFAS remediation, and the complexity and scale of the selected treatment will significantly influence the overall costs. Treatments range from advanced oxidation processes that involve the use of chemical reactions to break down and destroy PFAS compounds, to electrochemical methods, or membrane-based separation processes such as reverse osmosis and nanofiltration.

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“Clean water utilities neither created nor profited from PFAS chemicals,” announced Nathan Gardner-Andrews, NACWA chief advocacy and policy officer, in a statement. “But under the current EPA regulatory approach, these utilities and their ratepayers will be stuck with the clean-up costs instead of the private companies that have made billions off these chemicals.”

The NACWA survey was released in conjunction with a new report called “Correcting PFAS Myths”, organized by The Water Coalition Against PFAS. The coalition is comprised of five of the nation’s leading water sector associations, including the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the National Rural Water Association (NRWA) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

The report tackles the developing and complex regulatory landscape around PFAS treatment, as well as some of the legal liability for PFAS cleanups.

The report also references the new report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which estimates that technologies and expenses needed to remove PFAS from certain wastewater streams across Minnesota would cost between $14 – $28 billion over 20 years. 

Another point raised by the MPCA report is its projection that small wastewater treatment facilities could face per-pound costs over six times greater than large facilities due to economies of scale.

Without an alternative source of funding, PFAS removal and destruction from municipal wastewater will be unaffordable for the foreseeable future, suggests the MPCA report. 

“The exorbitant costs associated with removing PFAS from community wastewater systems underscores the need to address PFAS pollution long before it gets into the waste stream,” said MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler in the report. “At no fault of their own, wastewater treatment facilities receive PFAS from a variety of sources and they cannot carry the burden of cleaning up the pollution. We must all focus on preventing PFAS from entering the environment in the first place.”

One of the other reports that has garnered attention on municipal PFAS cleanup costs was commissioned by the AWWA and prepared by Black & Veatch. It projects that drinking water utilities will need to invest more than $50 billion to install and operate treatment technologies over the next 20 years.

To meet the EPA’s newly proposed standards, the AWWA said that more than an estimated 5,000 water systems will have to develop new water sources or install and operate advanced treatment, while another 2,500 water systems in states with existing standards will need to adjust existing PFAS treatment systems.

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