• The cost to get levels of PFAS to adhere to proposed regulations could be astronomical, leading to costs falling on consumers.
• States and rural areas with limited resources would be forced to push infrastructure objectives further on their backlog to adhere to drinking water regulations.
• Water providers and chemists question the EPA’s data accuracy, criticizing its scientific process and questioning the cost-benefit of such stringent regulations.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was directed by the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 to set national standards for drinking water to protect against contaminants that may be found in drinking water. The EPA has proposed, for the first time ever, regulations on per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) as it continues to strengthen public health protections. PFAS can be found in multiple water sources linked to causing serious illnesses like cancer, liver disease, fertility issues, and more. If finalized, these regulations would radically affect the drinking water in the United States and all water providers with serious economic impacts.
Since its creation in April 2021, the EPA Council on PFAS has developed a strategy to protect public health and the environment from the impacts of PFAS. This strategy is reliant on the passing of these initial regulations on PFAS. The proposed rule would limit these chemicals to the lowest detectable levels at 4 parts per trillion. The proposed standards would be substantially lower than the Obama Administration’s health advisories in 2016 of no more than 70 parts per trillion.
PFAS chemicals were invented in the early 20th century and are used in thousands of products used every day. The reason these chemicals are called “forever chemicals” is because these molecules do not break down easily. Without the ability to break down, they end up in landfills, soil, and water. They are extremely pervasive. These chemicals linger in the body for years. Studies show that 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood. Initially thought of as alarmist vocabulary, the term “forever chemicals” has found its way into academic vernacular.
If fully implemented, the EPA expects the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses over time. This action establishes nationwide protections from PFAS pollution for all people, including environmental justice communities of concern. Environmental activists applaud the proposed regulation after years of fighting for stricter rules on these toxic forever chemicals.
For states, this proposed rule would complement state efforts to limit PFAS compounds in states that have already passed laws regulating PFAS, such as Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. However, these states now must rewrite their current PFAS standards to align with the EPA. For example, the six PFAS chemicals listed in the proposed EPA regulation are not the same six currently regulated in Massachusetts. The cost to get levels of PFAS to adhere to federal regulations can be astronomical. Massachusetts has already spent $30 million to deal with PFAS to their standards of 20 parts per trillion and is expected to spend more as standards become even stricter.
For local municipalities, installing regulations on extremely low levels of chemicals that are barely detectable would require them to acquire new technology for testing. Local municipalities are concerned about the overall operating and maintenance cost and quantified capital that drinking water utilities will have to take on to comply with the proposal. The burden would be especially tough for small towns will limited resources. The EPA would provide technical support to smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems. Although the EPA has planned to send officials to rural areas where these issues are more novel to support becoming compliant, they will still require much more capital.
Water providers would also be responsible for notifying the public and working to reduce contamination if levels exceed the proposed regulatory standards. While treatment is possible, it is very expensive. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 included $10 billion to address emerging contaminants including PFAS. Now the EPA said that $2 billion of that fund would be available to “promote access to safe and clean water in small, rural and disadvantaged communities while supporting local economies.” Even though millions of dollars have been proposed and allocated to local municipalities, water industry experts warn that it will cost communities even more.
Additionally, local municipalities would have a balancing act on their hands. It could cause a backlog in other infrastructure projects like removing lead pipes and replacing aged water mains prone to rupturing.
For consumers, if the costs are more than those allocated to local municipalities by the federal government, the difference will fall on ratepayers. Every year, total water infrastructure spending is only a fraction of the capital needed, leading to an investment gap. For example, in 2019 total spending on water infrastructure across all levels of government was approximately $48 billion, which represents only 37% of the total capital need of $129 billion, creating an $81 billion gap. If current funding and infrastructure needs were to continue to be the same, the total investment gap would grow to $136 billion by 2039. Now with new and stricter regulations, that investment gap is expected to grow even larger. This leads to concerns over the sudden cost falling onto consumers, which is a burden they cannot bear.
Questions over the EPA’s accuracy
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) which represents the country’s largest publicly owned water utilities in the US, will review the EPA’s economic analysis for accuracy as well as conduct their own economic analysis. The federal government had 5 years to analyze the impact of these chemicals and conduct a cost-benefit analysis according to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now the AMWA raises concerns over the 60-day public comment period on this proposal, stating it does not leave them enough time to conduct their own analysis.
AMWA is not alone in its questioning of the EPA. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), has serious concerns with the underlying science that the EPA used to develop these proposed drinking water limits. The ACC has challenged the EPA based on the process used to develop its findings. Research also raises concerns over the overly conservative regulatory levels and the health endpoints.
Environmental activists and public health advocates have called for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Overall, virtually everyone is supportive of further addressing PFAS and other toxic chemicals. It is generally a step in the right direction, but concerns remain over the costs involved in EPA’s overly conservative regulatory standards, especially from the public works authorities directly impacted by the proposal.
The EPA seeks public comment through its docket. They urge experts and water municipalities to weigh in so they may make appropriate changes to the proposed rule if need be. The final rule is expected by the end of the year.