Wastewater Treatment: Ensuring a Safe Water Supply for Municipalities


Wastewater Contamination in the United States

Water contaminations of different varieties have become a pressing funding, public relations, and treatment challenge for American water providers. Among the emerging contaminants featured on the news, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water has gained undeniable momentum. While the conversation predominantly surrounds drinking water today, the interconnected nature of the water cycle raises questions about future Clean Water Act (CWA) regulatory changes to uphold local water quality and resources.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduces drinking water PFAS maximum contaminant limits (MCL) and water utilities search for treatment methods, wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) could be called upon next to close the contamination loop. Since PFAS has already found its way into wastewater and biosolids, wastewater's role in water resource quality could come into question as the EPA tries to comprehensively remediate this pollutant to curb its public health effects.

In addition to water quality, the EPA has taken steps to potentially designate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous materials. If approved, wastewater treatment facilities nationwide may be required to take on sludge and wastewater treatment upgrade projects to meet these new effluent and biosolids regulations.

Wastewater Testing and Ensuring Water Quality

America's water resources rely on WWTPs to maintain the highest effluent quality standards, as it directly impacts downstream communities and local water bodies. A comprehensive testing process is critical to ensure that the effluent released into the environment meets regulatory requirements and poses no harm.

Not only does the data from wastewater testing provide invaluable insights into the overall performance of the treatment facility, but monitoring biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), total suspended solids (TSS), and nutrient levels can also help plants fine-tune their treatment processes.

As regulatory agencies continue to refine guidelines and standards for PFAS, WWTPs must stay ahead of the curve by conducting regular effluent testing to detect any trace levels of these substances. Consistently monitoring effluent quality and taking necessary corrective actions ensures water quality and fosters public trust.

EPA Guidelines and State Water Regulations

On top of the EPA actively considering PFAS for drinking water MCLs, States have also enacted specific legislation to address PFAS contamination. For example, at the state level:

  1. Illinois: The state has passed a law requiring select WWTPs to monitor and report PFAS levels in raw water and effluent. The data contributes to ongoing research efforts to develop more effective PFAS treatment solutions.
  2. Maine: Maine has prohibited land application of WWTP biosolids due to suspected PFAS concentrations. This measure ensures that biosolids are safely managed and do not contribute to PFAS accumulation in soil and water sources.
  3. New Hampshire: The state granted WWTPs the authority to require industry customers to conduct PFAS testing. This aims to identify potential PFAS contamination sources and encourages proactive measures for responsible waste management.

With the EPA inching closer to classifying PFAS as a hazardous substance, wastewater utilities should prepare for potential regulatory change. Discharging PFAS-contaminated water and biosolids may no longer be feasible under future federal and state guidelines. As a result, WWTPs would have to significantly modify their treatment processes.

PFAS as a Hazardous Substance

The potential classification of PFAS as a hazardous substance by the EPA would severely impact wastewater utilities. Should the EPA classify PFOS and PFOA as hazardous materials under CERCLA, a substantial shift in the regulatory landscape can be expected. This designation would set stricter limits on the allowable concentration of PFAS in wastewater discharges. As a result, no detectible level of PFOS and PFOA in wastewater discharge would technically be legal without proper exemptions.

In our conversations with wastewater utilities employees, two key concerns have been expressed over the potential consequences of this classification.

  • Contamination Concerns: The potential classification of PFAS as hazardous may trigger increased vigilance in detecting and addressing even trace amounts of PFAS in effluent. This heightened scrutiny can result in additional operational challenges.
  • Impact on Biosolids: While current data on PFAS in biosolids is limited, it is reasonable to assume that if PFAS is detected in wastewater discharge, it is likely present in the biosolids. PFAS in biosolids raises questions about safe disposal or potential reuse as fertilizer, as PFAS-contaminated biosolids may pose environmental and public health risks.

WWTPs may be required to adapt their processes to comply with new guidelines and ensure the safe disposal of PFAS-contaminated effluent and sludge. This adjustment may involve advanced treatment technologies specifically designed to target PFAS removal. Additionally, utilities may need to reassess their existing treatment methods and invest in new equipment and infrastructure to meet regulatory requirements.

There will likely be associated costs as WWTPs embark on necessary upgrades and modifications to comply with the new guidelines. These expenses may include equipment investments, process optimization, and enhanced monitoring efforts to ensure compliance with lower PFAS concentration limits.

However, wastewater utilities should recognize that these costs can potentially be recovered, as seen in past PFAS contamination cases involving drinking water. With the right legal counsel and representation, WWTPs may have the opportunity to seek compensation for necessary upgrades and incurred expenses resulting from PFAS regulations.

Mitigating Wastewater Treatment Costs

As surface water and groundwater contamination challenges persist and PFAS regulations loom, wastewater utilities must be proactive. Wastewater treatment plays a crucial role in protecting water quality and public health, making it essential to be informed and adaptive to potential regulatory changes. The potential classification of PFAS as a hazardous substance and effluent MCLs could necessitate upgrades to treatment processes nationwide. Stay ahead by conducting regular effluent testing and collaborating with us to navigate potential changes.

Communities have already been obligated to invest in PFAS remediation and treatment, and many others may follow. Regardless of which treatment method is best for your system, it will likely come with costs that you or your ratepayers may be forced to bear. If you suspect PFAS has contaminated your water supply, it may make sense to explore whether litigation is the avenue to recoup some of those costs. SL Environmental Law Group specializes in contamination cases and works on a contingency fee, meaning your utility only incurs legal expenses once compensation is awarded.

Contact the team at SL Environmental Law Group to learn more about proactive measures and strategies to address contamination concerns.