EPA PFAS Regulations Finalized: Ensuring Water System Compliance


The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized its anticipated maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for six PFAS in drinking water. This update will have significant and lasting effects on public drinking water providers nationwide.

In response to the recent developments, SL Environmental Law Group’s Senior Partner Ken Sansone commented,

"While long expected, the announcement of the EPA's final national drinking water standards for PFAS will pose significant challenges for public water systems throughout the country. Complying with these rigorous standards will entail significant costs, likely stretching well into the future as these entirely manmade 'forever chemicals' continue to persist in the environment. We remain committed to assisting our water utility clients in their efforts to ensure that the manufacturers of these chemicals, and the products containing them, bear as much of these costs as possible."

What are the EPA Drinking Water Standards for PFAS?

The finalization of PFAS MCLs is the latest step in the EPA's PFAS Strategic Roadmap, a plan the agency created to guide its efforts to manage these contaminants in water and the environment. The new EPA water regulation designates both non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) to protect public health and enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for specific PFAS compounds. The final levels are as follows:

The EPA has provided a fact sheet with further detail on the Hazard Index MCL.

Compliance and Water Quality Testing Timelines for EPA PFAS Regulations

Now that the rule has been promulgated, water systems must follow a 5-year implementation timeline. It is important for utilities to begin planning and responding as soon as possible, as monitoring windows will begin immediately. Initial monitoring for PFAS in drinking water must be completed between 2024 and 2027. If your utility has already conducted PFAS testing under UCMR5 or other monitoring rules, you may be able to save time and resources by using the previously collected data to satisfy the EPA’s initial monitoring requirements.

During the next phase, which will span 2027-2029, water systems will have to publish their initial monitoring results in Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs), also known as Annual Water Quality Reports, distributed to all ratepayers. Regular monitoring for compliance must also begin at this time, with testing results published in each year’s CCR. In addition, any violations of monitoring and testing requirements must be reported through public notices during this period.

In 2029, PFAS MCL compliance will be fully enforced. Public notice will be required for any MCL violations by this time, and quarterly monitoring requirements will continue to ensure ongoing compliance. After the initial monitoring period, some utilities may be able to reduce their compliance monitoring schedules to once a year or once every three years, depending on their previous sampling results.

PFAS Contamination is Widespread in US Public Drinking Water

Due to the ubiquity of PFAS in industrial and consumer products and their resistance to biodegradation, these chemicals have infiltrated into drinking water supplies throughout the country. The EPA estimates that between 4,100 and 6,700 systems will need to install new PFAS treatment systems, find new water sources, or take other action under the new drinking water standards.

Considering the widespread presence of these contaminants, it is important for water systems to take swift action to assess their PFAS situation if they have not yet done so. By starting now, utilities can take action to ensure compliance with the new EPA drinking water standards, protect public health, and mitigate financial repercussions.

Managing Risks for Your Utility

If PFAS chemicals impact your water source and drinking water system, the next step is managing the potential health and economic risks. This involves working with state officials, consulting engineers, and other water professionals to decide which treatment technology, public communication strategy, and source mitigation actions are necessary to maintain ratepayers’ trust in their tap water.  

Communicating with Ratepayers About PFAS

A common concern for water providers is how to communicate about PFAS detections and mitigation efforts with ratepayers. As mentioned above, drinking water systems will be subject to reporting requirements for PFAS detections now that the MCLs have been finalized. With the right approach, utilities can share important information with ratepayers while building public trust.

A transparent and proactive approach to public communication can help avoid negative perceptions of utilities upon discovery of water contaminants. By sharing your water system's plans to remove PFAS and protect water quality, you can demonstrate your commitment to public health.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Emergency Communication Guide simplifies crafting an effective communications plan and has proven vital for towns that have experienced water contamination events. The six principles for effective emergency communications plan are:  

  • Be first  
  • Be accurate  
  • Be credible  
  • Be empathetic  
  • Promote action  
  • Show respect

The Cost of Regulatory Compliance

If testing reveals the presence of regulated PFAS compounds in your drinking water sources, you are not alone. It is advisable for water systems with PFAS detections to begin seeking sources to cover the cost of advanced water treatment solutions as early as possible, as they may miss out on some funding opportunities if they delay.

The costs of PFAS water treatment can be significant. The EPA has forecasted the nationwide compliance costs for water providers at around $1.5 billion per year. Potential expenses include upskilling operators, installing new treatment technology, and retaining consulting engineers. Several federal initiatives may help soften the blow of this financial impact. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has allocated $9 billion for communities with drinking water impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants. Plus, an additional $12 billion in BIL funding is available for general drinking water improvements. Unfortunately, the national cost estimates and the allocated funds don’t quite match.

Holding Polluters Accountable for Contamination

Many water systems across the country have opted to hold PFAS manufacturers responsible for their role in contaminating drinking water. Through the legal process, water providers can seek to protect the rights of their utilities and ratepayers, recovering the funds needed to build new water treatment facilities, monitor contaminant levels, and pay for other management needs. The current 3M and DuPont PFAS settlements for public water providers are one potential source of funding. However, the process can be complex and lengthy, and settlement payouts may not address all legal claims and funding needs. In addition, for utilities that opted out of the settlements, litigation against 3M and DuPont will be the only avenue to recover costs from these manufacturers. It is advisable to seek legal counsel to determine the best path forward for your utility's unique situation.  

If your water system is considering legal action for PFAS cost recovery, a law firm with experience in water contamination litigation can help you explore all available legal options and avoid potentially costly mistakes. It is important to have a trustworthy advocate to help find the best solutions for your system’s challenges. To learn more about the solutions available to your utility, contact SL Environmental Law Group. Together, we can explore ways to protect your utility and ratepayers from the high costs of PFAS management.