Exploring Wastewater Treatment Solutions for Safer Water


EPA drinking water regulations in 2024 and beyond are focusing on contaminants of emerging concerns, namely six PFAS chemicals known to cause serious health effects for the humans and wildlife exposed to them. To meet these new standards, water treatment facilities and the municipalities that own them will have to consider comprehensive and proactive approaches to remove PFAS from drinking water and its sources to protect the health and safety of their consumers.

As municipal boards strategize the best PFAS treatment methods, they will likely come across a huge hole in the contamination loop: wastewater. Communities depend on wastewater plants to collect and sanitize whatever goes down the drain. This means they inevitably collect and concentrate PFAS. Without the proper equipment to effectively remove these forever chemicals from effluent, these facilities discharge PFAS back into the environment, potentially contaminating the same surface and groundwater that communities rely on for drinking water.  

To close the contamination gap and holistically handle PFAS contamination, treatment technologies and customized approaches should be considered for both water and wastewater. While PFAS treatment can differ between the two based on source, concentrations, and limits, proactively addressing the issue of contaminated wastewater can help utilities and their boards best navigate the EPA’s roadmap to regulate both in the long term.

However, as treatment costs to remove PFAS in water and wastewater are tallied, many may ask, “What are the risks of PFAS in wastewater if water providers are required to remove them from drinking water?”

The Impact of Wastewater Pollution

Wastewater effluent directly impacts the health of the water bodies to which they discharge. The health of ecosystems and communities downstream of a treatment facility relies on them to remove nutrients, metals, and bacteria from wastewater before returning it to the environment. When undertreated, sewage can harm fish and aquatic ecosystems and make water-based recreation unsafe.

Water utilities depend on wastewater plants to replenish their water sources with high quality effluent so that they can treat drinking water reliably and cost-effectively. As these utilities prepare to treat the six PFAS chemicals that the EPA added to its National Primary Drinking Water Regulations list, contaminated wastewater will likely be a consistent source of PFAS in water sources nationwide.

PFAS are known for their ability to travel and persist in surface and groundwater. With little choice but to accept them, wastewater plants will continue discharging PFAS to the surface and groundwater sources that communities depend on until the EPA and state regulations address them.

Differences and Similarities: Treating PFAS in Wastewater vs. Drinking Water

Science and technology circles have made great strides to commercialize solutions that remove and destroy PFAS in drinking water and wastewater. However, PFAS contamination affects the two differently and may demand separate approaches, requiring your community to fund and construct treatment solutions for its water and wastewater facilities alike.


Regardless of water type, the treatment methods, need for custom solutions, and regulatory pressures affect both water and wastewater treatment facilities.

Treatment Technologies

Although new PFAS destruction technologies are being consistently released in anticipation of EPA drinking water regulations, the following treatment methods are known to effectively remove PFAS from both drinking and wastewater.

Activated Carbon Adsorption (GAC) – Activated carbon adsorbs long-chain PFOA and PFOS dissolved in water. GAC is housed in vessels and basins, requiring the largest footprint compared to other options. Its effectiveness depends on overall water quality and the presence of co-contaminants.

Ion Exchange (IX) – This system removes PFAS from water by replacing charged contaminants with harmless compounds. IX resins feature long lifespans but are more costly than GAC units to purchase and operate.

Reverse Osmosis (RO) – A membrane system that mechanically separates PFAS from water. This system is ideal for high PFAS concentrations but carries a high capital and operations cost.

Tailored Approaches

A “one size fits all” approach rarely works for water and wastewater utilities. Both water and wastewater PFAS treatment need tailored solutions based on PFAS concentration, state and federal contaminant limits, and the type of PFAS contaminating the water and wastewater. Consult PFAS solution providers and professional engineers when considering which approach best suits your community’s drinking water, wastewater, and water sources.

Regulatory Compliance

In some states, PFAS wastewater and biosolids regulations are already underway. Determining which PFAS solution is appropriate for water and wastewater utilities will depend on the ever-changing state and federal regulatory landscape. Working with an engineer or another regulatory advocate to stay ahead of shifting regulations for both water and wastewater can be necessary for utilities to proactively plan long-term to avoid quickly outdated designs and purchases.


While there is overlap between water and wastewater’s PFAS challenges, their characteristics, sources, and treatment objectives can diverge, complicating the path to a holistic solution to PFAS contamination.  

Sources of Contamination

PFAS enters wastewater through a combination of sources such as discarded household items, industrial discharge, and urban runoff. The variability and variety of PFAS wastewater sources burden wastewater utilities to identify and cooperate with numerous parties to mitigate PFAS before it reaches their facilities.

PFAS contamination sources are typically more singular for water facilities, though they are just as diverse as wastewater. PFAS-latent products leaching from landfills, industrial and municipal wastewater discharge, and military base activities may contaminate drinking water sources via ground and air pathways. As surface water infiltrates groundwater, it carries PFAS with it and places them in groundwater bodies where they are stable and travel to neighboring drinking water sources.

Concentration levels

PFAS concentrations in wastewater tend to be more variable, higher, and contain a more diverse spectrum of PFAS chemicals than water source concentrations depending on the sources and industries of the region. In drinking water sources, PFAS concentrations tend to be lower and more consistent, due to gradual groundwater migration from the contamination source.  

Treatment Objectives

While both water and wastewater utilities seek to comply with environmental regulations, they approach it from different perspectives. For wastewater utilities, PFAS removal is about preserving downstream water bodies and their water quality so that communities can be assured their drinking water source is not being contaminated. Drinking water utilities seek to remove PFAS from the drinking water to reduce exposure and the associated health effects of PFAS. Together, they can comprehensively seal the contamination loop and work to permanently remove PFAS from the environment. But achieving this goal will require securing the right resources.

How to Effectively Fund Both Wastewater and Drinking Water Treatment

As utilities and their boards seek to meet current and upcoming PFAS regulations, the cost of PFAS treatment for water and wastewater becomes hard to ignore. The different approaches for water and wastewater, along with the cost of communicating with the public, indefinitely operating PFAS removal technology, and the additional regulatory guidelines have the potential to disrupt the existing municipal budgets planned by board members.

While traditional fundraising methods like Clean and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, Public-Private Partnerships, and raising rates are a valuable source of funding, litigation is also a valid method to cover the cost of treatment and compliance without issuing municipal bonds or frustrating ratepayers with sudden rate increases.

PFAS contamination cleanup is a costly and time-consuming process, often requiring millions of dollars and years of ongoing maintenance. The Department of Defense estimates that cleanup at its sites alone could exceed $3.8 billion. To offset these expenses, many water and wastewater providers have turned to legal action to hold manufacturers of PFAS-containing products accountable. Lawsuits against the manufacturers for water contamination have recently seen significant momentum with the PFAS settlements for water systems by 3M and DuPont.

An experienced law firm focused on water and wastewater contamination litigation can assist utilities by providing legal representation to recover clean-up costs, as well as regulatory updates, litigation advice, and handling much of the time-consuming work. Many firms offer their services on a contingency fee basis, meaning that water and wastewater systems only pay fees if the case is successfully resolved. Seeking legal counsel in this manner comes with no financial risk and provides systems with experienced support for a potential cost recovery solution.

With over 20 years of focused expertise in water and wastewater contamination cases, SL Environmental Law Group is a trusted leader in the  space. Currently representing over 130 clients in their efforts to recover PFAS contamination costs , our seasoned team excels at water contamination litigation while providing tailored insights on regulatory impacts and legal guidance.  

Contact Us today to learn more about the available strategies to address PFAS contamination concerns.