Maryland Biosolids & PFAS Updates: Challenges and Solutions


As the EPA comes closer to finalizing stringent drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals, along with proposed RCRA and CERCLA PFAS regulations that hold the potential to do the same for wastewater effluent, there is an undercurrent of state regulators also pushing to make changes at the individual state level. Maryland, for example, has been among the most active states in seeking to impose regulations on PFAS.

Maryland is well-known for its natural resources and seafood cuisine, and Marylanders take pride in their state’s natural environment. Unfortunately, as in most regions across the United States, PFAS contamination has become an increasing challenge in the state. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been linked to various health issues including congenital defects, certain cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, preeclampsia, and more. Due to their widespread use in manufacturing as well as many consumer products, these chemicals tend to accumulate in municipal wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) play a vital role in maintaining the state's public health and environment, and they are not responsible for producing PFAS. However, as passive recipients of PFAS from other sources, they may be burdened with the cost of removing these contaminants to comply with potential federal and state PFAS regulations.

In this article, we will discuss the challenges that PFAS poses for WWTPs with a focus on the regulations and actions the State of Maryland is taking to help. We will also share some steps that wastewater systems can take to assess their PFAS risks and explore options to recover costs, all while preparing for potential upcoming state and federal regulatory action.

Understanding PFAS Contamination in Maryland

To understand the magnitude of Maryland’s PFAS contamination, the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) has been testing PFAS levels in industrial and municipal wastewater effluent, land-applied biosolids, and drinking water across the state. The results indicate that PFAS is widespread in each of these categories. The known health effects of PFAS and its presence in Maryland have prompted legislative and community action.  

Compared to other common water contaminants, PFAS compounds present a unique obstacle for Marylander wastewater systems. Their chemical properties make them highly resistant to biodegradation, rendering traditional wastewater treatment methods ineffective in PFAS removal. The chemicals can persist in the environment and accumulate for years or even decades, meaning that the chemicals’ risks to public health may become a significant concern. These “forever chemicals” find their way to the wastewater treatment process, making municipal treatment plants passive dischargers of these substances.

Sources of PFAS contamination in Maryland's wastewater treatment plants

PFAS contamination is difficult to pinpoint because of its omnipresence. Whether direct or indirect, PFAS finds its way into water, dissolves, and stays indefinitely. The following are likely PFAS pathways to Maryland’s wastewater plants.

  • Industrial Discharges: Wastewater treatment plants receive effluent from various industrial sources that may contain PFAS, including manufacturing facilities, chemical plants, and textile manufacturers.
  • Consumer Products: PFAS-containing products used in households, such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and personal care products, contribute to PFAS contamination in domestic wastewater as they are flushed down the drain.
  • Legacy Contamination: Historical use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams and industrial processes has led to legacy soil and groundwater contamination, with stormwater runoff entering sewer lines and contaminating wastewater treatment plants.
  • Biosolids & Sludge: PFAS can end up in biosolids and sludge from the wastewater treatment process and can potentially cause environmental contamination after its disposal and land application.

The combination of these sources has resulted in high levels of PFAS in 75% of community water systems tested in Maryland.  

In Maryland, certain industries release wastewater directly into water bodies, while others channel their wastewater, laden with PFAS, to local treatment plants. A survey of Maryland industries revealed that 14% of respondents reported having PFAS on site. Furthermore, PFAS in firefighting foam, food packaging, rugs, and carpets have been identified as significant contributors to water contamination. These data points, and national concern, have led Maryland’s state government to propose and enact legislation to curb the acute health risk that widespread PFAS contamination poses.

Maryland’s Wastewater PFAS Regulations

Maryland's response to PFAS contamination concerns has made the state one of the national leaders in the establishment of PFAS state regulations for wastewater. Over the past few years, several notable laws were enacted or proposed to turn the tide on PFAS contamination in Maryland.

  • Protecting State Water from PFAS Pollution Act – The General Assembly is considering requiring major industrial dischargers to test for and pretreat PFAS present in wastewater before discharging effluent to community WWTPs. The bill looks to curb PFAS contamination sources that enter publicly owned treatment facilities to avoid rate hikes and capital expenses that affect the public. It would require industrial wastewater to meet the federally proposed drinking water standard of four parts per trillion.
  • The George “Walter” Taylor Act – The namesake law of a Maryland firefighter who fought to remove PFAS from firefighting foam after being diagnosed with cancer, this act bans PFAS from various consumer products, such as food packaging, rugs and carpets, and aqueous firefighting foam (AFFF). It also requires anyone selling PFAS-containing equipment to provide written notice to the buyer. This follows 13 other states that have banned AFFF containing PFAS, including Vermont, Maine, and New York.  

In addition to the above acts, the state legislature is working on additional rules that could affect WWTPs in Maryland. For example, MDE is withholding land application permits while it investigates PFAS concentrations in Class A and B biosolids and will potentially follow Maine’s rules based on its findings, requiring PFAS testing of biosolids before approving land application. Wastewater treatment facilities that rely on land application as a cost-effective disposal method may soon be relegated to more pricey disposal processes and technologies. MDE is currently testing Class A biosolids for PFAS before deciding on a course of action.

Indirect Potable Reuse Pilot Program

Indirect potable reuse (IPR) is the practice of storing highly treated wastewater effluent in water bodies such as lakes, aquifers, and reservoirs to bolster community water resources. To meet the demand of growing industry and population in Maryland, the state has created the Indirect Potable Reuse Pilot Program so that MDE can issue IPR permits to interested communities. The technique has been used across the US for decades, particularly in the West, to meet water demands where resources are scarce.

As Maryland fights PFAS contamination, the concern around depleting groundwater resources and saltwater intrusion’s impact on water quality has led it to present the Indirect Potable Reuse Pilot Program to municipalities and districts interested in bolstering their water resources. In Maryland, IPR could be an essential tool to meet the residential, agricultural, and industrial demands that even a water-rich state struggles to keep up with. However, the Program’s PFAS limits may create a barrier too high to overcome.

The Program requires participants to use reverse osmosis (RO) technology, which removes virtually any water contaminant, including PFAS. While this prevents wastewater plants from discharging PFAS into surface and groundwater, it does not destroy PFAS, making reuse plants a “dead-end” for these forever chemicals. For facilities interested in IPR, PFAS will need to be removed elsewhere in the process, likely through the biosolids. As new Maryland biosolid regulations are considered, the price to successfully commit to IPR may be escalated by PFAS in wastewater. To take on this new treatment process while meeting PFAS rules, forward-looking municipalities interested in IPR may have to consider PFAS destruction or removal costs via biosolids to participate.

Strategies for PFAS Testing and Treatment

In conjunction with the monitoring efforts being made by MDE, wastewater systems can use EPA Methods 1633 and 8327 to test for PFAS in wastewater, biosolids, and soil to understand where they stand in the face of upcoming state and federal PFAS regulations. Identifying PFAS sources, prioritizing sampling sites, and communicating with residents and businesses in the community can play to a utility’s advantage in managing PFAS contamination and making a case against big-name polluters.  

In addition to considering mitigation and treatment options on-site, multi-utility teams can communicate PFAS’ presence in local drinking water supplies and what’s being done together, presenting a united front against this pervasive contaminant. Mitigation plans can include dual funding strategies to ease treatment cost burdens and meet current and future compliance standards for both wastewater and drinking water.

While most wastewater systems are not designed to remove PFAS, there are treatments available that can be placed within existing treatment trains. Technologies proven to remove or destroy PFAS include:

  • Granular Activated Carbon (GAC)
  • Ion Exchange (IX)
  • Reverse Osmosis (RO)

There are also many upcoming technologies being developed to destroy, absorb, and decay PFAS in the environment.

Looking Ahead at Maryland’s Regulatory Landscape

As MDE collects data on PFAS and the EPA’s drinking water maximum contaminant limit (MCL) decision nears, Marylander water and wastewater plants may soon be tasked with taking on the costs and resources associated with treating and reporting PFAS. The energy-intensive technologies to remove PFAS can require significant capital expenses and additional operational costs indefinitely. Potential state and federal biosolids regulations could also contribute to the cost of operating a Maryland wastewater plant, which may result in higher utility rates and public distrust.

Fortunately, in preparation for the EPA’s drinking water MCLs, water providers across the country have led the way in recovering costs related to PFAS treatment. Many have successfully taken PFAS manufacturers to court to hold them accountable for the contamination they are responsible for and secured funding to cover PFAS treatment costs. Following in the footsteps of drinking water facilities, wastewater treatment plants nationwide can begin to test for and identify PFAS sources to take big-name PFAS manufacturers to court with the hope of meeting future compliance without burdening their ratepayers.

Wastewater Cost Recovery Options in Maryland

While Maryland is dealing with significant PFAS challenges, the steps taken by the state and individual utilities are helping to manage and reduce further contamination. Many different tools and strategies will be required to handle PFAS comprehensively, and they will all come at a cost. New regulations at the state and federal levels may require wastewater utilities to spend millions annually on the design and construction of new treatment facilities, operational costs, and ongoing monitoring to maintain compliance.

By taking a proactive approach, your utility can explore contaminant management options and cost recovery strategies, informing critical funding decisions that could help prevent greater issues in the future. Water and wastewater contamination litigation enables you to seek to hold PFAS manufacturers accountable for pollution while protecting your utility's rights. SL Environmental Law Group has a substantial track record with numerous successes litigating for utilities to recover contamination costs. If you have questions about your system's PFAS situation and the cost recovery options available, please read our Wastewater Cost Recovery Guide and contact us today.