Removing PFAS from Wastewater Effluents: Cost Effective Treatment


Recognizing the impact of PFAS on public health, EPA created the PFAS Strategic Roadmap to guide regulators with a plan to prevent the consumption of these ‘forever chemicals.’ In addition to national drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals, the Roadmap mentions the regulation of PFAS discharge from industrial and municipal wastewater.

Regulating PFAS in wastewater seeks to close the contamination loop of this pervasive chemical family. Reducing the concentrations of PFAS discharged from treatment plants protects drinking water sources and the health of ecosystems. Moreover, as water reclamation and reuse are more heavily relied on as water resources, PFAS removal will be necessary to meet reuse standards.

However, all three PFAS removal technologies recommended by EPA require considerable capital and operational costs that could potentially devastate the financial health of clean water agencies nationwide. Even with federal PFAS aid and potentially successful outcomes of the ongoing AFFF multidistrict litigation against PFAS manufacturers, an unfair economic burden will fall on communities working to comply with emerging contaminant regulations that conventional wastewater treatment processes can’t treat.

By assessing a clean water agency’s long-term objective, identifying funding sources, and using publicly available PFAS tools, wastewater treatment plants can determine a new treatment process that will accomplish many intertwining goals as cost-effectively as possible.

PFAS Contamination in Wastewater Effluents

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals used in consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. Primarily known for their anti-stick properties, PFAS are challenging to break down and persist for long periods in the environment after leaching from these consumer products and the facilities that make them. Due to the significant amount of energy needed to break these chemicals down, they often pass through water and wastewater treatment systems, transporting them to streams and local taps.  

PFAS reach wastewater plants from countless sources. Landfill leachate breaching groundwater, home care products like shampoo washing out in the shower and tap water going down the drain can all contaminate sewer systems. The ubiquitous nature of PFAS affects a majority of water sources and wastewater plants across the US.  

Over time, PFAS have been circulating through wastewater plants, creating a cycle of contamination. PFAS-laden wastewater, otherwise treated to national clean water standards, reaches drinking water sources, recreational bodies of water, and sensitive ecosystems, negatively affecting public health.

While wastewater plants are not PFAS producers, their passive acceptance of PFAS and permitted discharge status make them a target for both regulatory scrutiny and public concern. If a wastewater plant does not use reverse osmosis, granular activated carbon, or ion exchange in its existing process - which is uncommon - new CERCLA and RCRA rules on PFAS have the potential to quickly change how communities treat wastewater.

Challenges in Traditional Wastewater Treatment for PFAS Removal

Traditional treatment techniques have managed wastewater pollution in cities across the world for over a century. They’ve proven effective at removing organic matter, bacteria, and other household contaminants from sewage to maintain the health of water bodies that provide communities with drinking water and recreation. However, these established methods show significant treatment deficiencies when confronted with PFAS, which resist degradation and pass through the physical, chemical, and biological treatment processes.

Physical treatments like sedimentation and filtration act as filters that facilitate downstream treatment stages. While physical treatment removes organic solids and nutrients, PFAS move onto subsequent treatment stages unabated due to their solubility in water, bypassing most physical barriers found at wastewater treatment plants. PFAS can be removed from wastewater via biosolids or filtered out by activated carbon and certain membrane filters common in water treatment. However, these processes do not destroy PFAS, allowing them to wind up elsewhere in the system.

Chemistry plays an essential role in wastewater treatment. Chemical treatment processes like coagulation and flocculation facilitate physical and biological treatment methods, bringing certainty to the system. Adding coagulant to wastewater binds naturally repelling organic materials. They are then stirred by “mixers” to form “floc.” These heavier, agglomerated particles weigh themselves down to precipitate in the sedimentation stage. Coagulation and flocculation are proven methods of treating sewage. However, the unique properties of the many PFAS chemicals make them immune to the binding action of coagulants and polymers. Unaffected by the chemical treatment process, many PFAS remain dissolved in wastewater, though organic solids often harbor PFAS and are found in the biosolids handling stage.

Wastewater treatment relies on thriving bacteria cultures fostered by aeration basins that mimic and accelerate the naturally occurring nitrogen cycle. Aerobic and anaerobic  zones foster these bacteria to transform toxic substances like ammonia into nitrogen gas. While this process is routinely effective at removing ammonia, nitrogen compounds, and phosphorus from wastewater, it does not biodegrade PFAS compounds. PFAS’ robustness means they can pass through the biological treatment phase untouched as other pollutants diminish.

As regulators look to add PFAS onto discharge permits, wastewater plant operators will likely face the limitations listed above. Modern treatment methods hold solutions for water and wastewater utilities seeking to remove PFAS from their final product. However, their capital and operations costs can create barriers, particularly for small and mid-sized utilities. PFAS treatment requires a new framework that considers how wastewater is treated and how to simultaneously meet other utility goals, such as reuse, treating emerging contaminants, and long-term affordability, to accomplish many objectives at once and make the investment worthwhile and justifiable.  

The Need for Cost-Effective Solutions

PFAS’ widespread contamination and potential regulatory landscape force clean water agencies to find a way to balance affordability and compliance. PFAS regulations will likely change the definition of conventional wastewater treatment, the investment in which could be a significant financial burden.

Wastewater utilities can plan for cost-effective PFAS compliance by taking a long-term view of wastewater management’s future and reframing wastewater’s role in the community. By taking into account potential regulations of emerging contaminants like 1,4-dioxane and 1,2,3 -TCP and the role of water reuse in a community’s water plan, clean water agencies can expand the scope of their capital projects to encompass a long-term change to treatment that will be prepared to meet emerging regulations and reuse standards.  

As the population of the US grows and climate change makes water resources scarcer, efforts to recycle wastewater and treat PFAS can be fused into one treatment train. By building a treatment process with PFAS and reuse in mind, communities can qualify for a broader range of federal and state funding programs. For example, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program, which funds recycling and desalination projects in 17 western states, can finance reuse treatment solutions that also remove PFAS from water, such as reverse osmosis. Investing in water reuse allows communities to maximize their water resources, reduce water footprint, and reduce a community’s demand on natural resources.

By broadening the scope of what needs to be achieved and taking a more holistic approach to the changes required of future treatment processes, you can also anticipate possible future regulations for new emerging contaminant and ensure the system you build will be relevant for decades, not years. While PFAS treatment can be pricy, broadening the scope of work to future-proof the treatment process can keep rates affordable in the long term, secure new water resources, and be prepared to treat a new generation of contaminants. And with EPA tools, any community can model and design these solutions.

Cost-effective Tools

In anticipation of the effects that PFAS regulations will have on drinking water and wastewater utilities, EPA published several free tools for communities to determine appropriate treatment technologies for their contamination, model performance of these technologies, and predict long-term ownership costs.  

Drinking Water Treatability Database: This free database offers information on the control of contaminants in drinking water, which can be extrapolated to wastewater. It provides users with current information on treatment processes for over 120 regulated and non-regulated contaminants, including 26 PFAS chemicals.  

Environmental Technologies Design Option Tool (ETDOT): ETDOT is a group of software models that provides users with models that evaluate and design granular activated carbon and ion exchange systems for the removal of various contaminants, including PFAS, from drinking and wastewater. The tools make design accessible and free to communities that want to understand their next step before hiring an engineer.  

Drinking Water Treatment Technology Unit Cost Models: The cost of compliance goes beyond treatment technologies. These models consider direct and indirect costs of changes to treatment, demystifying the cost of PFAS on your system. After using the other models above, utilities can estimate the ownership costs of the technologies they need.

While PFAS technology is not cheap, discovering the appropriate solution can be done cost effectively with these tools.  

Proactive Plan for Cost Effectiveness

Removing PFAS from wastewater effluent is feasible but comes with a large price tag. Approaching PFAS removal with a broader scope and additional objectives can help utilities simultaneously plan for PFAS and other emerging contaminants, water security, and affordability.  

EPA’s PFAS drinking water MCLs have officially been finalized as of April 2024. The impact on drinking water utilities is yet to be seen. However, they may lead the way for wastewater regulations per the EPA’s Roadmap. As drinking water providers face facility upgrades, increased operations costs, and public relations work, wastewater plants can get ahead of these challenges by learning more about proposed regulations on effluent and how it will affect them.  

Looking ahead, wastewater utilities can proactively plan to build water reuse systems and account for new clean water regulations with the help of water contamination experts. Given the substantial financial burden that these projects might require, wastewater utilities are increasingly seeking innovative strategies to secure funding. This includes litigation as a cost recovery strategy by holding the polluters accountable for the costs incurred. SL Environmental Law Group has a strong track record of monitoring upcoming regulations for water utilities and helping them take action against the manufacturers responsible for the contamination.

To learn about strategies to set your wastewater utility up for success in the face of PFAS regulations, download our free PFAS cost recovery guide today.