The PFAS Contamination Playbook

Communication, Treatment, and Cost Mitigation Strategies

Our PFAS cleanup eBook will provide in-depth strategies water suppliers can adopt to mitigate the effects of PFAS detection

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In recent years, growing concerns have arisen regarding the long-lasting and hazardous nature of PFAS chemicals, also known as "forever chemicals." These persistent compounds accumulate in the environment, posing serious health risks. To address this pressing issue, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed regulations targeting six PFAS substances, leading to the idea that federally enforced PFAS MCLs (aka: Maximum Contaminant Levels) may be on the horizon. This concise playbook provides invaluable guidance on effective communication strategies, treatment options for PFAS contamination, and proactive preparation for impending regulations, including considerations for cost recovery strategies.

By incorporating these elements, water systems can not only protect public health but also navigate the financial implications and potential legal actions associated with PFAS contamination.

Effective PFAS Risk Communication Strategy

Press coverage, and in turn public awareness, surrounding the impact of PFAS is continuing to grow. Because of this, an effective PFAS risk communication strategy is essential in addressing these growing concerns over detections in your water supplies. It is crucial to establish transparent and proactive communication plans. This includes collaborating with experts, local government officials, and health departments to develop a consistent and informative message, which helps to build trust within the community.  Additionally, providing context by explaining the causes and risks of contamination in clear and relatable language can alleviate concerns and improve public understanding. Learning from successful communication approaches used by utilities in previous incidents and following the recommendations of organizations like the CDC can further enhance the effectiveness of communication efforts.

Building an Effective Response

Transparent and proactive communication is key when addressing PFAS detection . Establishing trust with the community by sharing important facts and action steps promptly is essential.

Providing Context

To ease concerns, it is important to provide ample context regarding the cause and risks of contamination. Clear and simple language can help the public understand the situation better. For example, using relatable examples can enhance comprehension.

Learn from Successful Communication

Many utilities have effectively communicated with the public following water quality incidents. Adopting similar strategies employed by these agencies, can serve as a useful starting point. Below, you can see recommendations provided by the CDC that utilities can benefit from:

  1. Be First - People remember and rely upon the first source of information that they find. 
  2. Be Accurate - Use plain language to explain the situation and express the known information at that moment.
  3. Be Credible - Communicating with transparency and accuracy will make you a trusted source of information.
  4. Be Empathetic - Messaging should speak to the needs of the affected community.
  5. Promote Action - People want to know how they can lessen their exposure as well as what you, the utility, are doing to rectify the situation.
  6. Show Respect - Attempts to over-reassure and suppress information often cause more harm than good.

By implementing effective communication strategies, water systems can address PFAS contamination, build trust within their communities, and facilitate the necessary actions to combat this pressing issue.

PFAS Treatment Technology: Ensure Long-Term Water Quality

Ensuring long-term water quality is a paramount concern in the face of PFAS contamination. With the widespread presence of PFAS in water sources, it becomes crucial to identify and implement effective treatment technologies. There are several viable options that are available and subsequent strategies for mitigating PFAS contamination, all suitable for ensuring sustained water quality.

Three main treatment approaches in particular that we will examine more in-depth include:

  • Granular activated carbon (GAC) adsorption  
  • Ion Exchange (IX)
  • Reverse Osmosis (RO)

Each technology offers distinct advantages and considerations in removing PFAS compounds and maintaining water purity. Additionally, the implementation of emerging technologies and innovative approaches, aimed at concentrating and destroying PFAS without generating harmful byproducts, is something that is generally more understood after decades of dealing with the contaminant.

Bench-scale and pilot-scale testing, which involve conducting experiments in smaller controlled environments, play a vital role in validating the chosen treatment technology. Bench-scale testing typically refers to laboratory-scale experiments conducted on a small sample size, allowing researchers to analyze the treatment process and assess its effectiveness. Pilot-scale testing, on the other hand, involves running trials on a larger scale, often in a simulated or representative operational setting, to evaluate the technology's performance under more realistic conditions. These testing phases enable researchers to assess factors such as equipment costs, labor requirements, and chemical needs, providing valuable insights into the overall lifecycle costs associated with the treatment technology. By collaborating with treatment experts and considering site-specific constraints, disposal options, and existing processes, the selection of the most suitable treatment solution can be ensured, facilitating the effective remediation of PFAS-contaminated sites and the long-term preservation of high water quality standards.

Treatment Options for PFAS Contamination

When dealing with PFAS contamination, selecting the appropriate treatment technology is crucial. Three main options are available: granular activated carbon (GAC) adsorption, ion exchange (IX), and reverse osmosis (RO) membrane processes.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of each treatment option is crucial for selecting the most suitable technology based on the specific contamination scenario, water quality, regulatory requirements, and project constraints. Further examination of these treatment technologies will provide valuable insights into their operational considerations, efficiency, costs, and environmental impacts. It’s important to note that this is merely an overview of the options at your disposal. It is recommended that you speak with an expert to dive deeper into each of these solutions.

Granular Activated Carbon (GAC)

GAC is effective in removing long-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, as well as other organic compounds. Its high surface area per pound allows for the absorption of dissolved PFAS. GAC systems can handle chlorine doses for controlling biological activity, but they often require taller vessels and more pairs of vessels. The effectiveness of GAC depends on water quality and the presence of co-contaminants.

Ion Exchange (IX)

An IX system is a system that removes impurities from water by making use of media beds to replace charged contaminants with harmless compounds. Highly selective IX resins can efficiently address short and long-chain PFAS. IX resins have a long service life and eliminate the need for regeneration, reducing waste handling. However, controlling biological activity in the resin bed can be challenging without a disinfection residual. IX replacement media tends to be costlier than GAC.

Reverse Osmosis (RO)

RO membrane processes, including nano-filtration and low-pressure RO, effectively remove PFAS in drinking water, ensuring the elimination of PFAS contaminants from the water supply. High-pressure filtration through a semipermeable membrane ensures high-quality finished water. RO is ideal for short-chain PFAS and high concentrations but carries high capital and energy costs. Antiscalants and pre-treatment steps may be necessary to prevent membrane clogging.

Pros vs Cons: PFAS Treatment Technology Options

Implementing Treatment Solutions

To implement the chosen treatment technology, bench-scale and pilot-scale testing is critical for confirming viability, developing cost parameters, and assessing operational effectiveness. Factors such as equipment costs, pumping requirements, labor, and chemical needs contribute to the overall life cycle costs of each technology. For example, IX is generally more expensive than GAC but requires smaller bed volumes. Achieving the right balance between IX and GAC empty bed contact time is essential for estimating operating costs. Integration into existing treatment infrastructure is possible for both GAC and IX, although disposal of spent media may pose concerns.

Emerging Technologies

Research and development programs are exploring innovative approaches to concentrate and destroy PFAS without releasing harmful byproducts. Promising technologies include hydrothermal alkaline treatment, photolysis, high-energy electron beam, radiolytic methods, electrochemical oxidation, plasma treatment, supercritical water oxidation, UV-hydrated electron, and sonochemical techniques. Each application must consider water quality standards, site constraints, disposal options, and existing processes to ensure complete PFAS elimination.

Which treatment option will work for your system?

Choosing the appropriate PFAS treatment technology is crucial to effectively address the issue. GAC, IX, and RO offer different advantages and considerations. As noted previously, bench-scale and pilot-scale testing is necessary for validation, and life cycle costs should be evaluated for each technology. Furthermore, emerging technologies hold potential for advanced PFAS destruction. Collaborating with treatment experts ensures the selection of the most suitable solution for specific needs and ensures effective remediation of PFAS-contaminated sites.

PFAS Contamination and UCMR 5 Requirements

In addition to addressing the pressing issue of PFAS contamination, water systems must remain vigilant about the potential impact of emerging contaminants on water quality. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5), water systems are primarily focused on monitoring and reporting PFAS, a known threat to water supplies. By actively monitoring and staying informed about PFAS, water systems can enhance their ability to identify, mitigate, and develop effective treatment strategies, thereby safeguarding public health and ensuring the long-term quality of their water supplies.

Understanding MDLs

Many PFAS lawsuits filed by municipalities and water utilities claiming PFAS contamination from Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) have been consolidated into a multidistrict litigation (MDL). MDLs coordinate complex litigation across multiple federal district courts involving similar parties. Consolidating discovery and pretrial motions saves time and money for both sides. The Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) Products Liability Litigation MDL-2873 was formed in December 2018, and its first trial (aka: bellwether) was scheduled for the summer of 2023 in the Federal District Court for the District of South Carolina, but was postponed to allow settlement negotiations to progress among the parties. Bellwether cases serve as test cases, influencing liability theories, defenses, and damages. Positive outcomes in early MDL cases can expedite progress for other plaintiffs, leading to settlements or court judgments.

Expanding MDL Involvement

The EPA's proposed maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) are expected to encourage more water providers to join MDLs. Within the MDL-2873, there are four categories of plaintiffs: water providers, property owners, personal injury plaintiffs, and sovereign entities. Water providers are a subset of the 2,500+ cases pending in the MDL, chosen as bellwether cases. This streamlined process presents an opportunity for water providers to recover PFAS cleanup costs and potentially shorten the duration of the MDL.

Experience and Success at SL Environmental Law Group

When looking to identify the best environmental law firms, it’s best to consider those with experience in the niche in which you are seeking assistance. With over 20 years of focused expertise in water contamination cases, SL Environmental Law Group is a trusted leader in the water litigation space. Our track record includes successful representation of numerous reputable organizations, earning us a prominent place in the field.

Embracing a Proactive Approach

As the EPA proposes PFAS regulations, water systems face new obligations. Taking a proactive stance is crucial, involving comprehensive communication strategies, identifying suitable treatment options, and seeking legal counsel to mitigate PFAS costs. Our firm operates on a contingency fee basis, ensuring no upfront litigation costs for water systems and their ratepayers.

Trust SL Environmental Law Group

Having helped about 200 clients recover more than $1.2 billion through settlements and trials since 2003, our seasoned team excels at water contamination litigation while also providing tailored insights on regulatory impacts, contamination sources, and legal guidance.

Take the Next Step

Download our eBook for a deeper look into what we discussed above. If you have any further questions or would like to discuss your specific situation in more detail, please reach out to our team to schedule a free consultation where we can confidentially discuss your circumstances and chart a path forward.

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