Rhode Island discovered heat-resistant, water-repellent chemicals contaminating its groundwater and finding their way into drinking water wells. But without federal standards for those chemicals, the state didn’t know how to treat and dispose of that contaminated water.
So the nation’s smallest state is closely watching the Environmental Protection Agency’s intent to study potential industrial sources of these toxic class of chemicals, which include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), to establish federal wastewater limits for discharging treated groundwater.
“That’s the question out there. What do we do, and how much do we treat it, and how stringent does the treatment have to be so we can discharge the treated groundwater safely into local streams?” Terrence Gray, an associate director for environmental protection in Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, told Bloomberg Environment May 8.
PFOS and PFOA are two of a family of 70 toxic chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been linked to low infant birth weights, immune system effects, and cancer, according to the EPA.
States increasingly are seeking guidance from the federal government on dealing with the ubiquitous chemicals, which are used in non-stick coatings like Teflon and in electronics manufacturing and firefighting foams.
Municipal wastewater utilities don’t control for those pollutants because they haven’t been required to yet. However, that could change if the EPA eventually sets federal limits.
The Water Environment Federation, an Alexandria, Va.-based not-for-profit educational group for water and wastewater quality professionals, told Bloomberg Environment it is uncommon to see contamination caused by treated municipal wastewater.
The EPA could have more guidance for states, as it studies how the chemicals and others like them are discharged by industries and municipal wastewater utilities into local waterways at concentrations sufficient to warrant new federal pollution standards.
Otherwise, states may be left to regulate the contaminants on their own, which could lead to a patchwork of standards across the country.
States, wastewater officials, and the EPA hope to spend May 22 and 23 tackling some of the tough questions surrounding regulation of this class of chemicals at an upcoming summit.
Concerns About EPA Study
The American Chemistry Council is concerned about imprecise and overly broad language the EPA used when describing the class of chemicals.
As part of the study, the EPA said it still doesn’t know how much PFOA and PFOS remain in circulation after the chemicals have been mostly phased out, or whether substitutes for those substances pose a risk to public health and the environment.
“It is critical that any potential wastewater limits are risk-based and warranted,” Jonathan Corley, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, told Bloomberg Environment.
Chemical manufacturers, including members of the FluoroCouncil such as the Chemours Co. LLC, Asahi Glass Co., and Arkema France, worked with regulators to phase out PFOA and PFOS, a FluoroCouncil spokesman told Bloomberg Environment in an email.
However, some other companies may still be using stockpiles or imports from China and India, the FluoroCouncil said.
States Aren’t Testing for It
Rhode Island and Minnesota officials haven’t yet found evidence of contamination by those chemicals through wastewater releases either directly from industries or indirectly from the plants treating that water.
“We haven’t seen it, yet, but then again we haven’t been testing for it,” said Gray, adding the EPA study is necessary because states will need a single federal standard for treating groundwater contaminated with those toxic chemicals before releasing it into the local streams.
Neither Rhode Island nor Minnesota officials said such municipal wastewater releases have been linked with drinking water contamination to date. In most instances, officials of these states said these chemicals percolated through the soil into groundwater, contaminating drinking water wells.
In the Great Lakes region, firefighting foam containing PFAS made its way into local waterways through stormwater runoff or direct spraying.
In states like Michigan, however, industrial releases have been responsible in part for contaminating rivers. Wolverine World Wide Inc., which has been sued by Michigan for contaminating soil, groundwater, and streams underlying a former tannery operations site, did not return calls seeking comment.
The company on its website claims the pollution was caused by groundwater contamination.