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PFAS cleanup: the financial burden on U.S. water systems

  • PFAS cleanup: the financial burden on U.S. water systems
  • The EPA's new PFAS regulations will increase costs for U.S. water systems, particularly smaller water systems.
  • Despite federal funding, experts believe these funds will not be sufficient to cover all costs, and anticipate higher consumer water rates.

The recent push to remove harmful PFAS chemicals from drinking water will come with a hefty price tag for US water systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the first national, legally enforceable drinking water standard in April, as part of the Agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap.

The EPA rule gives water systems three years to conduct monitoring, and two years more after that to comply with maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for regulated PFAS, that is, to implement treatment systems if the contaminants are detected.

In terms of funding available to pay for this rule, the EPA points to $9 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure law specifically for communities impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants. That includes $4 billion to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and $5 billion through EPA’s Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities Grant Program. Additionally, states and communities can further leverage nearly $12 billion in the DWSRF dedicated to making drinking water safer, and billions more that the federal government has annually provided to fund DWSRF loans. Finally, another option for PFAS funding is the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program, a federal loan program that provides low-cost funding to communities for water infrastructure projects. Cleanup funding may also come from lawsuits against chemical manufacturers; however, experts caution that settlements are not a reliable funding source.

According to the American Water Works Association, an estimated 5,000 water systems will have to turn to new water sources or install and operate advanced treatment to meet the new EPA standards, and another 2,500 water systems in states with existing standards will need to adjust existing PFAS treatment systems. AWWA recently commissioned a study that estimated the national costs to install treatment to remove PFOA and PFOS to the new required levels would be over $3.8 billion annually. On the other hand, the EPA estimate is that 6% to 10% of water systems in the country will need to take action to reduce PFAS contamination, at a cost of $1.5 billion per year over 80 years.

Some states already had their own PFAS regulations in place. According to Stateline, 11 states have set limits for PFAS in drinking water to date, and others have pending rules or levels that require public notice. The EPA rule builds on those efforts and sets limits that are stricter than the state-issued rules. “We really have looked to the states as leaders in setting standards and doing some of the foundational science,” said Zach Schafer, director of policy and special projects for the EPA’s Office of Water.

Some water suppliers and state regulators, even those with existing PFAS rules, argue that the federal government's strict thresholds and timelines will be challenging for many utilities to meet. Despite the Biden administration dedicating billions in funding for water cleanup, experts believe the costs will far exceed the available funds.

The cost burden arises from implementing treatment technologies like reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon filters. These solutions can be expensive, especially for smaller water systems serving fewer people. The financial strain may be passed on to consumers through higher water bills. In fact, some water systems are starting to warn their users of rate hikes to implement the technology to remove PFAS, reports The Hill. “A lot of systems are going to be faced with having to increase rates”, said Chris Moody, from the AWWA.

Besides the initial costs of installing treatment systems, utilities will also incur ongoing expenses, including filter replacement and waste disposal, which are less likely to be covered by federal grants and loans. A particular concern is the long-term storage of the waste products filtered from the water, which also poses a PFAS contamination risk.

As water utilities tackle the financial and logistical hurdles of implementing PFAS standards, there is a call for broader approaches, including pollution prevention at the source, and stricter industrial regulations for products containing PFAS.

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