How water utilities can prepare to comply with new EPA PFAS regulations

EPA’s proposed rule regulating PFAS in drinking water is here; here’s what water utilities need to know.

In March 2023, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and later that month the rule was published in the Federal Register. These man-made chemicals are used in a variety of water, heat, and oil-resistant products, like non-stick cookware and firefighting foams. Highly anticipated, the proposed rule includes not just PFOA and PFOS, the two most commonly found PFAS compounds, but also for four other compounds: PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals.

As these contaminants are found everywhere – including many surface waters, groundwaters, water sources near fire-fighting facilities, and waters that are impacted by upstream wastewater discharges – this regulation will affect a large number of water utilities. With the EPA expected to finalize NPDWR by the end of 2023, utilities have little time to put together a clear plan for compliance and seek funding.

In this IQ&A, Garver Water Practice Leader Zaid Chowdhury, PhD, PE, BCEE - who authored Activated Carbon: Solutions for Improving Water Quality, published by the American Water Works Journal - distills the 400-page proposed rule into what utilities need to know about how they will be affected, and what actions they need to take.

What does the regulation entail and how will it affect water utilities?

As expected, the NPDWR requires water utilities to limit contaminant levels from PFOA and PFOS compounds. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for each is set at four parts per trillion (ppt) or 4.0 nanograms per liter (ng/L). This concentration is what the EPA believes people can reliably measure. And as this is a low level, many water utilities will be impacted by this rule.

For the four additional compounds - PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX - utilities must calculate and adhere to a Hazard Index (HI). To calculate the HI, utilities should use this formula: 

Formula image

In this formula, the numerators are the concentration of the respective compounds in ng/L and the denominators are the EPA-specified health-based water concentration (HBWC) in ng/L.

Water utilities will need to analyze finished water at points of entry into the distribution system and measure the concentration of these six compounds. Depending on what they find, they may need a general engineering study to determine the best course of action for any new treatment system. Those who find their levels are within regulation will still need to monitor and continue to prove that their numbers are below the standard the EPA has set. Basically, everyone will have to do something to comply with this rule.

If utilities are interested in submitting comments, they can do so in the EPA docket (ID No. EPA–HQ–OW–2022–0114) at by May 30, 2023.

What steps should utilities take to be prepared for, and in compliance with, the regulation, and when?

Step one for utilities is to determine the characteristics of their finished water, not their source water, to see where they are with respect to the proposed rule. The regulation allows provisions for the use of any data collected since 2019, as long as appropriate methods were utilized. Whether using previously collected data or not, setting up monitoring at any entry point into the distribution system and measuring the concentration of these six compounds is the first step.

To determine the concentrations of the compounds, utilities will need to have an accredited laboratory analyze the water, using USEPA methods 533 or 537.1. The EPA will only accept the results of analysis using these two methods.

If a utility needs a new treatment system, step two is to begin lining up funding immediately. A new treatment system usually takes two to three years from concept to operation. This rule probably will not allow for that much time. Utilities will likely have around 18 months. Lining up funding as soon as possible, whether in CIP plans or through grant applications, will be crucial. The EPA has identified GAC adsorption, anion exchange, nanofiltration, and reverse osmosis as best available technologies for PFAS removal.

While working on funding, utilities should begin with a general engineering study to help the utilities select the treatment technology that best fits their needs.

While no action is required by the EPA until NPDWR is finalized, it would be prudent for utilities to begin taking these steps now.

How much will compliance cost? How can utilities acquire funding?

The EPA has estimated the cost of this new rule to be approximately $1 billion per year. But the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates the yearly cost could be two to three times that estimate. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $9 billion for PFAS-impacted drinking water systems.

The process for the dispersal of federal funding to utilities will vary from state to state. The best way forward for now is to explore and learn as much about what the funding process may look like in your area. Click here to view an EPA fact sheet.

Looking ahead, what should utilities expect to follow the finalized NPDWR?

Water utilities should keep an eye out for the new rule to have a streamlined path for adding more PFAS. New health advisories may also appear that will cover additional PFAS. This may lead to more regulations for monitoring and treatment.

How can Garver help?

As a member on AWWA’s Technology Advisory Workgroup, someone who has served on the editorial board of AWWA’s Water Science Journal for an issue focused on PFAS, and someone who has presented on PFAS many times over, I count myself just one of the people at Garver who is knowledgeable about and prepared to address this issue. We have experts ready to help water utilities determine the best treatment technology for their site-specific needs, and we have experience designing the treatment systems needed. We can also assist water utilities with the development and implementation of a monitoring program to assess their status with respect to this rule.

We also have strong working relationships with academia and researchers in this field. As just one example, Garver is a member of the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center at Arizona State University and Rice University. Thanks to our membership, we can get more efficient evaluation of potential treatment technologies at less cost.

Garver's four Water Design Centers, Water Technology Team, and our teams are situated to provide up-close and personal service to our water utility clients, as well as provide the high levels of expertise and resources they require to comply with this rule in the way that best serves their individual needs.

To learn more about the new PFAS standard and what utilities need to do to comply, contact Garver Water below.

Share this article