California PFAS Push Now Includes POTWs as State Water Board Rolls Out New Testing Order

Environmental Law  

July 23, 2020

On July 9, 2020, the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) issued an investigative order (the Order) to sample for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at more than 250 publicly owned treatment works (POTWs).  The Order applies to waste water treatment plants throughout California with a design capacity at or exceeding one million gallons per day (mgd).  The State Water Board’s action is the latest phase of a sweeping investigation that the Board announced last year to study and identify industrial and municipal sources of PFAS in California, including at airports, landfills, manufacturing facilities, bulk terminals, chrome platers, and wastewater treatment facilities.

PFAS are highly fluorinated manmade compounds that are resistant to heat, water and oil.  They are used in fire suppression foams and in a wide range of products designed to be waterproof, stain‑resistant or non‑stick, such as carpets, furniture, cookware, clothing and food packaging. PFAS have also been found in drinking water supplies and are reported to have a variety of adverse health effects.

The State Water Board’s Order identifies POTWs as potentially significant receivers of PFAS from influent or sewer system sources such as leachate from landfills, firefighting foam, and other industrial sources.  Because most POTWs are not designed to remove and treat PFAS, the State Water Board has identified POTWs as potential further contributors of PFAS to the environment.  Potential discharges include wastewater effluent to surface waters and/or percolation basins, biosolids, and reverse osmosis concentrate/retentate from treatment facilities.

The Order includes extensive details as well as guidance on sampling and laboratory analysis for 31 PFAS compounds, reporting of data, monitoring, and requires POTWs to complete a questionnaire intended to identify potential influent sources of PFAS.  Initial sampling is expected to start during Fourth Quarter 2020 and last for one year, but the Order also allows POTWs to request an extension for good cause.  The State Water Board will analyze the sampling data to conduct a preliminary investigation of the mass loading of PFAS into the POTW and then leaving the POTW in different media (treated wastewater, brine, biosolids) and evaluate the extent to which POTWs are contributing to PFAS in surface and ground water.

As we previously reported, in August 2019 the State Water Board lowered the drinking water notification levels for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—two common PFAS compounds—from 13 parts per trillion (ppt) to 6.5 ppt, and 14 ppt to 5.1 ppt.  Earlier this year, the State Water Board also lowered the single health advisory response levels for PFOA and PFOS from 70 ppt combined, to 10 ppt for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS based on a running four quarter average.

In light of the State Water Board’s investigation, as more PFAS testing is conducted, more PFAS are likely to be found in groundwater and in drinking water supplies throughout the state.  As a result, there will be a significant push to identify sources for PFAS and litigation or other regulatory action will likely follow for the costs of investigation, treatment and remediation.

Finally, although the State Water Board’s Order applies to POTWs with a design capacity at or exceeding 1 mgd, the State Water Board may issue additional orders in the future to POTWs with less than an average dry weather design flow of 1 mgd capacity.

For additional information about the State Water Board’s efforts to study and investigate PFAS, please contact us.