By John Gardella
Wednesday, July 14, 2021 The latest EPA PFAS action on Monday, July 13, 2021 shows once again that the agency is seeking to aggressively regulate certain PFAS compounds <www.epa.gov/ccl/contaminant-candidate-list-5-ccl-5> under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, the EPA’s action on Monday is notable because it is one of the first instances in which the EPA acknowledges that it will consider potential regulation of all PFAS compounds – a class of chemicals consisting of over 9,000 substances – as opposed to just a small subset of the chemical group. This announcement should catch the eyes of any businesses in the stream of commerce that could in some way be held liable for cleanup costs due to PFAS environmental pollution. Now, more than ever, companies of all types, sizes, and positions in the stream of commerce must pay attention to the changes that we predict are coming in the next three to four fiscal quarters.
What Are PFAS and Why Are They A Concern? Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) are a class of over 7,000 manmade compounds. Chemists at 3M and Dupont developed the initial PFAS chemicals by accident in the 1930s when researching carbon-based chemical reactions. During one such experiment, an unusual coating remained in the testing chamber, which upon further testing was completely resistant to any methods designed to break apart the atoms within the chemical. The material also had the incredible ability to repel oil and water. Dupont later called this substance PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), the first PFAS ever invented. After World War II, Dupont commercialized PFOA into the revolutionary product that the company branded “Teflon.”
Only a short while later, 3M invented its own PFAS chemical – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which they also commercialized and branded “Scotchgard.” Within a short period of time, various PFAS chemicals were used in hundreds of products – today, it numbers in the thousands.
The same physical characteristics that make PFAS useful in a plethora of commercial applications, though, also make them highly persistent and mobile in the environment and the human body – hence the nickname, “forever chemicals.” While the science is still developing regarding the extent of possible effects on human health, initial research has shown that PFOA and PFOS are capable of causing certain types of cancer, liver and kidney issues, immunological problems, and reproductive and developmental harm.
EPA PFAS Action July 13, 2021 On Monday, the EPA announced its Draft Fifth Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 5). The CCL is a list of contaminants that are currently not subject to any proposed or promulgated national primary drinking water regulations, but are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems. Contaminants listed on the CCL may require future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). On the CCL 5 are 66 individual chemicals, but notably PFAS as an entire class are also listed on the CCL 5. Simply because PFAS are listed on the CCL 5 does not guarantee that regulation will occur; however, it does open doors to research that are not otherwise available without the listing on the CCL.
The EPA PFAS action is not the only step the agency has taken with respect to PFAS and drinking water, but developing the CCL is the first step under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in potentially regulating drinking water contaminants. SDWA requires EPA to publish a list of currently unregulated contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and that may require regulation. EPA must publish a CCL every five years. The CCL does not create or impose regulatory burden on public water systems or state, local, or Tribal governments. EPA has completed four rounds of CCLs since 1996. The last cycle of CCL, CCL 4, was published in November 2016. EPA began the development of the CCL 5 in 2018 by asking the public to nominate chemicals, microbes, or other materials for consideration for the CCL 5. The EPA is seeking public comment on CCL 5 for 60 days.
How Will PFAS Regulations Impact Businesses? Many companies assume that any regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act will not impact them, as virtually no industries, aside from water utilities, have any direct impact on drinking water. However, this belief provides a false sense of security that must immediately be dispelled. There are three specific ways that drinking water limits for PFAS will trigger scrutiny on environmental practices of businesses: (1) elffluent discharges into water sources; (2) waste sent to landfills that may leach into drinking water sources; and (3) properties abutting or in the vicinity of water sources.
Direct industry effluent discharges into water sources (which may not be drinking water sources, but may feed into drinking water sources) will be the low-hanging fruit target for local environmental agencies at the state level. Companies must ensure that they have all permitting in order, and it is advisable that the permitting specifically encompasses PFAS. Failing to do so will cause issues down the line when local environmental regulatory bodies look to determine, even retroactively, who PFAS water polluters are or were, as those agencies seek to hold businesses responsible for the costs associated with cleaning up PFAS in drinking water.
Companies that send their industrial waste to landfills are also well advised to do a full compliance check. While many companies do not use PFAS directly in their own manufacturing processes, do the parts or other raw materials used in the manufacturing process have PFAS contamination issues? If so, a company could unknowingly send PFAS-laden industrial waste products to landfills, and so these are questions that companies must get answers to. Over time, it is possible that the PFAS may leach out of the landfill and find their way into local water sources. Environmental regulatory agencies will look to these sites, the owners of the sites, and potentially companies sending waste to the sites as responsible parties for PFAS contamination in waterways.
Finally, even businesses having nothing to do with PFAS or manufacturing from which PFAS could be a contaminant need to follow news regarding PFAS regulations. For example, has the property on which your business sits ever had fires that have required a local fire department to extinguish flames using foam (historically, a PFAS containing product)? What did the owner of the site prior to you use the site for? Were there possible PFAS contamination issues stemming from that prior business? Did your due diligence reports and tests when purchasing the property take PFAS into consideration? If PFAS were a contaminant on the land on which your business now operates, local environmental agencies will pursue cleanup costs from any such business regardless of knowledge or intent, and regardless of whether the PFAS issues were the result of a prior company on the site. These investigations and remediations can be extremely expensive and disruptive to businesses.
Conclusion Our prediction remains that some time in 2022, PFAS drinking water rules will be finalized at the federal level. This will require states to act, as well (and some states may still enact stronger regulations than the EPA). Both the federal and the state level regulations will impact businesses and industries of many kinds, even if their contribution to drinking water contamination issues may seem on the surface to be de minimus. In states that already have PFAS drinking water standards enacted, businesses and property owners have already seen local environmental agencies scrutinize possible sources of PFAS pollution much more closely than ever before, which has resulted in unexpected costs. Companies absolutely must begin preparing now for regulatory actions that will have significant financial impacts down the road.