The Enviornmental Protection Agency Sets First-Ever Drinking Water Standard for Forever Chemicals  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) National Primary Drinking Water Regulation, setting limits for five so-called ‘forever chemicals found in drinking water.  These manufactured chemicals are used and found in various products including nonstick cookware, waterproof products, food packaging, and stain-resistant clothing and carpets. The substances are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they barely degrade and are nearly impossible to destroy, so they can linger permanently in air, water, and soil. They build up in humans and animals and have been linked to increased risk for some cancers, immune system deficiencies, decreased fertility, and other health complications. It can be assumed that most people across the United States have had some level of exposure to PFAS due to their widespread production and inability to break down in the environment, though exact numbers of exposure are unknown.  

Final Rule Sets First Ever Limits on PFAS

 While there is no scientifically “safe” level of the most toxic PFAS – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) – the new rule sets legal limits at four parts per trillion for both compounds. The rule sets limits at 10 parts per trillion for PFNA, PFHxS, and HFPO-DA (GenX Chemicals). The rule also sets a limit for mixtures of any two or more of four PFAS: PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX. Public water utilities will have three years to complete samplings for the regulated substances. If PFAS levels are found to exceed these new standards, utilities will be required to notify the public and implement solutions to reduce PFAS in their drinking water within 5 years.  

According to EPA, the new standard will reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, preventing thousands of deaths and reducing tens of thousands of serious illnesses. EPA estimates that between 6-10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to this standard will need to take action to reduce PFAS. However, the rule provides flexibility and does not specifically dictate how water systems must remove these contaminants. 

The Cost of Reducing and Eventually Eliminating PFAS

EPA has estimated it will cost water utilities approximately $1.5 billion annually to comply with the rule, though utilities maintain that the costs could be twice that amount and are worried about how to fund it. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies estimates place rule requirement costs well above $3.5 billion annually to treat and dispose of the forever chemical. States and local governments have successfully sued some manufacturers of PFAS for contaminating drinking water supplies, but the settlements awarded to municipalities have been dwarfed by the costs of cleaning up the chemicals, municipal officials have said. Industry executives say taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill in the form of increased water rates. Public health advocates have said the costs of the new rule were outweighed by the growing body of evidence of the dangers posed by PFAS. 

EPA Announces $1 Billion in Funding to Address PFAS

In addition to the final rule, EPA announced nearly $1 billion in FY24 funding through IIJA to help states and territories implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems and to help owners of private wells address PFAS contamination. This is part of a $9 billion investment through IIJA to help communities with drinking water impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants. An additional $12 billion is available through IIJA for general drinking water improvements, including addressing emerging contaminants like PFAS. Overall, IIJA provides $50 billion to EPA’s water programs. Of that amount, $5 billion is appropriated to the EC-SDC grant program to which annual appropriation is $1 billion for each fiscal year from FY2022-2026. These funds are available through EPA’s Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities (EC-SDC) grant program providing states and territories with grants to public water systems in small or disadvantaged communities to address emerging contaminants, including PFAS. Grants are awarded non‐competitively to states and territories. FY2024 allotments have already been announced. The financing programs delivering this funding are part of the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which set the goal that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution. 

Established as a noncompetitive grant program, eligibility to apply for and receive funds is limited to the fifty states and Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. States will use this funding to make grants to eligible emerging contaminant projects and/or activities in small or disadvantaged communities. Eligible projects include efforts to address emerging contaminants in drinking water that would benefit a small or disadvantaged community on a per household basis; technical assistance to evaluate emerging contaminant problems; programs to provide household water-quality testing, including testing for unregulated contaminants; local contractor training; and activities necessary and appropriate for a state to respond to an emerging contaminant. Additional support for implementation of BIL funding can be found through EPA’s Water Technical Assistance Programs.These programs have been launched in collaboration with states, territories, Tribes, and community partners.  

NARC encourages regional councils to take full advantage of the technical assistance provided by the EPA, and to serve a leading role in the coordination and implementation of ED-SDC funding to disadvantaged communities. 

Additional Resources 

NARC will continue to monitor updates in Washington and how this final rule will impact regions and the communities you serve.