EPA Releases Guidelines For PFAS in Groundwater

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued Interim Recommendations for addressing groundwater contaminated with Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) under federal cleanup programs. These recommendations represent the first federal guidance for mitigating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in groundwater.

After reviewing public comments solicited in April 2019, EPA made these interim recommendations based upon the data and scientific information it collected on PFAS’ toxicity, while specifically acknowledging that the scientific information on these compounds continues to evolve. Specifically, EPA recommends:

  • Using a screening level of 40 parts per trillion (ppt) to determine if PFOA and/or PFOS is present at a site and may warrant further attention.
  • Using EPA’s PFOA and PFOS lifetime drinking water health advisory level of 70 ppt as the preliminary remediation goal (PRG) for contaminated groundwater that is a current or potential source of drinking water, where no state or other applicable requirements are available or sufficiently protective. EPA notes that PRGs are generally initial targets for cleanup, which may be adjusted on a site-specific basis.

While the proposed 40 ppt screening level for each chemical is not a cleanup level, it does suggest that every site that is being investigated for a federal cleanup action will require further investigation and possible remediation of groundwater if the concentration of chemicals exceeds the applicable screening level.

The recommendation that the level of PFAS in groundwater should be less than 70 ppt is the same as EPA’s drinking water threshold, which until now had been the only federal guidance on PFAS. Importantly, the 70 ppt threshold may receive further scrutiny as some within the industry argue that this standard does not go far enough to protect public health. Some states have set even stricter threshold limits, while some states continue to have no such standards. 

These recommendations apply to cleanup sites being evaluated and addressed under federal programs, including the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) and corrective action under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The recommendations may also be useful as a tool for state or other regulatory authorities contemplating threshold limits in groundwater. While these standards may prove to be helpful to states as they continue to determine their own acceptable limits, EPA’s recommendations are deemed interim at this time due to the agency’s ongoing assessment of toxicity information, test methods, laboratory methods, analytical methods, exposure models, and treatment methods, among other research efforts to improve the knowledge about this class of chemicals. As new information becomes available, the EPA states that it will consider additional recommendations. At this point, these recommendations are merely guidelines, and not binding laws; however, according to the EPA, they are intended to provide clear guidance. After reviewing public comments, the EPA is expected to submit a final version of the recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget later this year or in early 2021.