EPA Making Significant Moves on PFAS in Nation’s Drinking Water

In March 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) published a proposed fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (“UCMR 5”). The proposed UCMR 5 will require public water systems to collect national occurrence data for 30 chemical contaminants, including 29 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) and lithium.

“With PFAS already taking front and center stage in the environmental community,” says President and CEO James Hogan of The ELAM Group, an environmental consulting firm that has been tracking the evolution of PFAS regulation, “UCMR 5 will now begin to systematically expand this awareness to the general public at-large.”

In late February 2021, the agency highlighted its commitment to protecting public health by addressing PFAS in the nation’s drinking water.

“All people need access to clean and safe drinking water. One way that EPA is committed to keeping our communities safe is by addressing PFAS,” said EPA Acting Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. “These actions will underpin better science, better future regulation, and improved public health protections.”

To fully understand the presence and levels of PFAS in the nation’s drinking water, new data are critical—and it is the intent of the proposed UCMR 5 to provide it. Assessment monitoring will be required as follows: from January 2023 to December 2025, all Public Water Systems (“PWSs”) serving 3,300 or more people will collect samples for the 30 new constituents (i.e., 29 identified PFAS + lithium).  A representative sample of 800 systems serving fewer than 3,300 people will also be collected.

In accordance with America’s Water Infrastructure Act (“AWIA”), the UCMR 5 program will continue with PWS monitoring for utilities serving a population larger than 10,000 people. Including occurrence data from a broader PFAS group fulfills a key commitment set forth in EPA’s PFAS Action Plan.

Analytical methods are central to UCMR 5. Of particular note are detection limits. The designated detection limit requirements in the proposed UCMR 5 are much lower than that of most constituents, which are measured in parts per billion or micrograms per liter (“ug/L”) versus the more stringent UCMR 5 requirement of parts per trillion or nanograms per liter (“ng/L”).

Since this is a new sampling requirement, it is not yet known how widespread detection at these very low limits will be. What is certain is that this is a step toward EPA establishing limits for these previously unregulated contaminants, limits that may require corrective action on the part of PWS operators.

With UCMR 5 paving the way, Hogan predicts the economic impact could be felt with a rise in environmental pollution claims.

“Incorporating PFAS analyses will certainly have an economic impact on PWSs, but that economic risk will go far beyond PWSs when consulting firms and environmental attorneys grapple with their client’s claims of PFAS contamination over the next 2 to 5 years.”