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The Impending Shift in PFAS Data and Expected EPA Enforcement for Public Water Systems

The recent discovery of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a significant portion of the United States’ public drinking water systems brings to light concerns about water safety and signals potential shifts in regulatory enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The data comes from the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5), which is used to gather information on contaminants found in drinking water and share that information with the public. The latest data, current as of October 2023, shows 854 of the 3,200 water systems tested measured at least one PFAS compound with levels exceeding EPA reporting requirements. That is a 27% increase from the previous number reported in August 2023.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) the EPA requires water systems monitor for unregulated pollutants. SDWA was amended by Section 7311 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020. NDAA specifies that the EPA shall include all PFAS in UCMR 5 for which a drinking water method has been validated and is not subject to a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR). UCMR 5 includes 29 PFAS, specifically perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). UCMR 5 data released to-date represent approximately 15% of the total results that EPA expects to receive until completion of data reporting in 2026.

By the end of 2023, the EPA’s first-ever NPDWR are expected to be finalized—resulting in legally enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for six PFAS in drinking water systems.

Building on existing efforts, this would establish a nationwide health-protective level limit for six specific PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. It would also require public water systems to monitor for these PFAS and complete the initial monitoring phase within three years of the rule becoming official. Results acquired during the initial monitoring phase will be used to determine ongoing compliance monitoring requirements. From there, water systems with regulated PFAS above the proposed MCL will be required to install water treatment systems or take additional action to reduce levels until compliant.

The path ahead is both challenging and crucial. The data from UCMR 5 not only underscores the urgency for comprehensive monitoring and regulation, but also highlights the need for expert guidance in this evolving landscape. As water treatment plants gear up for necessary upgrades to meet these impending regulations, there is an implicit call for accountability, extending beyond regulatory bodies to the manufacturers responsible for PFAS contamination. From understanding the new regulations to implementing necessary upgrades and ensuring compliance, expertise can help fostering a safer, more accountable approach to compliance.