Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) have become an evolving challenge for the solid waste industry, which has continued to seek answers regarding how they should be managed. Historically, the burden of the “forever chemicals” has been placed in the hands of landfill operators—specifically in the realm of leachate treatment.
In recent years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has addressed PFAS contamination through the form of action plans, wastewater regulations, disposal guidelines and sampling requirements. In addition, the EPA established a final rule June 22, 2020, giving the agency authority over the manufacturing and sale of products containing PFAS.
Despite these efforts, landfill operators have long-awaited more concrete guidance to help them prepare for a federal approach to regulating PFAS.
More clarity on the subject came with the announcement of a “PFAS Strategic Roadmap” by the EPA in October 2021, a national strategy aimed toward increasing investments in research and accelerating the cleanup of PFAS contamination.
The three-year plan lays out aggressive timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits; an intent to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA); timelines for action, such as data collection or rulemaking; and more. The road map also pledges to provide updated research by the fall of 2023 on the available methods for disposing of or destroying PFAS through landfills, thermal treatment and deep-well injection.
Although the EPA’s Strategic Roadmap represents one of the most comprehensive PFAS plans by the agency to date, some industry professionals believe it is still too vague to begin implementing operational changes.
Chris Lund—senior vice president for Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB), an international consulting firm based in McLean, Virginia—has provided his view on what the PFAS Strategic Roadmap could mean for landfill operators and the waste management industry.
Waste Today (WT): With mixed opinions on who is responsible for managing PFAS, what kind of clarity can the EPA’s Strategic Roadmap provide to landfill operators?
Chris Lund (CL): Unfortunately, it is too early to get clarity on impacts; however, it is clear that once published improved analytical methods are available for monitoring and are required at landfills holistically that increased compliance monitoring will be needed for groundwater, leachate, stormwater/surface water and possibly air emissions. Therefore, landfill operators should plan ahead in annual budgets in the next two years if EPA keeps to its intended goal timelines. EPA intends to improve analytical methods to enable 40 PFAS to be monitored in eight different environmental matrices.
WT: The burden of PFAS has historically been placed on the waste management industry. Could this plan shift that burden back to manufacturers?
CL: It looks as if it will not be a shift but an inclusion of the burden commensurate with the role and responsibility of the manufacturers. This is yet to be made clear until EPA reevaluates exemptions and exclusions for toxic chemical reporting.
In the short term, it is not likely there will be a need for compliance monitoring at facilities that receive solid waste as well as liquid waste (such as wastewater treatment plants) going forward.
Long-term—should the toxicological risks to human health and the environment dictate a moratorium of PFAS use—manufacturers will need to cease their use.
WT: What implications can the EPA’s final rule deadline to designate perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid as hazardous substances have on landfills?
CL: The EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management proposes to designate certain PFAS as CERCLA hazardous substances—substances that are currently present in waste materials disposed at [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act-, or RCRA-] regulated Subtitle D landfills. It is possible that through groundwater monitoring PFAS will be detected that are CERCLA designated. These substances that were previously addressed through assessment monitoring and RCRA corrective action may now have CERCLA implications.
WT: How can landfill operators prepare for changes prompted by expanded PFAS regulations?
CL: Landfill operators should plan for disruption in leachate management. At publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) with effluent limitations in the parts per trillion for PFAS, a small POTW (less than 50 million gallons per day) could incur a big upgrade with increased PFAS regulations. If POTWs can force others—such as a landfill—to pretreat, they will try currently. Deep wells in the upper Midwest, for example, are being looked at—potentially proliferating the issue.
Landfills are service facilities, so they did not create the PFAS nor the waste that contains it. Some studies have indicated that landfills actually attenuate PFAS, which is essentially sequestration through adsorption or absorption. Other matrices will also need to be monitored and managed for PFAS, such as groundwater, surface water and gas emissions.