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Apr 28, 2024

New Federal Standards for PFAS in Drinking Water — And What Comes Next

jay eidsness, a white man in a suit and glasses, stands speaking into a microphone with a group of people

Photo: Jay Eidsness speaks at a press conference on PFAS at the state capitol.

Before Jay Eidsness started as an attorney at MCEA, he had never heard of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). But in early 2020 when he joined the organization, he jumped into reviewing Minnesota’s proposal for distributing settlement funds secured from 3M for PFAS contamination in the East Metro. This kicked off his research about PFAS and sharpened his resolve to hold polluters accountable.

First produced in the 1940’s, PFAS are now found in 9,000-12,000 products according to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The estimation is necessary, because although the chemicals have been linked to several types of cancers, there has never been any comprehensive tracking or control over what products include PFAS. 

While that is concerning enough on its own, most of the serious health impacts are not coming directly from the non-stick surface on our frying pans or stain guard on our sofas. PFAS waste disposed in landfills and in industrial wastewater discharge has spread these chemicals into drinking water and has been linked to cancer clusters in the East Metro. Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done something that Eidsness describes as very rare, taking on new drinking water standards for PFAS.  

Earlier this month, Eidsness had the opportunity to speak to the press about this major milestone in the journey to address PFAS contamination. Standing with legislators, partner organizations, and the family of Amara Strande, he acknowledged the importance of new federal drinking water standards for PFAS contamination—but he did not shy away from the work ahead. On the forefront of his mind since he first testified about PFAS in 2021 is who will pay for the clean up.

The funds needed for new standards should be paid for by polluters

The new EPA standards limit the amount of six PFAS in drinking water to minuscule amounts measured in parts per trillion. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, this rule applies to all public water systems. These include community water systems, like municipal providers, and non-community water systems like gas stations, campgrounds, and schools. In total, this rule will apply for over 285 million people across the country.

The Minnesota Department of Health says that 22 public water systems in the Land of 10,000 Lakes currently have levels of PFAS above the new limits. These communities are: Battle Lake, Brooklyn Park, Pine City, Princeton, South St. Paul, Wabasha, Alexandria, Cloquet, Hastings, Lake Elmo, Newport, Pease, Sauk Rapids, Stillwater, Swanville, Waite Park, and Woodbury. The Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings is also affected, as are mobile home parks in Lake Elmo, Austin, Bemidji, and Shakopee.

Along with the new standards, the EPA also announced nearly $1 billion in newly available funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This money will help states implement PFAS testing and treatment in public water systems and help owners of private wells address PFAS contamination. This funding is part of a $9 billion investment – the largest-ever investment in tackling PFAS pollution. 

The funding is important, because cleaning up these chemicals is costly. Ultimately though, tax-payers shouldn’t be paying for harm caused by chemical manufacturers. “The public did not design these chemicals to remain stable and dangerous in the environment for decades. And the public has not reaped enormous profits by coating a breathtaking array of products from cookware to mascara with these substances,” Eidsness says. “The public must therefore not be called upon to cover the billions needed to ensure compliance with these new rules.”

What will it take to meet these standards? Start with wastewater

Last year the Minnesota state legislature passed a ban on the non-essential use of PFAS in products sold in Minnesota. What that looks like in practice is still to be determined, and lobbyists from every corner of industry are trying to carve out space for PFAS to be considered essential in their products. 

Turning off the tap on the manufacturing and use of PFAS is key to minimizing their presence, both here in Minnesota and across the globe. Once PFAS chemicals are released into the environment, they remain stable and dangerous for decades and there is currently no way to clean PFAS from the environment at scale. 

One tool we do have is to prevent more PFAS from getting into the environment in the first place. While these chemicals threaten drinking water through multiple pathways, a primary source point comes from wastewater treatment plants. These plants collect and process wastewater from industrial users that are themselves suspected dischargers of PFAS. One of the leftover products from the treatment process is biosolids, which are commonly applied as fertilizer on agricultural fields across the state. When the wastewater is contaminated with PFAS, so are the biosolids. This practice has been tied to the widespread contamination of cropland soils and groundwater with toxic PFAS.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that it would cost between $14 to $28 billion to remove and destroy PFAS from wastewater streams in Minnesota. While the wastewater stream is different from the drinking water stream, this shows how expensive and difficult it will be to fix this issue with drinking water. This is, again, why it’s so important to stop PFAS at the source, before it enters our drinking water. And why polluters should bear the financial responsibility, rather than tax-payers. 

Under the Clean Water Act, industrial users and landfills can be required to install treatment technologies to scrub PFAS from their wastewater. By having them contain the chemicals before their wastewater is sent into our drinking water supplies we save the cost from municipal facilities. 

“Now the hard work begins,” says Eidsness. “The EPA’s drinking water standards will ensure millions of Americans can be confident their drinking water is not poisoned with PFAS. But the costs to ensure compliance with the new limits must be paid by those responsible, not taxpayers.”