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The EPA Is Rolling out Its PFAS Plan. What Does It Mean for Utilities?

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS — pronounced “PEE-Fass”) are a class of synthetic “forever chemicals” that have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol, and even the suppression of vaccine effectiveness in children. They’re present in everything from nonstick pans to fire extinguishers and they accumulate easily in the environment, making them an increasingly big problem for water systems.

Some European countries and Maine have banned the chemicals, 29 states have already introduced numerical PFAS limits for water, and more than 100 anti-PFAS bills were passed across the country last year.

Although many American water utilities are still figuring out how best to deal with them, there are signs regulators are getting serious about introducing federal rules for PFAS. After years of being accused of inaction, the White House is publicly detailing its anti-PFAS plan.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also used some tough language of late. 

Administrator Michael Regan recently pledged to “turn the tide” against the chemicals by “harnessing the collective resources and authority across federal, Tribal, state, and local governments to empower meaningful action now.”

Recently the EPA announced that 29 of the next 30 pollutants it would look at under its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) would be PFAS, signaling that the agency was taking concrete steps to regulate the pollutants.

What is the UCMR and how does it work?

The EPA releases a new Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) every five years. 

The UCMR requires public water systems that serve more than 10,000 people to start sampling for a list of contaminants that they previously could ignore. (The latest list — UCMR 5 — will require systems serving more than 3,300 people to sample, as well as a representative group of 800 smaller systems.)

The EPA evaluates candidates for new UCMR lists based on studies that show how harmful they are, how actively they’re being used, and how readily available data is on their frequency of use.

The agency says UCMR data is one of the key sources it uses to make regulatory and other risk management decisions. 

“[UCMR 5] data will ensure science-based decision-making and help prioritize protection of disadvantaged communities,” the EPA says.

What is the EPA’s PFAS strategy?

The agency’s roadmap for dealing with PFAS is centered on a “new three Rs” of sorts: Research, Restrict, and Remediate. 

The EPA wants to learn more about PFAS, prevent the chemicals from entering the natural environment as much as possible, and hasten the cleanup of PFAS across the country.

In a roadmap document that will take the agency to 2024, the EPA lays out a number of other strategies to deal with PFAS that could affect drinking and wastewater utilities.

Spring 2022: Enhance PFAS reporting under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)

Some utilities have to report PFAS to the TRI. The EPA says it plans to get rid of 11 exemptions and exclusions for those reporters by labeling PFAS  “Chemicals of Special Concern.” This will help the EPA collect more data on the chemicals.

Winter 2022: Finalize new PFAS reporting under TSCA Section 8

By Jan. 1, 2023, there will be a new rule in place regarding data collection about PFAS produced since 2011, including information on uses, production volumes, disposal, exposures and hazards. 

This will also help the EPA get to know the sources and quantities of PFAS in the U.S. and will be used to develop future regulations. 

Fall 2023: Establish a national primary drinking water regulation for two PFAS

The EPA has not yet established national drinking water guidelines for PFAS. It will put forward a proposal to do so this fall, followed by a final rule expected in fall 2023.

The agency has proposed regulating two PFAS in drinking water: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). 

It says more PFAS will be considered this year and in the future.

Winter 2024: Restrict PFAS discharges from industrial sources

The EPA plans to put forward new Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELGs) to limit how much PFAS industrial utilities, like municipal sewage treatment facilities, can emit.

The agency has done a multi-industry study on PFAS discharges, and “plans to make significant progress in its ELG regulatory work by the end of 2024.”

Actions to come include:

  • Restricting PFAS output in organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers, metal finishing, and electroplating. 
  • Studying facilities where there’s a bit of data, but not enough to make a new rule — such as electrical and electronic components, textile mills and landfills. 
  • Studying facilities with not much data — such as leather tanning and finishing, plastics molding and forming, and paint formulating. 
  • Monitoring industrial categories slated to phase out PFAS by 2024 — such as pulp, paper, paperboard and airports.

Winter 2022 and Fall 2024: Leverage NPDES permitting to reduce PFAS discharges to waterways

The EPA will include new restrictions in its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) to reduce PFAS discharges at the source. The rules are expected this winter. 

Utilities and industry will have to 

  • Eliminate or substitute other chemicals for PFAS
  • Use non-PFAS firefighting foams
  • Enhance public engagement with downstream communities and public water systems
  • Use pretreatment programs to control PFAS at the source

Winter 2022 and Fall 2024: Publish final recommended ambient water quality criteria for PFAS

The EPA sets out recommended water quality criteria for states and tribal governments to use. Soon, those recommendations will include PFAS limits. 

It will start with PFOA and PFOS, and move to other PFAS later. 

Criteria for aquatic life are expected in winter 2022, and human health criteria are expected in fall 2024.

Winter 2024: Finalize risk assessment for PFOA and PFOS in biosolids

The EPA may set limits on the amount of PFAS that can be in biosolids (sewage sludge) from wastewater treatment facilities. PFAS can contaminate crops and livestock when used on farms.

The agency will complete a risk assessment for PFOA and PFOS by winter 2024, to determine if limits are necessary.

2024: UCMR 6 and Beyond

According to the EPA, UCMR 5 is just the beginning.

“Going forward, EPA will continue to prioritize additional PFAS for inclusion in UCMR 6 and beyond, as techniques to measure these additional substances in drinking water are developed and validated,” the agency said in its roadmap to 2024.

What are other utilities doing about PFAS?

Some larger utilities are already ahead of the game. 

Klir has profiled the Santa Clarita Valley Water District’s (SCV) anti-PFAS efforts. That utility put forward a radically transparent plan — publicly sampling for all PFAS, even though California only required them to sample for 15 at the time.

The SCV used techniques like reverse osmosis and ion exchange to remove PFAS from water — and did it all quickly, and with flexibility in mind.

For forward-thinking utilities like the SCV, the EPA’s UCMR 5 announcement could mean more funding from government agencies for its existing programs. 

Those who fail to move quickly will have to deal with more sampling work, and may miss out on important sources of funding.

Is there funding available to help fight PFAS?

The federal government has set aside billions for PFAS mitigation. 

  • The Safe Drinking Water Act provides $5 billion for small communities to buy filtration equipment
  • The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund provides $4 billion for water utilities to deal with emerging contaminants “with a focus on PFAS” 
  • The Clean Water State Revolving Fund will give $1 billion for technical assistance for rural, small and tribal wastewater treatment facilities to fight PFAS.

The EPA has awarded millions in grants for PFAS research and mitigation. The agency said data gathered from UCMR 5 “will also serve as a potential source of information for systems with infrastructure funding needs for emerging contaminant remediation.”

Other levels of government have instituted similar programs. Be sure to check with your local government and environmental authority about funding that could be available to you.

Prepare for PFAS With Klir

Klir is a single, unified operating system for water, pulling every aspect of water management—including compliance, sampling, reporting and more—into an easy to use dashboard. 

Looking to bolster your sampling operation to prepare for PFAS? Speak to a Klir expert about how our platform can reduce administration and paperwork while optimizing your organization for new regulations.

How to Read and Manage NPDES Permits

Key takeaways:

  1. NPDES permits are long, complex and at times difficult to interpret for non-experts, and responsibility for them is often shared across teams that have an incomplete understanding of their contents.
  2. Reading your NPDES permit properly and making sure you’re reading the right version can help avoid confusion and mistakes when planning monitoring and compliance.
  3. Good recordkeeping and data management systems that centralize all permit-related reporting and correspondence can help everyone at your organization make sure they’re on the same page when it comes to your NPDES permit.

Few permits are as central to wastewater as National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. But they’re also long, complicated and can be difficult to parse, which can lead to challenges around compliance

Large utilities might have several people responsible for different parts of an NPDES permit, which means information can sometimes get mistranslated or lost in the shuffle.

Worse, since permits must be re-issued every few years, facilities sometimes run the risk of employees reading from an old version with outdated information.

In this article, we’ll translate your NPDES permit into plain language. We’ll also go over some common mistakes people make when reading them, and discuss how good record keeping can help everyone at your organization make sure they’re on the same page when it comes to your NPDES permit.

What is an NPDES Permit?

Anyone who discharges pollutants from a point source into a water of the United States requires a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from their state or EPA Region.

Each of these terms is defined very broadly by the Clean Water Act, as decades of litigation have resulted in a cautious approach.

If you’re not sure whether something qualifies as a pollutant, point source, or water of the United States, assume it does until you can confirm it.

Pollutant

A pollutant is “any type of industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water,” according to the EPA. Nearly anything you can think of can count as a pollutant — including some that aren’t obvious, such as soil, heat, and sand.

Point source

A point source is “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance,” per the EPA, which is a fancy way of saying “the part where the waste comes out.” Pipes, ditches, channels, conduits, etc. count as point sources.

Water of the United States

A water of the United States, according to the EPA, is any “navigable waters, tributaries to navigable waters, interstate waters, the oceans out to 200 miles, and intrastate waters which are used: 

    • by interstate travelers for recreation or other purposes, as a source of fish or shellfish sold in interstate commerce
    • or for industrial purposes by industries engaged in interstate commerce.”

How Are Permits Issued?

Organizations apply for a permit through their state’s environmental regulatory agency or their regional EPA contact using the forms on the EPA’s NPDES portal

Who to apply to depends on the status of NPDES programs in your state or territory. If your state is partially authorized or unauthorized according to the map below, ask your regional EPA contact for guidance.

NPDES Program Authorizations as of July 2019

Permits are valid for five years. But that doesn’t mean you should file them away and forget about them. NPDES permits require regular upkeep to stay inside the bounds of the EPA’s guidelines. 

If your facility’s effluent output changes, for instance, you’ll need to update your permit.

What Does a Typical NPDES Permit Look Like?

NPDES permits can vary in appearance. State-issued permits might contain the logos of that state agency, for example. They might also use different terminology—for example, New York has its own version of NPDES called the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES). But each of these permits follow the same outline and use similar language. 

You can find digital copies of every federally-issued NPDES permit on the EPA website, and most state-issued permits are accessible through each state agency’s website. (California’s ​​State Water Resources Control Board makes all their permits available here, for example.)

The Main Parts of an NPDES Permit

All NPDES permits contain at least five sections:  

  1. A Cover Page including the name of the discharger, the permit number and the exact location of the discharge(s) and outfalls covered by the permit.
  2. Effluent Limitations laying out what pollutants the permit holder can discharge, how much and how often.
  3. Monitoring and Reporting Requirements that outline what the permit holder will do to stay compliant.
  4. Standard or General Conditions that apply to all NPDES permits and delineate the legal, administrative, and procedural requirements of the permit. 
  5. Special Conditions that might include additional monitoring activities, special studies, best management practices (BMPs), and compliance schedules.  

Here’s what you can expect to find in each one:

1. Cover Page

The permit cover page is a snapshot pf the most basic information about your NPDES permit, including:

  • the name of the discharger
  • the discharger’s address
  • a nine character NPDES permit number
  • the receiving waters
  • the exact location and coordinates of the discharge(s) and outfalls
  • when the permit comes into effect and expires

If you’re unsure whether the permit you’re looking at is up to date, the cover page should also have an Effective Date and an Expiration Date you can reference.

The cover page is usually followed by a schedule or list of submittals, which summarizes which reports you’ll have to submit to stay compliant, including Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs); applications for permit renewal; and noncompliance reports.

2. Effluent Limitations

Effluent refers to the pollutants that remain in wastewater after it’s discharged to surface waters. This is the most important part of your permit—it’s the reason it exists. 

There are two categories of limits to know about:

  • Technology-based effluent limits are minimum standards that broad categories of facilities must meet.
  • Water quality-based effluent limits (WQBELs) are in place to deal with pollutant concerns in a specific body of water due to the specific pollutant being discharged.

WQBELs are usually in place in small streams with little flow, waters that are very close to violating water quality standards, or waters with very few pollutants that regulators feel should be protected. 

Effluent limits themselves are defined using the following terms:

  • Load limits refer to the total amount of pollutant allowed per day, usually in lbs.
  • Concentration limits refer to the amount of a particular pollutant that is allowed in a volume of water discharged, usually in milligrams per liter (mg/l) or parts per million (ppm).
  • Monthly or 30-day average refers to the amount of pollutant you can release per day, over a monthly period.
  • Weekly average means the same thing — but weekly.
  • Daily maximum is the highest total amount of a pollutant you can release per day.

Allowable wastewater flow

The average (design average flow) and maximum (design maximum flow) number of millions of gallons per day (MGD) of wastewater that your facility can discharge may be listed on your permit in this section.

Effluent limits are usually recorded in table form, with effluents in the leftmost column and limits on the right.

The Effluent Limit table on Page 5 of the NPDES permit for the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant in King County, Washington, for example, lists five parameters: Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Total Suspended Solids (TSS), Total Residual Chlorine, pH and Fecal Coliform Bacteria.

Effluent Limits in an NPDES permit for the Brightwater Treatment Plant in King County, Washington State

3. Monitoring and Reporting Requirements

This section lays out what kinds of samples must be taken and how often they must be reported. Some key terms to look out for here include:

Sample frequency

Your permit will let you know whether you must obtain samples daily, weekly, or monthly

Sample type

  • Continuous samples are taken constantly.
  • Grab samples are taken at a specific time not exceeding 15 minutes.
  • Composite samples are collected over time by continuous sampling or by mixing grab samples.

Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) testing

Some permits will require WET testing, which measures the chronic and acute toxicity of the effluent as a whole—instead of just the concentration of each pollutant.

Instream monitoring

Some permits will require you to monitor not just the output of your effluent, but its impacts. This could include surveying sea life for health, sampling upstream and downstream, and more.

Stormwater contamination control

Municipal operators are often required to plan for stormwater runoff — including how effluent will change, where the stormwater will go, and a detailed sitemap.

Municipal pretreatment

Municipal sewage plants will often have to spell out their pretreatment program. If your facility discharges more than 5 million gallons per day, you probably have one such program.

4. General Conditions

This is an all-inclusive housekeeping-type section that includes when the permit holder must reapply for a new NPDES permit, when the facility can be inspected, and how to comply with state-specific laws.

It also deals with how the permit holder can navigate noncompliance, including their responsibilities and penalties for breaking rules. And it also lays out when, where, and how the permit holder must send notice to the authority for changes to their facility.

5. Special Conditions

This section outlines everything the permit holder needs to do to remain compliant outside of sticking to the effluent limitations outlined in the previous section. This might include:

Additional monitoring and special studies

This includes any sampling or testing that supplements or goes beyond regular monitoring. Treatability studies, toxicity identification evaluations, mixing or mixing zone studies, sediment monitoring, and bioaccumulation studies will all be referenced here.

Best management practices (BMPs)

These are any specific activities or prohibited practices your facility must adhere to, maintenance procedures it will have to follow, treatment requirements, and operating procedures to control things like spillage or leaks.

Compliance schedules

Some permits may include a schedule that provides the permit holder with more time to fix issues identified with their facility in the past. Examples include construction and inspection dates, pretreatment program development, and sludge disposal program implementation.

Common Mistakes People Make When Reading an NPDES Permit

These permits are often dozens of pages long and contain a lot of confusing jargon. There are any number of mistakes one can make while reading through it. But the most common ones tend to fall under the following categories:

1. Ignoring State-Specific Rules

Make sure you’re interpreting your permit based on the rules in your state, since they vary. These are usually outlined in the “General Conditions” section.

For instance, some states list a design maximum and design average flow of wastewater in MGD — though many don’t. Some states define the weekly average as going through Sunday to Saturday, while others define it as Monday through Sunday.

If you’re ever unsure about a part of your NPDES permit, seek out your state’s specific NPDES guidance documents or call your local authority for clarity.

2. Reading the Wrong Permit

Make sure you’re reading the most up-to-date permit available by checking the cover page for the Effective and Expiration dates of the permit.

Your organization may have altered its NPDES permit recently and it can do so at any time. 

Permits can be changed or updated when a wastewater treatment facility expands, changes ownership, updates its pollution control technology, or for many other reasons.

Permits will also be re-issued after they expire. But new permits are not always the same as the expired ones. 

You should receive a fact sheet along with your NPDES permit. That sheet should outline the changes. But don’t count on it — call your authority and ask to make sure.

3. Misinterpreting Sampling Requirements

The type and method of sampling will vary greatly from permit to permit. 

Know the difference between continuous, grab, and composite samples. Know what you’re sampling for. And know whether you’ll have to do WET testing, instream monitoring, or any of the other requirements listed above.

Remember, your permit will tell you whether you have to monitor your pollution output based on daily, weekly, or monthly averages.

4. Ignoring Additional Reporting Requirements

Every NPDES permit is different, and every wastewater facility is also different. Even if you’ve worked with other NPDES permits in the past, it pays to make sure you’re aware of all the rules and requirements that might be specific to your facility or organization.

How a Good Permit Management System Can Help

If navigating an NPDES permit itself wasn’t difficult enough, keeping track of all the additional paperwork involved in NPDES compliance—including Notices of Intent (NOIs), Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Program Reports, annual reports, and so on—can be downright frustrating. 

And it only gets worse when multiple staff members at your organization need access to that information. 

With all of that paperwork swirling around, the risk of making compliance decisions based on outdated permit information skyrockets.

That’s why in addition to making sure staff are able to read and understand them, it’s crucial that organizations store all of their permit documentation and related correspondence in a single, centralized permit management system that allows team members to:

  • Keep track of and set alerts for important permit-related deadlines
  • Generate permit reports automatically
  • Break down silos and make reliable permit information available across departments
  • Prevent lost, duplicate or outdated documentation

Eliminate Permit Confusion With Klir

Klir is a single, unified operating system for water, pulling every aspect of wastewater management—including compliance, sampling, reporting and more—into an easy to use dashboard. 

Learn more about how Klir can help your organization manage permits, cut down on administration and record-keeping work, and provide a level of organization-wide visibility unmatched by other systems.

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