IDEM Reviewing EPA Recommendation to Consider “Forever Chemical” Discharges in Water Permitting

December 21, 2022

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it was reviewing federal guidance asking states to consider discharges of PFAS “forever chemicals” and other PFAS pretreatment and monitoring provisions in state water permits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a memorandum to states on how best to use Clean Water Act provisions to protect the public. Guidelines include using state-managed National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits to reduce PFAS pollution allowed into waterways, and using the most current sampling and analysis methods and pretreatment to identify PFAS sources.

“EPA is following through on its commitment to empower states and communities across the nation to address known or suspected discharges of PFAS,” said EPA assistant administrator for water Radhika Fox. “Today’s action builds upon successful and innovative efforts already used by several states to safeguard communities by using our Clean Water Act permitting program to identify and reduce sources of PFAS pollution before they enter our waters.”

PFAS chemicals are a family of thousands of manmade chemicals used since the 1940s to manufacture products that are resistant to heat, water, grease and stains.

One of the first PFAS chemicals, PTFE, was the only material corrosion-proof enough to be used in seals and gaskets to make weapons-grade uranium during the Manhattan Project.

PTFE would later be marketed for civilian use as Teflon. Offshoot PFAS chemicals like PFOA and PFOS were marketed as Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex and other name brand products and were used in essential products, like firefighting foam used to put out fires caused by gasoline, foam or jet fuel.

More than 9,000 PFAS chemicals exist, but only a few have been studied extensively. Those that have been studied thoroughly, like PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to serious health issues, like an increased risk of developing kidney or testicular cancer, liver and kidney damage, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure, decreased vaccine response in children and others.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence, meaning they remain in the environment without breaking down long after they are used. The chemicals have been found in the blood of 97% of Americans and stay in the human body for at least five years after they enter.

PFAS chemicals have been found nearly everywhere in the environment, from Mount Everest snow to Antarctic rainfall and even the oceans separating their respective continents.

The EPA’s new guidance asks states use the NPDES permitting program to test wastewater for PFAS before allowing it to be discharged into waterways and, potentially, in the drinking water of thousands of Hoosiers.

IDEM sampling has found PFAS chemicals in the treated tap water of 10 medium-sized public water systems serving communities in Indiana, and more water systems could have similar contamination.

The sampling is part of an effort by IDEM to test all community water systems in Indiana for 18 PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS. The first phase of the initiative targeted medium-sized water systems serving between 3,300 and 10,000 customers. The agency is currently on the last month of its second phase, targeting the state’s smallest water systems. It will look at the largest water systems in 2023.

There are currently no standards on the amount of PFAS chemicals present in drinking water, except for drinking water lifetime health advisories for PFOA and PFOS and its replacements, GenX and PFBS. The advisories are nonenforceable, but serve as guidelines for state and tribal agencies. Any amount of the four PFAS beyond the level set by the advisories is considered “unsafe” for humans in drinking water and other potential sources of exposure.

IDEM testing found PFOA in drinking water from Indiana American Water-Charlestown, Rural Membership Water Corp. of Clark County, North Manchester Water Department and Tennyson Water Utility at levels beyond the EPA’s lifetime health advisory. Indiana American Water-Charlestown’s samples indicated PFOA at levels 1,575 times the EPA advisory.

Testing also found PFOS beyond the EPA’s advisory in drinking water provided by Rural Membership Water Corp. of Clark County and finished and purchased water from Tennyson Water Utility. RMWC of Clark County samples were 125 times the EPA advisory for PFOS.

IDEM sampling did not detect high levels of GenX or PFBS in treated drinking water from any of the mid-sized water systems, but 11 water systems failed to report any GenX results.

The agency’s sampling also found PFOA and other PFAS chemicals in the untreated water of more than a dozen other water systems, potentially indicating the presence of upstream PFAS sources.

The second phase of IDEM’s PFAS sampling will end this month, but the agency has not said it will release those results.

IDEM told the Indiana Environmental Reporter in July that it would consider further investigation of the sources of PFAS contamination for sampling results above the EPA’s health advisory or IDEM action levels for certain PFAS. It is unclear whether IDEM has investigated any of the water systems in the sampling event.

The agency has few options to prevent PFAS pollution, as a lack of state and federal regulation mainly limits the agency to response actions.

State lawmakers have refused to consider most proposed legislation targeting PFAS contamination except for a 2020 bill preventing the use of PFAS firefighting foam during training except under certain conditions.

Indiana’s elected officials in the federal government have also worked to defeat PFAS legislation in the past, citing increased burdens on medical device manufacturers and a general dislike of federal attempts at problem-solving.

According to the EPA guidance, states may choose to monitor the levels of PFAS in sewage sludge across publicly owned treatment plants and then consider mechanisms under agency’s pretreatment program to prevent the introduction of PFAS to water systems based on the monitoring results.

The agency said it was reviewing the EPA’s recommendations.

The new EPA guidance is part of the Biden administration’s attempt to prevent and reduce PFAS pollution.

In the past year, the administration has updated the lifetime health advisories for four PFAS chemicals, introduced a rule that would expand PFAS reporting and cleanup by designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law, authorized billions of dollars in grants to communities suffering from PFAS contamination and submitted a proposal to set a national drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS.

IDEM Reviewing EPA Recommendation to Consider “Forever Chemical” Discharges in Water Permitting