The California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) has issued an Order to approximately 160 bulk fuel storage terminals and refineries in California requiring implementation of a PFAS site investigation.  The State Water Board identified the recipients of the Order on the basis that they had stored and/or used materials that may contain PFAS such as AFFF for fire suppression, fire training, and flammable vapor suppression.  In addition, the Order notes that petroleum-product storage tanks may use a floating layer of cereal grains treated with PFAS on top of the liquid surface to reduce evaporation loss, and facilities storing hydrocarbon fuels may prevent evaporation through use of an aqueous layer containing PFAS.

The recipients of the Order are required to identify the areas where PFAS-containing materials were stored, used and/or disposed, and implement an investigation of soil and groundwater in those areas in addition to sampling of stormwater and wastewater treatment plant influent and effluent where applicable.  Work Plans were due by June 2, 2021.  California has drinking water notification levels for PFOA of 5.1 ppt and PFOS of 6.5 ppt and response levels for PFOA of 10 ppt and PFOS of 40 ppt.

According to the State Water Board, the Order to bulk fuel storage terminals and refineries to conduct a PFAS site investigation is part of a statewide effort to evaluate PFAS groundwater and surface water impacts and to obtain a preliminary understanding of PFAS concentrations at facilities across the state.  The State Water Board has previously directed other dischargers identified as potential PFAS sources to perform PFAS testing. California is assembling a database of PFAS results from a variety of sources statewide that currently includes data from water system wells, military cleanup sites, other cleanup program sites, airports, industrial facilities, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants.

The results of the PFAS investigations at the bulk terminals and refineries should provide interesting data on the extent and variability of PFAS contamination from AFFF and the other PFAS-containing materials handled at these bulk terminals and refineries. The data could also identify other sites not within the scope of the Order that are a source of PFAS.  It remains to be seen whether other states will follow California’s lead and require state-wide PFAS investigations at bulk terminals, refineries and other sites suspected to be sources of PFAS.

On March 24, 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) announced that it issued an National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to the Biddle Air National Guard Base (ANGB) (formerly the Horsham Air Guard Station) containing discharge limits of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the combined concentration of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), two common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).  The permit authorizes the discharge of treated stormwater and groundwater from the site.  The site has long been the subject of investigation for volatile organic compounds.  In mid-2014, PFOA and PFOS were also found in drinking water wells near the site, and the Navy and Air National Guard, under United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) oversight, continue to investigate PFAS in groundwater at and near the site.

This imposition of discharge limits is notable because PADEP has not yet promulgated a water quality standard for any PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, and has not established effluent limits to achieve any such standard.  Based on its 2021 regulatory agenda, it is not clear whether DEP intends to promulgate any standard this year.  Under typical circumstances, a PADEP NPDES permit incorporates effluent limitations for specific parameters promulgated under Chapter 93 of PADEP regulations.

PADEP permits may also incorporate a general “narrative” criteria, which require that water not contain concentrations or amounts of substances sufficient to be “inimical or harmful” to the water uses to be protected or to human, animal, plant, or aquatic life. 25 Pa. Code § 93.6. The narrative criteria are often applied to floating materials, such as oil, grease, and scum.

Here, absent a promulgated water quality standard for either PFOA or PFOS, PADEP explained in its permit fact sheet that it relied on the general narrative water quality regulatory criteria to justify its PFOA and PFOS discharge limits in the ANGB NPDES permit.  Per section 93.6(b), “specific substances to be controlled include, but are not limited to, floating materials….”  25 Pa. Code § 93.6(b).  Here the narrative criteria are being used to set effluent limits for specific pollutants for which DEP has not yet promulgated an effluent standard.

The Horsham Air Guard Station appealed the Department’s NPDES issuance.  We will monitor that case as it progresses before the Environmental Hearing Board.

The march toward regulation of PFAS in Pennsylvania continues (see our recent post on statewide public water system sampling results), with the release of final data from sampling conducted in September 2019 of surface waters throughout the Commonwealth.  The study, a collaboration among the U.S. Geological Service (“USGS”), the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“PADEP”), collected and analyzed over 200 grab samples collected from 178 PADEP Water Quality Network station locations, as well as passive samples collected at 18 locations over a period of about one month.  The results reflect raw surface water concentrations for a set of 33 PFAS chemicals, including PFOA, PFOS, and PFBS, plus 19 oxidizable PFAS precursors.

According to the sampling results, Total PFOS+PFOA generally fell within a range of non-detect to 34 parts per trillion (“ppt”) in grab samples; for comparison’s sake, the U.S. EPA’s current health advisory level, or HAL, for Total PFOS+PFOA in drinking water is 70 ppt.  One passive sample, collected at a location in Neshaminy Creek, exceeded the EPA drinking water HAL for PFOA+PFOS, coming in at 212 ppt.

In its summary of the results, PADEP notes distinctions between its raw surface water sampling analysis and analysis in finished drinking water (aside from the fact that finished drinking water has had some treatment to remove contaminants, PADEP points out that the lab analytical method for PFAS differs for raw surface water and drinking water).  However, the agency’s summary also posits that the results illustrate the sensitivity of the passive sampling method and its ability to detect chemicals that grab sample analysis might miss.

Stay tuned for more, as results from follow-up monthly sampling are still to come. But the identification of the presence of various PFAS chemicals in surface waters throughout Pennsylvania, even at levels below the EPA’s HAL, could be another line of evidence that PADEP relies upon to support the development of PFAS regulatory standards in multiple media.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is expanding its review of potential substances to add to its Proposition 65 list of chemicals that cause cancer.

Earlier this year, the state announced it intended to add perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) to the list. After the public comment periods ended for those two substances, OEHHA announced it also intended to add four other chemicals: PFDA, PFHxS, PFNA, and PFUnDA.

The chemicals will be reviewed by two different committees of OEHHA’s Science Advisory Board.

What does this mean?

The chemicals in question are considered perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and are already on California’s list of chemicals believed to cause reproductive harm. The proposed addition of the chemicals to the cancer list could have significant implications for businesses doing business in California, though.

For years, we have seen law firms and environmental groups actively pursue Prop 65 notice violations under the “private Attorney General” provisions of the enabling statute that allows private individuals to seek enforcement.

To avoid the costs and publicity of such an action, companies should proactively consult with counsel to determine what steps they may want to take.

What are these chemicals?

Previously referred to as perfluorochemicals (PFCs), they are man-made chemicals that may affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function and the immune system, according to studies on laboratory animals cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The chemicals were used to coat products that need to resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. They were commonly found on clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and the insulation of electrical wire.

Though these chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still sold internationally and may be in products that are sold in California.

What is Prop 65?

Also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Prop 65 requires businesses to warn Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The state regularly updates the list.

What is next?

It will likely take up to a year for state officials to review all of the new chemicals. If the substances are listed, Prop 65 notices will be required on the products containing the chemicals in addition to prior reproductive toxicity warnings.  Companies should consider their supply chain now and determine whether any disclosures are necessary. If so, recent changes in the form of Prop 65 disclosures need to be considered. Additionally, companies may wish to provide input into the consideration of the chemicals.

On March 12, 2021 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“PADEP”) announced the results of the second round of testing public water systems for PFAS. PFAS were not detected in 65% of the 114 water systems sampled and none of the results were above the U.S. EPA Health Advisory Level (“HAL”) of 70 ppt for the combination of PFOS and PFOA. PFOA was detected up to 59.6 ppt in Berks County, PFOS was detected up to 13.9 ppt in Montgomery County and PFNA was detected up to 18.1 ppt in Bucks County.

PADEP identified more than 400 drinking water samples from the approximately 8,400 public water systems in the state for PFAS sampling. These water systems were targeted based on their location within a half mile of potential PFAS sources such as military bases, fire training sites, landfills and manufacturing facilities. PADEP will also sample approximately 40 public water systems that are not located within a half mile of a potential PFAS source in order to establish a baseline.

The statewide sampling program is the result of Pennsylvania’s 2019 PFAS Action Plan, which recommended the collection of statewide occurrence data to support the development of a Maximum Contaminant Level (“MCL”) for drinking water in Pennsylvania. PADEP has begun the process of setting a MCL for PFAS, and if completed, it will be the first time that PADEP has set an MCL rather than adopting the standard established by the federal government.

In the March 3, 2021 Federal Register, EPA issued its final regulatory determinations for substances on the fourth Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List (“CCL 4”). Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA is required to publish a list every five years of chemicals that are known or suspected to be found in public drinking water systems and are not currently subject to EPA drinking water regulations. As part of the process, EPA must also select five or more contaminants from the CCL and determine whether or not to regulate them. These final regulatory determinations then factor into the six-year review process for EPA’s national primary drinking water regulations. For the CCL 4, EPA has made final determinations to regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The next step will be for EPA to develop national primary drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS, which will impose binding standards nationwide where currently only an advisory level exists (70 parts per trillion combined for PFOA and PFOS).

Separately but relatedly, the revised proposed fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (“UCMR 5”) was published in the Federal Register on March 11, 2021 at Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2020-0530. UCMR 5, as proposed and revised, would require sample collection for 30 chemical contaminants – lithium and 29 PFAS chemicals – in drinking water between 2023 and 2025 using analytical methods developed by EPA and consensus organizations. The proposed action is intended to provide EPA, states, and communities with scientifically valid occurrence data on a national basis for these contaminants in drinking water – that is, how frequently the listed chemicals are found in drinking water systems and at what concentrations. The primary significance of the revisions to the proposed rule is the addition of 23 PFAS chemicals to the originally proposed six listed PFAS chemicals.

Viewed in combination, the two issuances are another step in EPA’s journey toward setting national binding regulatory levels for PFAS in drinking water. Further, the expansion of the UCMR to include a total of 29 PFAS substances may be indicative of an interest in exploring the possibility of future category-wide limits, as compared to individual limits on a smaller suite of PFAS compounds.

EPA is accepting public comments on the proposed UCMR 5 rule until May 10, 2021 at Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2020-0530 via the portal, or by mail or hand delivery. (Note that the published proposed rule states that comments on the information collection provisions of the proposed rule that are received on or before April 12, 2021, are “best assured of consideration.”) Moreover, EPA will hold two virtual public meetings via webinar to discuss the revised proposed rule, on April 6 and 7, 2021. Links to register for the webinars can be found here, where parties can also indicate their interest in offering a public statement of up to ten minutes in length (although formal comments must be submitted to the docket). EPA notes that capacity for the webinars is limited, so registration is first-come-first-served; additional webinars may be scheduled if stakeholder interest warrants.

On January 14, 2021, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) filed suit against the United States to compel the United States to address immediately contamination of New Jersey groundwater with PFOA and PFOS from facilities owned or operated by the United States. The suit, which was brought pursuant to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (“SWDA”) and the New Jersey Safe Drinking Water Act (NJSWDA”), alleges that the use of AFFF at federal facilities caused the contamination, which presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to drinking water supplies in New Jersey. NJDEP seeks injunctive relief ordering the United States to control the source of PFOS and PFOA, to remediate the PFOS and PFOA, to provide alternate water supplies, and to conduct medical monitoring for New Jersey residents who have been exposed. NJDEP also seeks recovery of its reasonable costs for investigation and remediation of the PFOA and PFOS contamination above New Jersey drinking water standards. New Jersey drinking water standards for PFOS (13 ppt) and PFOA (14 ppt) are considerably lower than EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory level (“HAL”) of 70 ppt.

The complaint asserts that in the case of an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health where the United States has caused or contributed to the endangerment, NJDEP has the authority to institute an action against the United States because NJDEP has primary enforcement authority under the SDWA and the SDWA includes a provision requiring federal agencies to comply with all requirements of the SDWA pertaining to public water systems. The complaint further alleges that under the savings provision of the NJSWDA, federal sovereign immunity is waived and NJDEP has the authority to file an action for private wells.

The complaint focuses on the use of AFFF at Department of Defense operations at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (“JBMDL”), Naval Weapons Station Earle, and Naval Air Warfare Center Trenton noting that “a single firefighting training event can release thousands of gallons of foam-laced water into the environment” and “decades of AFFF use throughout JBMDL has demonstrably contaminated groundwater on and around the joint base.” The complaint alleges that the United States failed to take sufficient action to protect off-site drinking water supplies near JBMDL, which forced NJDEP to conduct its own sampling and provide an alternate water supply for off-site residents. Further, the complaint alleges that the United States had not taken any action to address contamination in off-site private wells down-gradient of Naval Weapons Station Earle that exceed the New Jersey drinking water standards but do not exceed the EPA HAL.

The complaint was filed in the AFFF Multi-District Litigation in federal court in South Carolina, but NJDEP did not waive its designated home venue of New Jersey, thus preserving its ability to challenge venue at a later time.

We’ve discussed in our previous posts the process that EPA will likely use to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances,” how that designation will impact responsible parties, and what effects it may have on current EPA-lead investigations and remediations. In this article we discuss how the process may impact states that are also addressing PFAS. Many states have “superfund” laws modelled on CERCLA that allow those states to respond to contamination and to seek cost recovery from responsible parties for a release of a “hazardous substance” into the environment.

State Implications

Many state “superfund” regimes rely on CERCLA for formal “hazardous substance” designations and define a “hazardous substance” to automatically incorporate, among other things, substances designated by EPA as hazardous substances.

Accordingly, an EPA designation of PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances is likely to have ripple effects in states where analogous superfund statutes adopt EPA’s hazardous substance list. Below are three examples of state statutory provisions that could lead to further state actions following an EPA designation:

  • Section 103 of the Pennsylvania Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (35 P.S. § 6020.103) defines a “hazardous substance” to include those “defined or designated as a hazardous substance pursuant to the Federal Superfund Act.”
  • Section 58:10-23.11b of the New Jersey Spill Act defines a “hazardous substance” to include “the list of hazardous substances adopted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency pursuant to section 101 of the ‘Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980,’ Pub.L.96-510 (42 U.S.C. 9601 et seq).”

Section 9103 of the Delaware Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (7 Del.C. § 9103(25)) defines a “hazardous substance” to include “any hazardous substance as defined in CERCLA.”

In two of our previous posts, we discussed the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Hazardous Substance” Designation Process and the Implications of a Designation on Responsible Parties. Here, in this post, we discuss what a designation of PFOA and PFOS might mean for ongoing investigations and remediations lead by EPA.

Current EPA Interim Recommendations for CERCLA and RCRA Sites

EPA’s current interim policy, published December 19, 2019, provides guidance for a “risk-based” approach at sites where PFOA and PFOS groundwater contamination is being evaluated and addressed under federal cleanup programs, such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and corrective action under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). EPA states the following for sites with PFOA and/or PFOS contamination of groundwater that is a current or potential source of drinking water:

  • Sites should be screened using a groundwater screening level of 40 parts per trillion (ppt);
  • Where there is no adequately protective state Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) or applicable or relevant and appropriate requirement (ARAR), EPA recommends a “Preliminary Remediation Goal” for groundwater that is a current or potential source of drinking water of 70 ppt;
  • Where groundwater is currently being used for drinking water, EPA expects that parties address PFOA and PFOS levels that exceed 70 ppt.

EPA reiterates that its guidance is intended to be interim and would be revised upon the promulgation of a federal ARAR, such as a national drinking water standard for PFOA or PFOS.

Ongoing Investigations and Remediations

As EPA makes clear in its interim policy, efforts to investigate and address sites impacted by PFOA and PFOS are already underway. EPA also has the option of “re-opening” a site investigation to add PFOA or PFOS as a contaminant to be evaluated. Though EPA’s investigation and remedy selection authority is not limited to “hazardous substances,” EPA may use a formal designation of PFOA and PFOS as incentive to review its current Superfund site investigations and remedies.

EPA’s response and remedial actions are guided by regulations at 40 CFR Part 300 (the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan or more commonly the “NCP”). Generally, EPA develops a remedial investigation and feasibility study (RI/FS), remedy selection, and ultimately publishes a “record of decision” (ROD). Prior to adopting a ROD, EPA may alter its published remedy if new information becomes available that significantly changes its scope, performance, or cost of the remedy, per 40 CFR 300.430(f)(3)(ii).

EPA may also consider incorporating new “hazardous substances” during its required “5-Year Review” of each remedy under 40 CFR 300.430(f)(4). During this “review” process, EPA will review the implementation and performance of its selected remedy in order to assess whether it is protective of human health and the environment. In addition to the 5-Year Review process, EPA can change a remedy through publication of an “Explanation of Significant Difference” section 117(c) of CERCLA (42 U.S.C. § 9617(c)) and EPA may propose an amendment to the ROD if there are changes that fundamentally alter the basic features of the original remedy with respect to scope, performance or cost (40 CFR 300.435(c)(2)). EPA could pursue either of these approaches at sites where PFOA or PFOS are discovered, particularly if the PFOA and/or PFOS contamination affects a current or potential source of drinking water.