Cleaning Up Hazardous Chemicals In Drinking Water

By Rebecca Melnitsky

April 4, 2023

Cleaning Up Hazardous Chemicals In Drinking Water


By Rebecca Melnitsky

Long-lasting chemicals are damaging the environment, but federal and state regulators are attempting to undo the harm.

New standards and regulations for contamination mitigation were the topic of a recent Continuing Legal Education course hosted by the Environmental and Energy Law Section of the New York State Bar Association.

The featured speakers were Kieran McCarthy, a senior attorney in the Remediation Bureau, Brownfields and Superfund Section of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Mark Williams, managing geologist at C.T. Male. Nicholas Rigano, program chair for the Environmental and Energy Law Section, moderated the discussion.

What Are PFAS?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are part of a class of chemicals  known as PFAS. These chemicals are commonly used to create products that resist water, stains and heat – including shampoo bottles, food packaging, umbrellas and nonstick cookware.

“PFAS was developed in the 1930s and 1940s and was produced in the 1950s,” said Williams. “It’s used in a wide variety of products and applications. The unique chemical and physical properties of PFAS serve as the foundation for its use. But coincidentally, its biopersistence in the environment and associated impacts to human health are also due to the unique chemical and physical properties.”

Known as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down, PFAS have been found in drinking water, soil, and areas far from human civilization. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to certain cancers, developmental delays in children, damage to the liver and immune system and other negative health effects.

“Although phase outs of certain and select PFAS-containing products have been initiated since 2000, it takes a bit of due diligence to make sure that products that are supposedly non-PFAS-containing are truly PFAS-free,” said Williams.

There are over 9,000 PFAS chemicals.

Changing Federal And State Regulations

“[PFAS] is on a lot of environmental practitioners’ minds,” said Rigano. “Particularly in light of the fact that standards continue to be proposed, promulgated and changed.”

On March 14, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed to lower legally enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels to 4 parts per trillion for six PFAS in drinking water, with the goal of zero parts per trillion. The previous standard was 70 parts per trillion.

“The EPA is really taking a serious look at PFAS contamination,” said McCarthy. “It’s really going really low with its numbers, and we’re going to see how that plays out.”

Last year, the EPA also proposed to designate two of the most widely used PFAS as hazardous substances for Superfund sites. If this rule is finalized, the Department of Environmental Conservation will be able to seek cost recovery for remedial work related to PFAS contamination, and private entities may also get funds contributed for cleanup efforts.

In New York State, the Division of Water recently finalized guidance for PFAS and another contaminant, 1,4-Dioxane. These guidelines are similar to the EPA’s proposed Maximum Contaminant Levels.

“They provide an extra margin of safety against the potential buildup of these contaminants,” said McCarthy. He added that these guidelines are stricter because they are only based on risk, while the state Department of Health also considers cost-benefit analysis and treatability.

McCarthy pointed to proposed additional funding to help municipalities with mitigating PFAS contamination, but this is contingent on the New York State budget, which has not yet passed the Legislature.

“Something that I want to stress is that this is just an ever-evolving world of science,” said McCarthy. “We’re getting new information continuously. We’re hoping to be flexible going forward to try and address these matters to protect the environment.”

The CLE is available on demand.

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