Guest Column | April 22, 2024

New Water Quality Standards Will Result In Billions Being Spent To Remediate PFAS Contamination


By Mary Scott Nabers

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Recently, the U.S. EPA announced long-awaited water quality standards outlining the maximum contaminant levels for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contaminants in drinking water. This marks the first time national standards for a new contaminant have been added to the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996. It represents, without doubt, an ominous alert that should be noted.

The new standard coincided with an announcement of $1 billion in federal funding in 2024 for projects designed to remediate PFAS from drinking water. Additionally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included a total of $9 billion through 2026 to address PFAS specifically, in addition to other funding for water infrastructure in general.

PFAS are harmful pollutants that currently contaminate the drinking water of an estimated 70 million to 94 million Americans. PFAS are also called forever chemicals because they have a uniquely resilient chemical composition that prevents them from breaking down over time. In other words, the contaminants must be removed or reduced because they do not disintegrate.

While exposure to PFAS can come from many places, contaminated drinking water is a common way people are exposed to PFAS. These substances are detrimental to health, and water systems have filed thousands of claims because of the contamination of water supplies. Nearly 600 cases have been settled for billions of dollars.

Addressing PFAS contamination in water throughout America is a very large task. One study conducted for the American Water Works Association estimated that the cost to meet the EPA’s proposed (and now official) standards would be over $3.8 billion annually.

Many funded water remediation projects are underway, and hundreds more are in the planning phases. Examples follow.

To tackle the issue of “forever chemicals” in Tampa’s drinking water, city officials plan to install a $200 million suspended ion exchange system at the Tippin Water Treatment Facility. The first of its kind in the U.S. and designed to be the most extensive suspended ion exchange (SIX) system in North America, the facility will use new technology that reduces PFAS levels and creates safer, cleaner drinking water. The level of PFAS contaminants in the city’s water supply currently ranges from the EPA’s new threshold to 1.5 times higher. The new SIX system is presently being designed to reduce these contamination levels. The final design will be completed in 2025 and construction will begin in the same year.

The Reno City Council approved an additional $70 million in funding to construct a new Advanced Purified Water Facility. The extra funding will be used to expand the project scope, which is currently in the design phase, including treatment for PFAS chemicals.

This $221 million effort in design will call for a new plant that will deploy water treatment technologies and be the first water purification and reuse project in Nevada. The treatment system will produce water that meets or exceeds state and federal standards. Seventy miles of pipeline will transport source water to the purification site. PFAS will then be removed using granular activated carbon filtration and the water will be disinfected further using ultraviolet light. Once purified, the water will be recharged into the groundwater reservoir and stored for future use. The project is in the design phase, and officials hope construction can begin in 2025.

The city of Hastings, Minnesota, will construct three new water treatment plants with the objective of limiting PFAS contamination. The new plants will cost approximately $68.9 million and deliver significantly safer levels of purified water. The PFAS and nitrate decentralized treatment systems will include granular activated carbon (GAC) technology. The project is in design, and that effort should be finalized soon. The bidding process for construction is slated for this summer, and city leaders in Hastings plan to construct a similar project each year for the next three years.

The city of Vancouver, Washington, has $15.7 million for a project to install a PFAS treatment system in its Water Station 14, where high levels of contaminants can be found. The water in this plant has consistently shown PFAS contaminant levels above the EPA’s new maximum levels. In the past, city officials have tried to mitigate PFAS by drawing water from wells with lower PFAS concentrations or by blending water from different sources to dilute contaminants. The new treatment system will have a 3,200 gallons per minute capacity to treat the water from three groundwater wells. One of the objectives is to create and test the process to see if it can succeed in other Vancouver water stations. The preliminary design phase will be completed this month. Construction should begin in late 2024 or early 2025.

The city of Blackstone, Massachusetts, will use $19.5 million to upgrade the Blackstone Water Treatment Plant to address emerging PFAS contamination. The current three-well system was initially constructed in 1944, and only two are still operational. The plan is to build a new treatment plant and replace all three wells. Currently, the city is evaluating filtration technologies. The finalized project will incorporate new utilities on the site and adjacent streets, add a backup power source, and install a new water storage tank.

The design process is underway, and final design plans are expected to be completed in June this year. The city has planned for construction to begin in 2025.

The city of Woodbury, Minnesota, has been working to improve its water quality after it won a legal settlement in 2018 concerning the contamination of its water with PFAS chemicals. In 2020, a temporary water treatment plant was built and then later expanded in 2022. Unfortunately, the city is currently facing health advisories due to PFAS affecting 9 out of 20 wells. Therefore, city leaders are now considering a new water treatment plant as a long-term solution to this problem. That cost has been estimated at approximately $19 million for what city leaders feel is necessary — a 32-MGD treatment plant.

The new water treatment plant project is currently in the planning stage and construction is slate for 2024.

These types of opportunities will continue for years because of the health risks associated with PFAS contamination. Companies interested in contracting should get involved locally as soon as possible.

As President and CEO of Strategic Partnerships, Inc., Mary Scott Nabers has decades of experience working in the public-private sector. A well-recognized expert in the P3 and government contracting fields, she is often asked to share her industry insights with top publications and through professional speaking engagements.