At least 2,500 industrial facilities across the nation could be discharging the toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS into the air and water, according to an updated EWG analysis of government data. But one state has seen substantial drops in industrial PFAS discharges: Michigan. Now other states are learning from Michigan’s success.
How did Michigan reduce PFAS releases from electroplaters, paper factories and other polluters?
Michigan set water quality standards for PFOA and PFOS, the two most notorious PFAS compounds, for discharges into drinking water supplies. State law prohibits releases from wastewater utilities of more than 420 parts per trillion, or ppt, for PFOA and 11 ppt for PFOS.
In 2018, state officials required many wastewater treatment plants to determine whether they were receiving PFOA and PFOS, and ultimately discharging the chemicals into rivers and lakes. So far, 68 of the 95 wastewater treatment plants identified by state officials either have no upstream industrial source of PFAS pollution or have industrial sources that discharge PFAS at amounts too low to violate state water quality standards.
Source: Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality
But in several cases, wastewater treatment plant operators worked with industrial polluters to make substantial reductions in discharges in PFOS. Treatment plant operators in Belding, Bronson, Detroit, Howell, Iona, Kalamazoo, Lapeer and Wixom with upstream polluters to reduce discharges by anywhere from 49 percent to 99 percent, according to state records reviewed by EWG.
Many of those facilities are electroplating companies, which use PFAS to reduce hexavalent chromium vapors during manufacturing. Other companies discharging PFAS in Michigan include chemical manufacturers, plastics makers, auto parts manufacturers, aviation component manufacturers and foundries, among others.
EWG used records from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to identify PFAS dischargers who were suspected of causing wastewater utilities to exceed state water quality standards for PFOS. Among the suspected industrial dischargers identified by the state were General Motors, Ford, Bayer Crop Science, International Paper and BASF.
In most cases, industrial polluters installed carbon filters to reduce the amount of PFAS being sent to water treatment operators, records show. In some cases, the polluter treated the PFAS-contaminated wastewater before it was sent to the treatment plant. The costs were paid by the –industrial polluters, not the wastewater treatment plants.
Despite these reductions, several wastewater plants still reported releases above the standard set by the state. For now, the permits issued to treatment plant operators will not have limits on PFOA and PFOS discharges. That will change in the next year, when state permits will include strict limits if water quality standards are not being met. So far, wastewater utilities will only have to report PFOA and PFOS detections, but will have to test for dozens of different PFAS.
Currently there are no restrictions on industrial PFAS discharges under the federal Clean Water Act. In many communities, industrial discharges are the most significant source of PFAS pollution entering drinking water supplies. In January, the House passed the PFAS Action Act (H.R. 535), which would, among other things, establish deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to determine how to regulate industrial discharges of PFAS under the Clean Water Act.
The PFAS Action Act would:
- Require the EPA to establish effluent limitation and pretreatment standards for PFAS for priority industry categories, such as chemical companies, paper mills and textile mills within four years.
- Ensure that those priority industries obtain a permit before discharging PFAS.
- Ensure that those priority industries pretreat their PFAS waste before sending it to a publicly owned sewage treatment plant.
- Prohibit indirect discharges of industrial PFAS into municipal wastewater treatment plants without advance notice.
A similar version of these provisions has been championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) and Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.).
Overall, more than 2,500 industrial facilities across the nation could be discharging the toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS into the air and water, according to EWG’s analysis of government data. EWG reviewed online databases from the EPA, as well as data from a survey by the State of New York. This estimate does not include the 446 public water systems known to be contaminated with PFAS or the 678 military installations with known or suspected PFAS contamination.
Until recently, chemical companies have not been required to report industrial releases of PFAS through the federal Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI. Of the industrial facilities known or suspected of using PFAS, EWG found that 2,467 are already reporting other toxic chemical releases through the TRI. Last year, Congress included a provision in must-pass legislation that will add 172 PFAS to the TRI, but that reporting will not start until next year.