EPA Releases Draft Recommendations for Groundwater Contaminated with PFOA and PFOS

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EPA Releases Draft Recommendations for Groundwater Contaminated with PFOA and PFOS

By: George Colvin, CPG, CHMM

On April 25, 2019, US EPA (EPA)  released, for public comment, draft recommendations for addressing  groundwater contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and/or perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS) under federal cleanup programs, including the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) and site-wide corrective action under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  Development and publication of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) groundwater cleanup guidance was identified in EPA’s February 2019 PFAS Action Plan as a priority action item for EPA. 

Broadly, the draft guidance provides interim recommendations for screening levels, and preliminary remediation goals (PRGs) to inform final cleanup levels for PFOA and/or PFOS contaminated groundwater that is a current or potential current source of drinking water.  Screening levels are conservative, typically risk-based levels used for the process of identifying and defining areas, contaminants, and conditions at a particular site that may warrant further evaluation.  Under CERCLA, RCRA and other regulatory programs, at sites where contaminant concentrations are below appropriate risk-based screening levels, no further action or study is generally warranted.  PRGs are initial targets for cleanup, which may be adjusted on a site-specific basis as more information becomes available.   

The guidance is poorly written and is, at best, confusing.  It is important to pay particular attention to the “ands” and “ors” when discussing PFOA and/or PFOS, and this document is no exception. From my read of the draft guidance, the recommendations are as follows (I have added the underlined text as emphasis):

  • Site screening should be conducted using a screening level set to a Hazard Quotient of 0.1 for PFOA or PFOS individually, which is currently 40 ng/L or parts per trillion (ppt);
  • Use of the EPA 2016 PFOA and PFOS health advisory of 70 ppt for the (combined concentration) of PFOA and PFOS as the PRG for groundwater that is a current or potential source of drinking water and where no state or tribal MCL or other applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements (ARARs) exist.
  • In situations where groundwater is being used for drinking water, EPA expects that responsible parties will address levels of PFOA and/or PFOS (individually or combined) over 70 ppt.

Missing from draft guidance is a CERCLA removal action level.  The removal action level is the level at which EPA would step in to take action without waiting for a responsible party to be identified and action by the responsible party to be taken.  As it turns out, a removal action level of 400 ppt (individual or combined) was included in the initial draft of the guidance but was removed prior to publishing the April 25 version for public comment.  A redline version of the original document is included in the regulatory docket.  The addition of RCRA Corrective Action to the discussion of federal cleanup programs to which the guidance would be applicable also appears to have been a late addition or afterthought.  The wholesale removal of the action level discussion as well as EPA’s effort to shoehorn RCRA Corrective Action into what started out as a CERCLA guidance document is clearly part of the reason for the confusion, but since when has that been a viable excuse?   

Due to the lack of federal leadership on the subject, some states have promulgated state-specific groundwater cleanup and drinking water standards for the compounds.  For these states, the guidance is likely to be considered too little too late.   Other states have taken more of a wait and see approach.  These states are just now likely wondering if the wait was worthwhile.   The draft document is open for public comment until June 10, 2019.  Submit your comments, identified by Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OLEM-2019-0229, at https://www.regulations.gov.

Published in Cox-Colvin’s May 2019 Focus on the Environment newsletter.

George H. Colvin is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of consulting experience. Much of his experience has focused on RCRA Corrective Action, RCRA closure, and groundwater investigation, monitoring, and cleanup. He holds a BS in Geology from Ohio University and MS in geology and hydrology from Vanderbilt University. He is a Certified Professional Geologist with the American Institute of Professional Geologists, a registered geologist in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager.