Biosolids Corner, July August September, 2022 Issue By Diane Garvey
PADEP Proposed Drinking Water Standards for PFAS Could Impact Biosolids Recycling
On February 26, 2022 the PA Bulletin published Proposed Drinking Water Standards for PFAS.
The proposed Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFOA is 14 ng/L (parts per trillion). The proposed PADEP MCL for PFOS is 18 ng/L. For simplicity sake, this article will refer to 14+18=32 ppt PFAS. The comment period closed on April 27, 2022. Initial compliance monitoring is proposed to begin January 1, 2024.
The following from Ned Beecher with edits by Diane Garvey
When a drinking water standard is set, it drives all further standards: groundwater, surface water, soils, effluents, and biosolids. Before adopting the drinking water standard, PA officials should be able to answer this question: where will these proposed drinking water standards drive the limits for wastewater, effluent, soils, and biosolids? Typically, states set the same standards for groundwater and drinking water. The MCLs for surface water and WRRF effluent could be slightly higher. The MCL for biosolids will most likely be set to protect groundwater to these stringent levels as well.
The goal of setting standards for PFAS should be to address the high-risk situations – the large military and industrial PFAS contamination sites, where it is reasonably cost-effective to reduce risks substantially. The standards should not reach into the ubiquitous, background levels of PFAS that come from decades of widespread consumer product uses, septic systems, and wastewater, etc. unless there is very strong evidence that even these low background levels cause serious human health impacts. This has not been demonstrated to date.
An equally important question: does PADEP have a full understanding of how many drinking water sources and how much surface and groundwater exceed the proposed standards in the state? Do they really know what “background” levels are? They may be surprised to find many thousands of wells and sites needing remediation. Is it even possible to address all of them, if the limits are set as proposed? At what cost?
What is the amount of risk reduction achieved from going to their new limits from the de facto standard that has been in use (the EPA Health Advisory levels of 70 ppt)? The difference between the proposed standards and the EPA’s 70 ppt – more than half - is dwarfed by the hundreds of times uncertainty and safety factors that are applied in the risk calculations. It is hard to believe there is enough data available to prove that an additional 38 ppt, which is equivalent to 38 seconds in 31,700 years, will have a significant human health impact.
Can PADEP show any harm from PFAS in the PA population, who have been living for decades with PFOA and PFOS in them at higher levels than today? The exposures we’ve all had are not new. People have had higher levels in blood for decades, and there is scant evidence of harm, except where very high exposures have happened around military and industrial PFAS contamination sites. How severe is this health risk at the very low – almost background – proposed for the drinking water standard? Have they done a comparison of risks? Where should limited dollars be spent on addressing health risks? The proposed standards would be in the top 10 lowest in the world - they would be in the company of mostly a few extreme Northeast states.
Setting standards sets public expectations and drives public fears. The public pressure in PA is understandable, partly because of the actions of bordering states. PA citizens and groups are pointing to the very low limits in other Northeast states and demanding action in PA. But it is a mirage to think that there is significant health risk reduction in the difference between <32 ppt and 70 ppt. PFAS are the only commonly-found contaminants of drinking water that are regulated in the parts per trillion. There are only a relatively few U. S. states that are jumping quickly to extremely low regulatory standards. Most states and other jurisdictions are using U. S. EPA advisory levels or other interim standards and letting scientific understanding and careful, nuanced policies develop further. And some jurisdictions, such as Michigan and Washington, are focusing on source control and phasing out inessential uses of PFAS. As leading PFAS researcher Dr. Linda Lee (Purdue University) stated at a MI WEA Biosolids Conference (Aug. 2020): “Let’s move fast to stop non-essential uses of PFAS. Then let’s work carefully and more slowly on research and balanced regulation.”
More information on how very stringent PFAS MCLs in drinking water will impact biosolids recycling can be found at the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association website; https://www.nebiosolids.org/pfas-biosolids
“Evaluation of Fate and Transport of PFAS Following Long-term Land Application of Biosolids” is the title of a proposed nationwide research project. The research will be led by University of Arizona Water Environment Technology Cooperative Research Center (The WET Center).
• Conduct a literature review of land application/PFAS studies, past and present to ensure
collaborations with, and extensions of, ongoing work and negation of duplicative research.
• At long-term biosolids land application sites representative of the major U. S. physiographic
regions and their soils;
- Measure PFAS in soil, groundwater, surface water, and plant tissues attributable
to long-term land application of biosolids
to long-term land application of biosolids
- Collect data relating to mobility (leaching and runoff / tile draining) of PFAS
through soil under natural conditions including the influence of
rainfall and/or irrigation, soil organic matter (SOM), etc.
- Collect additional data relating to crop uptake of PFAS in the
major crops grown on biosolids-
amended soils (grass hay, corn, soy, wheat, etc.)
• Utilize paired data sets of soil PFAS concentrations versus plant uptake.
These objectives would be evaluated over a variety of different
soils, depth to groundwater,
and climates, by studying land application plots nationally, across the entire United States, including
irrigated and non-irrigated soils.
Depth and breadth of dataset should be sufficient to support
and calibrate modeling of possible
groundwater and surface water contamination events and crop uptake of PFAS.
Contributions are being sought from WRRFs, businesses that serve WRRFs, non-profits and individuals. The overall goal is to evaluate whether or not land application of biosolids is a significant public health route of exposure to PFAS. The results could be very useful for the continuation of land application of biosolids.
All funds will be used for implementing the proposed national collaborative PFAS research project as outlined in the slide deck at this link:
Status on Pre Draft Biosolids Beneficial Use Permit Changes
Here is an update on stakeholders input as of April, 2022.
PADEP is continuing to meet with various groups to discuss the Pre Draft changes and solicit input. The following is a list of groups from which DEP has requested feedback.
- PWEA with the leadership of the Government Affairs Committee, submitted comments and these may be accessed on the PWEA website.
- PADEP Biosolids Stakeholders Workgroup- This includes municipalities, WRRFs, biosolids specialists, and representatives of PA Septage Management Association (PSMA), PA Municipal Authorities Association (PMAA), PWEA, PWEA Sections and MABA.
- MABA Commented on four key topics: PFAS, P-Index, Covered storage, and hauled in waste
- EPWPCOA commented on PFAS, covered storage, trucked in wastes, and Phosphorus Index on January 10. These comments are available on their web site. You may have to become a member to access them. Membership dues are $45 per year, what a great value!
Other individuals and organizations on the stakeholder’s workgroup are expected to comment by April 15, 2022.
- PADEP Agricultural Advisory Board (AAB) is currently discussing the P Index. A focus group was created including Peter Price of Synagro, Ned Lang of EnviroVentures, Diane Garvey, and members of the AAB. Jenn Weld, who works for Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, on development and implementation of the P Index says the current Version 2, referenced in the General Permit, is not ideally suited to fields amended with biosolids. Members of the committee were very interested in unintended consequences of the pre draft changes such as higher landfill prices, diminishing availability of local landfill space, increased greenhouse gases, higher sewer user fees, etc. There is no information regarding when they will submit comments.
- PADEP Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC) has not provided DEP any feedback as of this writing (mid April’22).
Other activities that may affect the outcome of the proposed changes include;
PA House Resolution HR 149 This is a resolution that directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) to study the costs and methods for biosolids beneficial use permit holders to comply with the proposed revisions to General Permit PAG-07 for Exceptional Quality Biosolids, General Permit PAG-08 for Non Exceptional Quality Biosolids, and General Permit PAG-09 for septage. HR 149 strongly urges DEP for a moratorium on revisions to these general permits until the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee studies the costs and reports its findings and conclusions to the House of Representatives. The resolution was passed by the Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy in December’21.
The LBFC unanimously resolved to complete the evaluation in 18 months. They will need input from municipalities on the costs and benefits of the pre draft changes. So if you are a WRRF or business that will be impacted by this, get your engineers and agronomists working on capital, operating and maintenance cost of a biosolids management option that does not rely on agricultural use. You can make a difference!
What Is a Biosolids Manager to Do?
As mentioned in the previous issue of Biosolids Corner, it’s important to start planning now.
- Plan on the cost of land application/landfill disposal to double or triple. The smaller plants will see the greatest % increase.
- If you have a multiple year contract for land application, be aware that the contractors will be legally justified to claim force majeure and either walk away from the contract or negotiate a higher cost.
- Try to lock in an agreement with a landfill or merchant biosolids processer to take all of your biosolids if necessary. Good luck with that!
- Consider out-of-state disposal or recycling keeping in mind that NJ, MD and DE have even more strict land application regulations. New York has very little excess capacity in existing landfills or merchant processing facilities, so plan to truck to Ohio. It is a 400 to 500 mile trip one way from eastern PA and trucking costs are estimated at $2600 per truckload.
- Hire an engineer to evaluate alternatives and estimate costs if land application is no longer feasible and local landfills do not have capacity. This information could be shared with the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee if your engineer’s evaluation of alternatives is done soon enough.
- Consider additional processing to produce a product that can be sold or given away. This product would have to be very low odor, dryer than sludge cake, stackable, be non-flammable, and safely stored without generating leachate, or poisonous gas.
- Consider buying a farm with low P soils and low soil loss. You would have to build covered storage and after biosolids is spread 5 to 6 times the soil phosphorus concentration will probably exceed 250 ppm. You could then sell it and buy another farm. I know that’s a little ridiculous but at this stage we are just brainstorming.
- Evaluate the possibility of storing the biosolids at the WRRF for 6 months. This could alleviate the requirement for covered storage at the farm. Considering the current shortage of trucks and drivers, you would also have to own a fleet of trucks and hire drivers to get the biosolids to the farm during the short time frame when fields can be spread. This would be after harvest, before the ground freezes, and in the spring after the fields are dry enough to allow spreading equipment on the fields.
- Budget for monitoring PFAS in your biosolids, the collection system, and discharges from PFAS generating sewer users. Estimate $700 per sample plus $1000 dollars per sampling event to collect the samples.
- Warn your customers that you will have to raise rates significantly due to potential changes to DEP Permits. Drinking water customers and electricity customers can be convinced that a rate hike is necessary but when you tell sewer users that rates will go up, they get really angry.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do right now is let the PADEP and your legislators know the impacts of the proposed permit changes!
 Ned Beecher is Special Projects Manager for the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA)
 38 ppt is the difference between the proposed PA standard for PFOA plus PFOS and the 70 ppt U.S. EPA health advisory,
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News & Events
Diane Garvey was recently awarded the David A. Long Memorial Educational Service Award by the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association!
This award was established in honor of Dr. David A. Long in recognition of his lifelong service and dedication toward the education and training of wastewater and water treatment plant operators and environmental professionals.
This award is presented to individuals who distinguish themselves through their efforts and contributions to the education of water quality professionals.
DC Water has launched its new branded biosolids product: BLOOM. And you can learn about this project at the new website:
For more information on any of the above topics, please contact Diane Garvey at email@example.com or call 215-362-4444.