10 Questions: Reducing the Risk of Highly Toxic PFAS in the Environment

WSP USA’s Matt Burns discusses prevalence of the hazardous chemical, where it’s found, its environmental impact, and how his team helps clients with remediation efforts.
Nov 30, 2021 11:15 AM ET
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PFAS – an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are a class of widely used chemicals that are very persistent, toxic and mobile in the environment.

Manufactured since the 1940s, PFAS materials have been used in a variety of industrial and household products, including firefighting foam, paint, water-repelling and stain-resisting fabrics, paper products, non-stick products, cosmetics, food packaging, metal plating and electronics manufacturing.

Many of these substances bioaccumulate to become more concentrated in the bodies of living things, similar to the way mercury bioaccumulates in fish. Regulators across the country are executing action plans to heavily regulate these compounds. 

“PFAS chemicals are designed to be very stable and used to impart anti-degradation and resistance traits to a large list of common consumer and industrial products,” said Matt Burns, technical director of the Environment business at WSP USA.

PFAS chemicals do not appear to naturally degrade significantly. “More than a half-century of prevalence in society has given PFAS time to disperse in the environment through water and air to such an extent that most people in the U.S. have one or more PFAS compounds in their blood,” Burns said.

Burns provides WSP clients with proactive measures to minimize business impacts of emerging PFAS regulations and remediation solutions to restore the environment. He recently answered 10 questions about these chemicals and the role he and his team at WSP play in helping clients remediate, avoid and eliminate the threats of these hazardous materials.

What is your role with WSP?

I assist local project teams by working with them directly on client issues or connecting them with knowledgeable practitioners within the U.S. and globally. 

I’ve been working with our technical and client leads to develop a suite of proactive PFAS services for private sector clients so they can prepare for the coming regulatory tide. This includes working with Matt Gallo, WSP compliance due diligence lead, to develop best PFAS practices for due diligence. Our assessment tools complement the ASTM standard for Phase I environmental site assessments by systematically identifying legacy PFAS issues during due diligence so clients can make informed decisions. Matt has driven the requisite background knowledge and best practice training throughout the organization.

We also developed a PFAS portfolio screening and prioritization tool for early identification and mitigation of financial and reputational liabilities. The tool links firefighter foam use and PFAS industrial process risk with proximity to employee and community exposure. Scott Haitz and oil and gas client leads have been key developers of these capabilities.

How have experts been collaborating to improve PFAS remediation efforts?

There have been two expert symposiums, both organized by John Simon, Remediation Journal editor in chief, which brought together thought leaders with specialized skills on PFAS regulations, chemistry and analytics, transport and fate concepts, toxicology and remediation technologies. I’ve been fortunate to be invited to contribute to both symposiums.

The first symposium allowed for deep dives into PFAS-specific technical and management challenges considering lessons learned from decades of experience managing other better understood contaminants. The resulting paper is highly cited and the most downloaded in the market.

The second symposium took a deeper dive into the state of PFAS science. I was a member of the in situ treatment focus group and lead the monitored natural attenuation (MNA) discussion. A viable path forward for applying MNA to PFAS affected sites was defined based on EPA MNA policy on plume stability for other non-degrading compounds. Our new colleagues from EarthCon, Tim Goist, Joe Ricker and Dave Winchell, are experts with plume stability assessments using Earthcon/WSP Groundwater Plume Analytics® proprietary tools. 

What is the current state of PFAS regulation in the U.S.?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an action plan and they are progressing with it. But the pace of their activities is limited by gathering data to drive science-based decision making. Actions of some states are outpacing the EPA – and perhaps science-based decision making – to be more aggressive with setting regulatory limits on use and exposure of many PFAS.

As a result, the regulatory landscape is a bit of a mess. But, with EPA progress along their action plan, the passage of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which leapfrogged some regulatory evaluation processes and implemented some tracking and phase out requirements (among several other PFAS actions), and regulatory steps taken by states, aggregate PFAS regulatory framework trends are beginning to emerge.

What health risks does PFAS pose to the public?

PFAS were designed to be very stable and used for more than 50 years to impart anti-degradation and resistance traits to a large list of common consumer and industrial products. Because of the wide use and persistent characteristics of these compounds they are prevalent throughout the environment and found in the blood of most people on the planet.

More recently, several PFAS have been found to be highly toxic. The most toxic PFAS compounds have been voluntarily phased out of production but thousands of chemically similar PFAS compounds remain in use and their toxicity is largely unknown. 

Part of the EPA’s focus is to identify which of the thousands of PFAS compounds are industrially significant and quantify their toxicity. Results of these studies will influence how many PFAS compounds will ultimately be regulated or if the entire class of compounds needs to be regulated. Some lawmakers are advocating that the persistence of these chemicals in the environment should also be weighed in regulatory decisions.

How is WSP helping clients address PFAS remediation and avoidance?

In the U.S., private sector clients are aware of the landscape-changing impacts heavy PFAS regulation will likely have on their business. The proactive PFAS measures WSP developed are assisting clients with managing these dynamics. Our due diligence team has screened thousands of acquisition targets through our PFAS tool and provided information clients need to make informed decisions.

Other proactive PFAS avoidance measures designed to mitigate impacts of emerging regulation – such as PFAS portfolio screening and prioritization, water supply and process effluent assessment and identification and replacement of PFAS with less toxic alternatives – are increasing in use with the improved economic environment afforded by decreasing COVID-19 impact and recovery of the oil and gas sector.

Environmental clients in the government sector have initiated investigation and remediation work driven by the knowledge of PFAS release at their facilities. They are finding wide-spread contamination, limited options for cleanup and costs that are far greater than addressing other contaminant releases. 

Can you site a current PFAS-related WSP project?

While conducting due diligence for the purchase of a former fragrance manufacturing facility in New Jersey, WSP identified historical discharges from an aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) fire suppression system. Follow-up investigations identified PFAS contamination in soil and groundwater.

To facilitate the property transaction, WSP managed dewatering, excavation and off-site disposal of over 10,000 tons of contaminated soil under the stringent requirements of the New Jersey Licensed Site Remediation Program. Our team further supported the transactional negotiations with liability cost estimating that resulted in an indemnification for future costs related to PFAS cleanup and a significant reduction in the property sale price. WSP provided post-transaction support for the property redevelopment.

If PFAS become “hazardous substances,” what may result from a regulatory and policy perspective?

If PFAS as a class, or select PFAS chemicals, are designated a hazardous substance under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) new sites could be included in the National Priority List and closed sites potentially reopened. PFAS-focused site investigations would be needed.

Where PFAS are shown to be present in concentrations greater than federal or state applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements, they would need to be addressed, potentially necessitating new treatment systems or substantial upgrades to existing systems. A hazardous designation would also enhance the ability of the EPA, states and potentially private parties to bring cost recovery and natural resource claims. The designation would also bring legal challenges such as responsibility for PFAS liability originating from past uses required by law, such as AFFF at airports.

The trickle-down effect of the designation would be far reaching.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in remediation and client awareness of hazards?

The biggest challenges in remediation are the recalcitrant nature of the PFAS compounds. They don’t break down readily. In situ destructive technologies – which remediation practitioners have become accustomed to using to address other contaminants, such as bioremediation – are not yet applicable. As a result, groundwater extraction and ex situ treatment are most often used to address PFAS groundwater plumes.

Some in situ sequestration technologies are being adapted for PFAS in groundwater. We have a decade of experience using these technologies. They are appropriate to limit the spread of the most toxic PFAS to protect sensitive receptors. Unfortunately, the amendments have capacity limits that necessitate monitoring and potentially periodic treatments.  

Most clients are aware of PFAS being the next big regulatory focus and that use and testing of AFFF is a primary indicator of exposure. However, many do not realize how widespread the use of PFAS was and is in proprietary ingredients in seemingly benign chemical mixes and materials used in manufacturing processes. Our proactive PFAS services are designed to identify and mitigate these hidden exposures before regulators explicitly mandate action.  

How does WSP incorporate innovation and leadership into PFAS remediation and awareness efforts?

At many sites, “completing” a groundwater remediation to achieve restoration goals is not possible with the current level of technology. Managing the problem in a manner that is protective of receptors is the only practical endpoint strategy to address PFAS contamination today.

WSP’s focus has been on proactive PFAS avoidance strategies. Our due diligence program, which informs prospective purchaser clients on potential PFAS liability early in the due diligence process, is a great example that is highly valued by our clients. We also educate our clients as to potential future liability by connecting the dots of emerging PFAS regulatory trends. 

For example, in the U.S., approximately half of the biosolids produced by major publicly owned treatment works (POTW) facilities, 2.4 million dry metric tons, are disposed by agricultural and non-agricultural land application. Significant additional sources of land-applied solids are associated with industrial treatment and smaller POTWs. Land application of biosolids is a very low-cost method of beneficially using this waste product as biosolids containing macro and micronutrients that support plants.

However, industrial and residential discharges to POTWs provide PFAS loads that accumulate in wastewater treatment plant biosolids, most of which are ultimately recycled for beneficial use as agricultural fertilizer. Much of the PFAS within land-applied biosolids ultimately leach to groundwater, thereby affecting drinking water resources.

Given the huge costs associated with managing biosolids differently or upgrading POTWs to more efficiently address PFAS, regulatory action to limit PFAS input into POTW waste streams appears inevitable. Some states have begun the process regulating PFAS input into municipal waste streams.

What is the net result for a client when these PFAS analysis or remediation efforts are completed? 

Proactive PFAS measures can potentially eliminate PFAS liability through avoidance strategies. Where clients “own” existing PFAS problems, future monetary and reputational liability can be mitigated by implementing some or all recommended proactive PFAS measures, such as identifying their use, substituting materials where practical and controlling releases were necessary.

Eliminating PFAS discharges to POTWs is a good example. Another example is retrofitting AFFF fire suppression systems with non-PFAS alternatives. Where this is not feasible, installing systems to capture discharges for proper disposal could avoid impacting communities and future costly cleanups.

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