The PFAS Problem
Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) affect everyone. To put that into perspective, PFAS are found everywhere from arctic ice samples to our own blood—both places you would not expect, let alone want to find a man-made chemical. In trying to understand the magnitude of the situation, we look to the Department of Defense (DoD) who is arguably the furthest along in assessing the full scope of the PFAS problem. Per the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), DoD has identified known or suspected PFAS releases at 687 installations and spent more than $1B in PFAS-related investigation and mitigation costs through fiscal year 20201.
But even a realistic cost estimate to remediate PFAS proves difficult to quantify because of the ongoing regulatory uncertainty impacting everything from investigations to remediations. Outside of DoD installations, other data suggest there are more than 2,000 non-DoD PFAS sites across the U.S.2 Our clients’ immediate concerns are PFAS in drinking water as a primary exposure pathway, so it is not surprising to learn that most drinking water remediation estimates are billions of dollars. PFAS are an expensive problem, and Weston’s cost-effective approach is making a difference in PFAS remediation, one project at a time.
Seeking Ways to Destroy PFAS
For more than 17 years, Weston has offered our clients industry-leading, practical, and scalable solutions for short- and long-term remediation. As the prevalence of PFAS and their health dangers become more evident, our federal, state, and commercial clients are shifting from the problem identification phase (investigation) to the resolution phase (remediation). Today, we continue to provide PFAS-related services with a special focus on sustainability and innovation using all available and demonstrated remedial technologies. We refer to this holistic approach as being “technologically agnostic.” The reality is that there is not currently one single solution to any PFAS problem—a combination of treatment technologies is required. Since PFAS treatment can be difficult and expensive due to the large number of PFAS compounds, low cleanup goals, limited destruction technology, and lack of demonstrated in situ approaches, sustainable innovation is critical for cost-effective project completion.
Implementing Sustainable Measures
When Weston approaches a new problem, we explore ways to apply proven technologies and balance stakeholder needs, regulatory drivers, and costs. A recent example relates to PFAS-impacted stormwater subsequently contaminating a drinking water supply reservoir. Stormwater is not commonly treated for PFAS, and regulatory framework for PFAS in surface water discharges had not been developed. Our treatment approach included implementing multiple proven technologies in tandem to create parallel treatment trains. We improved the design by sequencing the technologies to maximize the pros of each, limit potential unscheduled operation and maintenance, and ultimately mitigate a potential major exposure route to the downstream populations. Also, because we knew that the state agency was about to establish much more stringent regulatory requirements, we proceeded with future contaminant limits as the target, which did not increase long-term costs. Weston’s work provides a sustainable mitigation measure while the client facility goes through the site characterization process.
While PFAS can be the sole contaminants, they are often part of a larger environmental cleanup that is already underway. In one such case, we are operating a highly sophisticated 130-gallons per minute groundwater extraction and treatment system to prevent off-site migration of a dissolved contaminant plume. The plume includes petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents, and polychlorinated biphenyls. The system operated for approximately 4 years before PFAS were detected in 2017. Weston recognized the time sensitivity of this issue and evaluated multiple technologies before selecting granular activated carbon as the best option due to its financial sustainability and ability to be integrated into the facility’s complex treatment system. Granular activated carbon continues to provide extremely effective removal of PFAS at this facility. The keys to the success of this system were Weston’s holistic and thorough understanding of the upstream treatment processes, integrated optimization processes, and chemical nature of PFAS among other contaminants.
The Future of PFAS Remediation
PFAS are and will continue to be a formidable presence for our clients and communities. My colleagues at Weston love a challenge, and PFAS certainly present one. Our task as environmental consultants is to make PFAS investigation and cleanup achievable. With potentially thousands of investigations and cleanups in the future, the millions of dollars being allocated toward PFAS research of all kinds, and the ongoing regulatory developments, the long-term successful approaches are going to be those that consider both the immediate needs of our stakeholders as well as long-term solutions.
1. Elizabeth A. Field et al, “Firefighting Foam Chemicals: DoD Is Investigating PFAS and Responding to Contamination, but Should Report More Cost Information,” GAO 21, no. 421 (June 22, 2021): 1-40, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-21-421.pdf.
2. “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.,” October 4, 2021, https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/.