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We know PFAS are everywhere. Missouri officials are waiting on federal rules around them

Jay Hoskins points at the final step in the wastewater treatment process at the Bissell Point Wastewater Treatment Plant on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.
Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio
“The problem we have is that you can't manage what you can't measure," said Jay Hoskins, assistant director for environmental compliance at the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, on Tuesday as he described the wastewater treatment process at the Bissell Point Wastewater Treatment Plant. Hoskins says evolving federal regulations on PFAS monitoring will have big implications for wastewater treatment in Missouri and across the country.

Environmental engineers and regulators in Missouri are awaiting multiple new federal rules in 2024 related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Once the PFAS regulations are finalized, they could change the way these substances are dealt with in the state.

“PFAS is one of those things that has been basically changing on almost a daily basis for the last year or two, and there’s still a lot of unknowns,” said Eric Medlock, an environmental program manager with Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources.

PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they are extremely stable in the environment. There are thousands of manufactured chemicals that are PFAS, and they have been used since the 1940s in products like paper, packaging and waterproof clothes. They have also been found in humans, animals and the environment all over the world.

Exposure to some types of PFAS has been shown to cause health issues including immune issues and increased risks for some cancers, but there is still a lot that scientists are learning. The Environmental Protection Agency has a section on its website where it lays out “what we don’t fully understand yet,” including how harmful PFAS are, how to remove them from drinking water and how to better measure PFAS in the environment.

As the science on exposure and effects of PFAS evolves, regulations related to the chemicals are also changing. One key area that will see new regulation in 2024 is drinking water. The EPA proposed a rule in early 2023 that would set standards for six PFAS in drinking water and require public water systems to monitor for these substances, notify the public of levels and clean up water with levels that are too high.

That rule is expected to be finalized in the next few months, but it likely won’t become a state-level regulation until 2027.

“Even if EPA comes out with a final rule this year, there's a period of time where the states have to put those regulations in place,” Medlock said.

In the meantime, drinking water providers in Missouri are still monitoring for PFAS. In the most recent state data, 12 providers had levels above “health advisory” standards. There is funding available for remediation from the American Rescue Plan Act and from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, but without the final EPA rule, drinking water providers in Missouri aren’t yet required to remediate the problem.

But Medlock said his agency encourages the providers to start that process, “so that they can bring the levels down for their customers.”

Multi-story trickling filters do their part in treating wastewater at the Bissell Point Wastewater Treatment Plant Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.
Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio
Multistory trickling filters do their part in treating wastewater on Tuesday at the Bissell Point Wastewater Treatment Plant. Wastewater from the plant flows into the Mississippi River after going through the treatment process at the plant, so monitoring PFAS is important for environmental engineers.

Another potential change is related to Superfund laws. It would add two PFAS to the list of “hazardous substances” in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which could ultimately mean new Superfund sites across the country, including Missouri, because of PFAS contamination.

Wastewater management is also an evolving area for PFAS. Entities like the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District are currently putting monitoring systems in place to find out which industries or businesses have higher levels of PFAS in their waste, said Jay Hoskins, the district’s assistant director for environmental compliance.

“The problem we have is that you can't manage what you can't measure,” Hoskins said. “That's an old saying that's really true in this case.”

Hoskins said one problem his industry is facing is a lack of analytical methods from the EPA, which some laws require to enforce environmental regulations on industries. That’s also important because testing is expensive, so Hoskins wants to make sure he is spending money on methods that are approved.

“Until we have that, we can do monitoring to get an estimate of what's out there,” Hoskins said. “But until we have those approved methods, we're at a point where we can't really do much more than that.”

There are states that are not waiting for federal guidance, including Illinois. The state has banned incineration to dispose of PFAS, and its attorney general has filed a lawsuit against companies producing PFAS. In the gap before federal action, organizations like the Sierra Club are calling on states to do more to regulate these chemicals, said Sonya Lunder, the organization’s senior toxics policy adviser.

“We have seen states move more quickly than the federal government to look at pollution hotspots and to require cleanup and to even set drinking water limits that are state based,” Lunder said. “And we applaud that those actions will keep more of the chemicals out of the environment. They'll keep people who live in that state healthier.”

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.