Regulatory movement around PFAS is picking up; this year and next could be monumental around managing these toxic compounds in landfills and leachate. Operators should look out for proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules in 2022 and final rules in 2023. Most notably, two PFAS categories, PFOA and PFOS, could be classified as hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), aka Superfund. Also, expect rules on monitoring and limiting PFAS in drinking water.
Amidst this regulatory activity, PFAS treatment research advances, which will be critical to landfill operators when they are charged with managing this very challenging stream. With existing options, it’s near impossible to destroy these “forever chemicals,” known for their carbon-fluorine bond, considered one of the strongest in nature.
SCS Engineers’ Gomathy Radhakrishna Iyer advises operators on what to look for to brace for regulatory change and advises them on their best defense—the treatment piece. She explains current options and potential technology breakthroughs on the horizon.
“On the legislative front, standardized guidance might not happen overnight. There’s much to learn, as leachate is not the same, including as it pertains to PFAS. Concentrations and compounds vary. So, EPA is gathering data and knowledge to inform policy and mitigation options moving forward,” Iyer says.
Today’s focus entails developing and validating methods to detect and measure PFAS in the environment. The EPA is evaluating technologies to reduce it and is trying to understand better the fate and transport of PFAS in landfills (including landfill gas, leachate, and waste).
While PFAS concentrations in leachate sent to publicly owned treatment plants (POTW) are unknown, the EPA 2023 rule aims to fill in the missing pieces. What is learned and subsequent decisions will be critical to landfill operators who depend on POTWs as a final destination for leachate and at a time when POTWs meet stringent guidelines on what they can accept. The EPA’s focus will begin with guidance on monitoring and reporting figures, including a list of PFAS to watch for in 2022.
In the meantime, the agency published interim guidance on destroying and disposing of PFAS, which it plans to update in fall 2023. The interim guidance identifies the information gap with regard to PFAS testing and monitoring, reiterating the need for further research to address the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act NDAA requirements. Operators can also look to SWANA treatment guidelines to help prepare for new rules.
Get ahead of the game by doing your homework on treatments, Iyer advises. POTWs have discharge limits, and once PFAS in leachate is weighed in with the existing constituent limits on permits, ensuring a disposal destination will call for proactive measures.
The discussion on treatments will be important. Iyer advises on staying up with expectations that may be in the pipeline, beginning by focusing on today’s commercially available options:
Comparing these methods, Iyer says, “Biological treatments work better simply as a pretreatment method, removing PFAS to some extent. Their performance may also only apply to non-biodegradable organic matter. Considering these limitations, the alternative of physical-chemical treatments is most often recommended by industry experts; they appear to be more effective as supported by data,” Iyer says.
Her preference is RO, the membrane-enabled separation process, which many treatment plants already use, or are considering, to remediate other constituents. “Because we know RO to be effective with other contaminants and PFAS, I think it’s a great gainer, especially if plants already use this method to treat leachate for other contaminants successfully,” she says.
RO requires relatively little operational expertise, while other physical-chemical methods, such as GAC and ion exchange, require some chemistry knowledge.
“With granular activated carbon and ion exchange, resins attach to contaminants in leachate. These approaches require pretreatment for organics removal, process understanding, and operator involvement. Conversely, with RO, you learn a fairly straightforward process and move through the steps,” she says.
But while physical-chemical treatments are the best readily available options today, each has limitations. RO leaves a residue requiring further treatment; then, the material is typically recirculated in landfills as a slurry or hauled to a POTW, meaning there is no guarantee they will not need to be addressed later. Other methods, such as GAC, are more energy-intensive and have limited sorbent capacity. Ion exchange, in particular, has difficulty removing short-chain PFAS, which persist in the environment.
When the time comes that PFAS have stringent discharge limit requirements, no one of these technologies may work as a standalone, so the search is on for more robust systems.
Several new treatments are under research; unlike their predecessors, they appear to break the chemical bond.
Iyer shares her take on each option:
“I’m especially interested in seeing how plasma treatment works in the real world versus the lab. The building costs can be higher, and leveraging electricity to break the bond is expensive. But the maintenance should be easy and relatively inexpensive compared to other technologies. It will be interesting to see how economical it would be for landfills over the long run.”
There is more to learn about each of these new technologies. Researchers are working to identify the adsorbents that best suit PFAS compound removal, whether short or long chains. With photocatalytic reaction, a research direction is exploring combining UV rays, a catalyst, and an oxidant to degrade PFAS.
“We know that the absorption options and photocatalytic concepts work well on strong contaminants,” Iyer says. She moves on to her thoughts on thermal treatment. She wants to know more about this particular option before weighing in. “I’m not sure how feasible this method will be for the operators. PFAS get destroyed at a temperature greater than 1,000 degrees Celsius. But for high quantities of leachate, this option could be expensive.”
Most EPA-funded research is based on these developing treatment processes. But there is plenty to evaluate to identify the best solutions in a given scenario. With that understanding, the agency is trying to understand the types and volumes of PFAS generated, how they change or degrade as they enter landfills, and where they originate. EPA is building a database to track this information to consider key characteristics of individual PFAS to help guide forthcoming guidance on treatments.
In the meantime, Iyer advises operators to pay close attention to evolving developments and communications from EPA.
We recently saw the memorandum from EPA on addressing PFAS discharges in EPA-issued NPDES permits. We will look for guidance to the state permitting authorities to address PFAS in NPDES permits soon and more information from the EPA’s roadmap.
At SCS, we use our time to learn about technologies, including what’s still under investigation and explore what seems to work. In addition, watch for guidance documents, not just from EPA but from research organizations such as EREF and universities. Do your due diligence and keep your eyes and ears open for EPA and your state regulatory authority announcements. Staying informed is the best strategy for landfill operators at this point.
EPA is releasing the interim guidance for public comment. The guidance provides information on technologies that may be feasible and appropriate for the destruction or disposal of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials. It also identifies needed and ongoing research and development activities related to destruction and disposal technologies, which may inform future guidance.
The interim guidance addresses PFAS and PFAS-containing materials including:
The agency is also providing guidance on testing and monitoring air, effluent, and soil for releases near potential destruction or disposal sites. EPA’s interim guidance captures the significant information gaps associated with PFAS testing and monitoring and identifies specific research needs.
The interim guidance is intended to assemble and consolidate information in a single document that generally describes thermal treatment, landfill, and underground injection technologies that may be effective in the destruction or disposal of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials.
As further research and development occur on this issue, EPA will incorporate this increased knowledge into future versions of this guidance to help decision-makers choose the most appropriate PFAS disposal options for their particular circumstances. EPA will review and revise the interim guidance, as appropriate, or at least once every 3 years.
See the EPA website: EPA Interim Guidance on Destruction and Disposal of PFAS.
Instructions: All submissions received must include Docket ID No EPA-HQ-OLEM-2020-0527 for this rulemaking. Comments received may be posted without change to the Federal eRulemaking Portal. You may send comments by any of the following methods:
According to Waste Dive, the document is the first such federal guidance on the destruction or disposal of PFAS or PFAS-containing materials. It describes the available science used in three major techniques: deep well injection, landfilling and thermal treatment. Acknowledging uncertainty about potential environmental effects, the EPA proposed the interim storage of PFAS-containing waste until further research can “reduce the uncertainties associated with other options.”
Industry groups such as the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) said they are analyzing the document and discussing with their members, such as SCS Engineers what the interim guidance means for daily landfill operations. The trade groups will submit comments on the document by the Feb. 22 deadline.
PFAS are a class of synthetic fluorinated chemicals used in many industrial and consumer products, including defense‐related applications. They are persistent, found at low levels in the environment, and bio‐accumulate. Studies have shown these compounds being detected more often in surface water, sediments and/or bioaccumulated into fish tissue. Because of the greater affinity of longer chain per‐ and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) compounds for fish than other environmental matrices, certain compounds are often found in fish tissue, but not in the water or sediment. Table 1 shows average concentrations of PFOA and PFOS in landfill leachates around the world. The USEPA health advisory level is 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS.
Table 1. Concentrations of PFAS compounds in Landfill Leachate around the world
Treatment Options for PFOS and PFOA
The removal of PFASs from drinking water has been the USEPA’s national priority. Recent discoveries of PFAS/PFOS in drinking water in multiple states in the US has heightened interest in these emerging contaminants. Federal, state, and local agencies are formulating regulatory limits that vary greatly. These limits seem to be centered on drinking water, but these developments are driving disposal of existing stores of chemicals containing PFAS/PFOS and environmental media contaminated with PFAS/PFOS
Treatment processes that can remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water may include high-pressure membrane systems such as RO, granular activated carbon (GAC), or ion exchange as shown in Figure 1. The more conventional water treatment technologies such as (e.g., aeration) are not typically effective.
Figure 1. PFAS Removal Processes (a) Membranes, (b) GAC and (c) Ion Exchange Resins
Landfill Leachate RO Treatment Plant – New Hanover County, North Carolina
New Hanover County upgraded its leachate treatment system to meet stricter regulatory standards for surface water discharges, particularly standards relating to metals (arsenic) and ammonia. Sampling by NC DEQ showed the new RO plant is filtering out PFAS. Table 2 shows the results from February 2019.
Figure 2. New Hanover County Leachate and PFAS Treatment Plant
Table 2. Concentrations of PFAS compounds in Leachate at New Hanover County Landfill
|PFAS Constituent||Raw||Treated||Surface water|
|PFOA (ppt)||1,250||< 0.6||3.9|
|PFOS (ppt)||228||< 0.6||7.1|
Comparison of GAC Types for PFOA and PFOS Removal
Four different types of GAC, i.e., Re-agglomerated Bituminous, Lignite, Enhanced Coconut and Enhanced Coconut (Blend) were evaluated under identical operating conditions and influent water quality. Figure 4 shows results from these four GAC products for PFOA/PFOS removal vs time.
Figure 4. GAC Treatability study for removal of PFOA and PFOS
Re-agglomerated bituminous coal GAC (FILTRASORB) significantly outperformed: Lignite, Enhanced Coconut and Enhanced Coconut (Blend).
PFAS compounds are of concern because they do not break down in the environment, bioaccumulate in humans and biota, and may pose risks to human health
GAC, Synthetic adsorbent, and ion exchange resins are widely used for PFAS removal. Capacity and leakage of PFASs into the treated water varies depending on the specific PFASs, the type of adsorbent used.
PFAS removal may be influenced by pH, water temperature, contact time, Natural Organic Matter, and chlorine. For complete PFAS removal, a polishing may be required.
Disposal methods for PFAS waste streams include high-temperature incineration or landfilling. Landfilling is not favored since the PFAS load would increase, and many landfills will not accept PFAS waste.
About the Author: Dr. deSilva is SCS’s Director of Wastewater Treatment. He has 30 years of progressive experience in wastewater engineering, from concept through construction and start-up, and is an international leader in operations and maintenance, energy management, solids handling processes, construction management, and commissioning wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) around the world.
We recommend reading this article series to stay abreast of relevant knowledge from Bryan Staley, president and CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF); Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA); Viraj deSilva, SCS Engineers wastewater treatment director; and testing results from New Hanover County whose capital investment in landfill infrastructure has proven to successfully treat effluent water to meet higher standards.
This EREF Summit will bring together practicing engineers, academics, industry professionals, government personnel and policymakers to facilitate discussion and provide various perspectives on the management, issues, and policies related to PFAS.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of compounds that are man-made and are commonly used in industrial processes and consumer products such as food packaging, fire-fighting foams, metal plating, outdoor gear, popcorn bags, food wrappers, facial moisturizers, mattresses, carpeting, and cookware. Despite the widespread use of PFAS in everyday products, there are still significant knowledge gaps associated with the management of these compounds.
SCS Engineers is a sponsor of this EREF Summit. Liquids Management at SCS Engineers