We previously reported on the EPA’s announcement for its Draft Fifth Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 5), which contemplated listing all PFAS as an entire class on the Contaminant List. On October 28, 2022, the EPA issued its prepublication version of the final CCL 5 rule. The EPA’s contaminant list final version is the first step in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulatory process, which will allow the EPA to begin its assessment into any of the over 12,000 PFAS as to whether they should be included in a drinking water enforceable limit. Such a move would build upon the EPA’s current progress towards regulating PFOA and PFOS with an enforceable drinking water limit, and open the door to significant future enforcement action and litigation.
EPA’s Contaminant List and PFAS
On October 28, 2022, the EPA announced its Final Fifth Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 5). The CCL is a list of contaminants that are currently not subject to any proposed or promulgated national primary drinking water regulations, but are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems. Contaminants listed on the CCL may require future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). On the CCL 5 are 66 individual chemicals, but notably PFAS as an entire class are also listed on the CCL 5. Simply because PFAS are listed on the CCL 5 does not guarantee that regulation will occur; however, it does open doors to research that are not otherwise available without the listing on the CCL.
The EPA’s contaminant list rule is not the only step the agency has taken with respect to PFAS and drinking water, but developing the CCL is the first step under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in potentially regulating drinking water contaminants. SDWA requires EPA to publish a list of currently unregulated contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and that may require regulation. EPA must publish a CCL every five years. The CCL does not create or impose regulatory burden on public water systems or state, local, or Tribal governments. EPA has completed four rounds of CCLs since 1996. The last cycle of CCL, CCL 4, was published in November 2016. EPA began the development of the CCL 5 in 2018 by asking the public to nominate chemicals, microbes, or other materials for consideration for the CCL 5.
Impact On Businesses and Litigation
Many companies assume that any regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act will not impact them, as virtually no industries, aside from water utilities, have any direct impact on drinking water. However, this belief provides a false sense of security that must immediately be dispelled. There are three specific ways that drinking water limits for PFAS will trigger scrutiny on environmental practices of businesses: (1) elffluent discharges into water sources; (2) waste sent to landfills that may leach into drinking water sources; and (3) properties abutting or in the vicinity of water sources.
Direct industry effluent discharges into water sources (which may not be drinking water sources, but may feed into drinking water sources) will be the low-hanging fruit target for local environmental agencies at the state level. Companies must ensure that they have all permitting in order, and it is advisable that the permitting specifically encompasses PFAS. Failing to do so will cause issues down the line when local environmental regulatory bodies look to determine, even retroactively, who PFAS water polluters are or were, as those agencies seek to hold businesses responsible for the costs associated with cleaning up PFAS in drinking water.
Companies that send their industrial waste to landfills are also well advised to do a full compliance check. While many companies do not use PFAS directly in their own manufacturing processes, do the parts or other raw materials used in the manufacturing process have PFAS contamination issues? If so, a company could unknowingly send PFAS-laden industrial waste products to landfills, and so these are questions that companies must get answers to. Over time, it is possible that the PFAS may leach out of the landfill and find their way into local water sources. Environmental regulatory agencies will look to these sites, the owners of the sites, and potentially companies sending waste to the sites as responsible parties for PFAS contamination in waterways.
Finally, even businesses having nothing to do with PFAS or manufacturing from which PFAS could be a contaminant need to follow news regarding PFAS regulations. For example, has the property on which your business sits ever had fires that have required a local fire department to extinguish flames using foam (historically, a PFAS containing product)? What did the owner of the site prior to you use the site for? Were there possible PFAS contamination issues stemming from that prior business? Did your due diligence reports and tests when purchasing the property take PFAS into consideration? If PFAS were a contaminant on the land on which your business now operates, local environmental agencies will pursue cleanup costs from any such business regardless of knowledge or intent, and regardless of whether the PFAS issues were the result of a prior company on the site. These investigations and remediations can be extremely expensive and disruptive to businesses.
Should the EPA broaden its regulations for PFAS in drinking water to include more than PFOA and PFOS, this will trigger considerable enforcement action at the state level to identify responsible parties and ensure that the parties pay for remediation costs. Historically, this has also led to civil litigation, as companies identified as responsible parties litigate the percent allocation that they are responsible for the alleged pollution, and look to bring in additional companies to reduce allocation shares for remediation costs.
Future regulatory steps for certain PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act will require states to act (and some states may still enact stronger regulations than the EPA). Both the federal and the state level regulations will impact businesses and industries of many kinds, even if their contribution to drinking water contamination issues may seem on the surface to be de minimus. In states that already have PFAS drinking water standards enacted, businesses and property owners have already seen local environmental agencies scrutinize possible sources of PFAS pollution much more closely than ever before, which has resulted in unexpected costs. Companies absolutely must begin preparing now for regulatory actions that will have significant financial impacts down the road.