By Diane M. Calabrese / Published July 2023
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—the names do not slip across the tongue in the same way as carbon emissions. Even so, in 2023 there may be no better example of the tug and pull of valued resource and environmental liability than the PFAS.
Industries ranging from alternative energy (e.g., wind turbines) to medicine (devices) and the military (aircraft) rely on PFAS. So do users of cellphones, tablets, and other telecommunication tools.
Because PFAS breakdown very slowly over time, they sometimes earn the label “forever chemicals.” As they are in such wide use, they are found in air, soil, water and the tissues of organisms. PFAS have been linked to human health issues.
According to the basics of the regulatory process outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Writing regulations is one of EPA’s most significant tools to protect the environment.” [See The Basics of the Regulatory Process, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations.]
Since it was established in 1970, the EPA has written and continues to write regulations that grow from laws, which follow from acts of Congress. (An act becomes law when it receives presidential approval or survives a veto override process.) The regulations “set specific requirements about what is legal and what isn’t,” according to the above cited source. Then, the EPA works on compliance and enforcement.
Here’s an example: Through implementation of the Clean Air Act, there are limits set (e.g., maximum release) for a wide (and widening) array of compounds designated as pollutants (e.g., sulfur dioxide, various oxides of nitrogen). EPA regulations stem from many acts, and among them are the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
Through the TSCA, the EPA maintains an inventory of more the 83,000 chemicals. Any newly manufactured chemical goes on the list, and there are corresponding certification and reporting requirements for the use and transport of the chemicals.
PFAS are still being scrutinized by the EPA, which explains that the harmful scope—to people and the environment—of the chemical group (a category containing thousands of compounds) is not fully understood. Some specific compounds in the PFAS category have been banned in the United States.
Meanwhile, at least one group has gotten ahead of the EPA on PFAS. Working with the University of California Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, a community group in North Carolina called Clean Cape Fear has asked the United Nations to investigate one manufacturer of PFAS for human rights violations.
The impact on businesses of environmental regulations from the EPA is huge and difficult to calculate, and the EPA has labeled its own retrospective case studies on cost unreliable because of the challenges in separating investments connected to compliance from other related expenses.
But as we move forward, compliance with EPA regulations may be the easier task for businesses. If community and global groups increase legal challenges to activities deemed unfriendly to the environment, it will require an even bigger investment of money and time for businesses to maneuver.
If it seems EPA regulations affect everything, everywhere except the everything/everywhere handled by other regulators such as the U.S. Department of Energy, they do. But the agency—like the entities it regulates—works on balancing competing interests.
Individual commitment counts. Whether an enforcement officer is around or not, there should be full compliance with regulations at jobsites. We have a ways to go on the responsible party side of the equation.
“In my market, dirty water is the biggest obstacle,” says Roy Pennington, owner of Hi Pressure Cleaning Systems in New Orleans and Houma, LA. “Ninety-five percent of my customers have no knowledge of ‘how-to’ or the requirements they ‘have-to’ recover their runoff water for proper disposal.”
Pennington frets that when there are few “prying eyes,” such as when a contractor is cleaning a multi-level parking garage on a weekend, some contractors may become lax about collection of wastewater. Such lapses add up and unsettle the balance the EPA aims to strike.
Anything is possible in the realm of skirting regulations, and Pennington has seen some of it. Imagine a fabricated “vacuum tank” mounted on a rig, which Pennington has witnessed. It was “for the sole purpose of show and deceit.”
How did the fictional vacuum tank work? “It is there on the truck, powered by a knock-off copy of a
good engine, connected to a vacuum pump that is used only for the initial demo, since it doesn’t work and is never in service on the cleaning site,” says Pennington. He likens it to a pocket square that looks like a handkerchief but is entirely unsuited to stifling a sneeze.
Water recovery is just not taking place in the way it should, says Pennington. (Let’s not single out only the Pelican State, as this writer has witnessed the same in deep-blue Maryland.)
Enforcement is needed to keep some industry members alert to their responsibilities. In Pennington’s area, water runs off into the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain. (In this writer’s area it runs off into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.)
Establishing equilibrium between regulations and compliance cannot happen without enforcement. There certainly have been gains made across his lifetime because of the EPA and environmental awareness, says Pennington, but there’s more to be done.
Pennington recalls when people might simply dispose of excess lubricating oil by pouring it near a fence line. That was many decades ago.
There are some sophisticated things going on in his region, explains Pennington. He very much wants to see more projects that are cutting edge, and he describes two of his own.
“We are currently installing a five-figure filtration, recycling system at a recycler who removes NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) from drilling pipe and drilling tools,” says Pennington. “Further we are awaiting equipment to upgrade a national ‘deep-pockets’ customer to a six-figure evaporation system.”
The installations described are high profile and noteworthy, explains Pennington. But he laments the sparsity of them. “These events are rare, few, and far between.”
When we think about coal mines and canaries, it is air we have in mind. Yet in global environmental terms, water might arguably be the leading indicator of environmental health.
“The earth still has the same amount of water it did 10 million years ago,” says Roy G. Chappell, CEO of Chappell Supply and Equipment in Oklahoma City, OK. “The difference is we have a lot more people and animals depending on it to survive.”
Separating waste from water used in commercial and industrial processes, including power washing, is a must to allow reuse, says Chappell. “Within the next 5 to 10 years, it will become a real problem to clean water fast enough.”
Engagement is the partner of enforcement, and Chappell wants to see it increase. Consider water. Where does one begin with compliance?
“Before you do anything, you need to know your city, county, and state discharge permit levels,” says Chappell. [Those are permit levels under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, NPDES.] “Each city will probably allow different levels.”
Equipment for collecting—and cleaning—wastewater is not one-size-fits-all. “You must know what you are treating before the correct equipment can be recommended for purchase,” says Chappell.
The preliminary step of doing water tests reveals the types of oils and greases as well as heavy metals in the waste stream, explains Chappell. The assessment of how to handle waste also includes equipment being used.
In the context of gpm from a pressure washer, test results will point a contractor to the correct collection system. “These two factors will determine what type and how large your equipment needs to be,” says Chappell. “The types of equipment range from simple pit systems in the ground for cities with very little restrictions to oil/water separators, biosystems, evaporators, and more.”
Careful selection of chemicals extends to considering what can speed not only the cleaning, but also the cleanup—all with the least environmental impact. “You want to use chemicals with quick-release surfactants so at the wash-water pools the oils and greases will come to the surface much faster for treatment,” says Chappell.
“Water treatment, if anything, is becoming more complex each year with the new things we’re putting into the water,” says Chappell. “Cleaning our wastewater for reuse is an important part of the washing process.”
Chappell points out that some of the best enzymes for catalyzing the breakdown and removal of oils and grease live in antifreeze (with ethylene glycol). They belong to the group of glycopeptides and peptides that many organisms make so their cells can survive at sub-zero temperatures; they are sometimes called AFPs (anti-freeze proteins).
Ethylene glycol returns us to the balance EPA tries to achieve. Care must be taken with the compound, but its utility keeps it from being banned.
Keeping up to date with regulations from the EPA (and other federal regulators) is time consuming. Professional organizations like PWNA, CETA, UAMCC, and WJTA provide enormous assistance in the effort.
With time conserved, contemplative industry members might want to reflect on the difference between the EPA treatment of carbon dioxide and PFAS.