Incorporating PFAS in Industrial Wastewater Discharge Permits to Minimize Risk or Extent of Future CERCLA Liability
Friday, March 24, 2023
By Steven M. Siros and Arie Feltman-Frank
PFAS are being detected in drinking water systems across the United States. Moreover, evolving regulatory developments already require or soon will
require that public water systems sample for and remediate these chemicals (see, e.g., here). When public water systems find PFAS, which is a
significant possibility, public water systems are likely to look to upstream industrial facilities to recoup their remediation costs. And, once PFOA and PFOS becomes CERCLA hazardous substances (likely Summer 2023), public water systems will have a federal cause of action to do so: CERCLA cost recovery.
Among other potential defendants, public water systems may target upstream industrial facilities that have PFOA or PFOS in their wastewater discharges. Indeed, recent U.S. EPA guidance explains that the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, which regulates wastewater discharges, “interfaces with many pathways by which [PFAS] travel and are released into the environment, and ultimately impact water quality and the health of people and ecosystems.”
Industry categories known or suspected to discharge PFAS include: organic chemicals, plastics & synthetic fibers (OCPSF); metal finishing; electroplating; electric and electronic components; landfills; pulp, paper & paperboard; leather tanning & finishing; plastics molding & forming; textile mills; paint formulating; and airports. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list.
While U.S. EPA’s Office of Water is working to revise Effluent Limitation Guidelines and develop water quality criteria to support technology-based and water quality-based effluent limits for PFAS in NPDES permits, there are currently no enforceable limits at the federal level. As an interim measure, recent U.S. EPA guidance describes steps that NPDES permit writers can implement under existing authorities to reduce PFAS discharges, including incorporating monitoring requirements, best management practices, and site-specific limits developed on a best professional judgment basis into permits.
An important question will be whether upstream industrial facilities that have PFAS in their wastewater discharges will be able to rely on the federally permitted release exemption as an affirmative defense to CERCLA liability. This exemption provides that parties are not liable under CERCLA for federally permitted releases. See 42 U.S.C. § 9607(j). The exemption also extends to state permitted releases under federally approved programs. Blankenship v. Consolidation Coal Co., 850 F.3d 630, 638 (4th Cir. 2017).
In the NPDES context, the exemption most notably covers “discharges in compliance with a permit.” See 42 U.S.C. § 9601(10)(A). The limited case law on this issue sheds light on two points. First, the exemption can only cover what a NPDES permit can regulate – the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters from a point source. Second, the exemption does not apply with respect to releases that (1) were not expressly permitted, (2) exceeded the limitations of the permit, or (3) occurred at a time when there was no permit.
In 1995, U.S. EPA offered some guidance as to its interpretation of the scope of this exemption. Specifically, the Agency stated that the exemption would apply if: (1) the source, nature, and amount of the potential release had been identified and made part of the public record during the permitting process, and (2) the permit contains a condition requiring that the treatment system be capable of eliminating or abating the potential release.
Going back further in time, in a 1988 proposed rule that never took effect, U.S. EPA explained that the exemption covers discharges that are in compliance with a permit limit that specifically addresses the discharge in question. To qualify, the permit must either address the discharge directly through specific effluent limitations or through the use of indicator pollutants. In the case of the latter, the administrative record prepared during permit development must identify specifically the discharge of the pollutant as one of those pollutants the indicator is intended to represent.
Industrial facilities that have PFOA or PFOS in their wastewater discharges should evaluate whether their permits have any provisions that address these chemicals. Assuming they do not, which is the most likely scenario at this early stage, it is unlikely that the federally permitted release exemption will apply. However, if there are provisions that address these chemicals, or if the applicable permitting agency seeks to add such provisions through original permit issuance, modification, or renewal, businesses should consider the extent to which this will influence whether the federally permitted release exemption may apply.
Specifically, when negotiating permit conditions, businesses should keep in mind that U.S. EPA guidance suggests that for the exemption to apply, the source, nature, and amount of the potential PFOA or PFOS release must be identified and made part of the public record during the permitting process, and the resulting permit must contain a condition requiring that the treatment system be capable of eliminating or abating the potential release.
Considering this guidance, it is unlikely that the incorporation of mere monitoring requirements and/or best management practices that do not eliminate or abate the potential release of PFOA or PFOS will be sufficient for a discharger to rely on the federally permitted release exemption. However, the incorporation of site-specific limits developed on a best professional judgment basis likely will.
Indeed, it may be in the best interest of businesses to advocate for provisions in their permits that address PFOA and PFOS to minimize their risk or extent of future CERCLA liability. An important consideration will be the cost of eliminating or abating the potential release of PFOA or PFOS now versus the likelihood and associated cost of being sued for CERCLA cost recovery and ultimately having to pay the costs associated with remediating the unpermitted discharges of PFOA or PFOS later.
We will continue to provide timely updates on U.S. EPA’s ongoing efforts to regulate PFAS under the various environmental statutes at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.