The Clean Water Blog

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Making Sure the Clean Water Act Keeps Working

This week marks the 49th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, our landmark Federal water protection law. In 1972, the Act set a goal of eliminating pollution in our rivers, lakes, streams and bays by 1985. While we’ve made a lot of progress toward this goal, we are certainly not there.

How the Act and its programs function are key to its success. One of the key programs, the Effluent Limitations and Guidelines (ELGs) program, sets regulatory standards for wastewater discharges for 59 industrial categories. Every two years, EPA publishes a plan for the ELGs program where it sets out its agenda for new or updated regulations, methods and studies. The preliminary ELG Plan 15 was released this summer with a public comment period ending on October 14. For groups like us, weighing in with EPA on its implementation of programs like the ELGs is a crucial way we can do our part to make the Clean Water Act work, and get us closer to realizing its ultimate goals.

We submitted comments with our feedback on the proposed plan, which you can read here. We focus our feedback on four topics: PFAS chemicals, power plant pollution, oil and gas extraction wastewater and environmental justice.

Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

A key piece of EPA’s PFAS Roadmap, the ELGs plan takes important steps to limit the discharges of PFAS chemicals into surface waters.

PFAS are toxic, threaten human health and the environment, are highly mobile in the water cycle, difficult to remove once they contaminate water resources, and persist in the environment - earning them the nickname: “forever chemicals.” So eliminating or drastically reducing industrial discharges of PFAS is one of the most important things EPA can do to protect the environment and drinking water sources from these toxic substances.

While the ELGs plan commits EPA to regulating PFAS in certain categories of industrial discharges, we need a more comprehensive approach to controlling PFAS discharges. We support EPA moving forward to revise two ELGs regulations (the Organic Chemicals, Plastics, and Synthetic Fibers (OCPSF) category and chrome plating facilities in the Metal Finishing category). EPA is also studying PFAS discharges from landfills, textile mills, and electrical and electronic components industry categories to determine whether or not to regulate them in the future However, this leaves the majority of sectors that could be discharging PFAS without standards  under the Clean Water Act. We asked EPA to revise ELGs to limit PFAS discharges for the full suite of industries that are known to be  releasing them to our waters.

Finally, due to the sheer number of PFAS in commerce and in the environment - EPA researchers have identified over 9000 PFAS chemicals in existence, it is not practical for EPA to regulate these chemicals individually, which may be the approach under the upcoming rules. Instead, EPA should take a holistic approach and regulate PFAS as a class.

Steam Electric Power Plants

Steam electric power plants—mostly coal burning plants—are responsible for the majority of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, and other toxic metals discharged into our nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams every year, and have made it unsafe to eat fish from many contaminated rivers and lakes. Power plants also discharge high levels of nutrients and bromide that can create treatment challenges for drinking water systems. Clean Water helped spearhead updated limits on power plant discharges in 2015, but the Trump Administration rolled back some of these protections in 2020. In July 2021, EPA announced its intention to strengthen the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule. We support EPA’s decision to act, and need the agency to move as fast as possible to close loopholes in the existing rule.

Oil and Gas Production Wastewater

Oil and gas production results in a massive amount of wastewater, also known as produced water, which often contains harmful chemicals like benzene, radioactive material, and is high in salinity - posing threats to health and water resources. Current Clean Water Act rules allow for the discharge of produced water in a number of cases despite documented contamination issues, and a lack of knowledge and data, incomplete toxicity profiles and detection methods for many of the chemicals which may be present. 

We’ve been calling on EPA to close these loopholes by updating the oil and gas extraction and centralized waste treatment (CWT) categories. Yet in the ELG plan, EPA has declined to take action. We are urging EPA to launch a comprehensive study of produced water that would build the case for updating these regulations.

Environmental Justice

In its public notice for the ELG 15 plan, EPA solicited feedback on how the program could better incorporate environmental justice principles, as required by the original Environmental Justice Executive Order (E.O.) 12898, and President Biden’s 2021 E.O. 14008. We strongly support the incorporation of environmental justice principles into ELG planning and suggest a number of ways to strengthen implementation, including improving the screening process, evaluating regulations for disproportionate impacts, and improving public participation processes and transparency.

As we approach half a century since the passage of the Clean Water Act, we are proud of the progress we’ve made in cleaning up and protecting our nation’s waters, but need to keep working to make the Act and its programs work even better.