On January 19, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released Effluent Guidelines Program Plan 15 (Plan 15), which lays out how the Agency will work to protect the nation’s waterways by following the science and the Clean Water Act to develop technology-based pollution limits and studies on wastewater discharges from industrial sources.
This Plan focuses on evaluating the extent and nature of both nutrient and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) discharges. Plan 15 further advances EPA’s commitment in the PFAS Strategic Roadmap to restrict PFAS discharges from industrial sources through a multi-faceted Effluent Limitations Guidelines program.
Plan 15 announces EPA’s determination that revised effluent limitations guidelines and pretreatment standards (ELGs) are warranted for reducing PFAS in leachate discharges from landfills. The Agency made this decision after concluding a detailed study that was discussed in Preliminary Effluent Guidelines Program Plan 15.
The Agency is also announcing several new and expanded studies as part of today’s action, including:
an expansion of the ongoing study of PFAS discharges from textile manufacturers;
a new study of publicly owned treatment works (POTW) influents to characterize the PFAS concentrations from industrial dischargers to POTWs and inform implementation of pretreatment programs to address them; and
a new study on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to make an informed, reasoned decision on whether to undertake rulemaking to revise the ELGs for CAFOs.
ELGs are national, technology-based regulations developed to control industrial wastewater discharges to surface waters and into POTWs. ELGs are intended to represent the greatest pollutant reductions through technology that are economically achievable for an industry. EPA prepares ELG Program Plans after public review and comment on a preliminary plan, pursuant to Clean Water Act (CWA) section 304(m). ELG plans provide a description of the Agency’s annual review of ELGs and pretreatment standards, consistent with the CWA. Based on these reviews, EPA develops plans to identify any new or existing industrial categories selected for ELG or pretreatment standards rulemakings and to provide a schedule for such rulemakings. In addition, ELG plans present any new or existing categories of industry selected for further review and analysis.
The 2022 MnTAP Solutions magazine highlights the projects led by our 16 talented interns and the companies that supported their recommendations to reduce waste, water, energy. These projects resulted in proposed solutions that could save the companies $3,068,000 annually as well as significant environmental impacts.
Environmental scientists have developed a circular process for eliminating the risk posed by phosphoric acid plant wastewater. The process turns the environmentally toxic wastewater into clean water while recovering valuable acids. Phosphoric acid is the main ingredient in industrial fertilizers, a massive industry worldwide.
While not new, this form of public health surveillance has gained attention since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tracking the rise and fall of the level of coronavirus in wastewater provides officials with a snapshot of how much SARS-CoV-2 is circulating in a community. Together with data on case counts, health officials can use this information to guide their local actions – for example, choosing to increase testing or vaccination campaigns. Where available, immunocompromised individuals may also find it useful to access data for their local area via online dashboards as they try to manage their overall exposure risk.
In our recent study, mycolleaguesand I explored public perceptions of using sewer samples for monitoring community health in the United States. Using an online survey of more than 3,000 adults in the U.S., we were able to gauge respondents’ general boundaries in this expanding field of community monitoring. We didn’t find much consensus, suggesting the need for more public outreach and education.
What happens after you flush
Households connected to sewer lines pay utilities to remove their waste. In the absence of a sewer problem, most people are able to flush and forget.
Sewage typically travels through publicly owned infrastructure to a treatment plant operated by a utility. Researchers and officials currently sample wastewater not just for the coronavirus but also for polioand flu monitoring. Samples are usually collected with permission of the utility, but no one asks the households being sampled if they are willing to participate. Treatment plants conduct other kinds of Environmental Protection Agency-mandated testing, such as looking for pollutants in wastewater.
In our survey, we found that a large portion of the public was unaware that sewage surveillance takes place for public health purposes in many areas. Respondents were more aware of other forms of public health monitoring, such as restaurant inspections and water quality testing.
That about half of respondents didn’t even know sewage monitoring is happening underscores the fact that no one asks individual residents for permission to test an area’s wastewater.
We found more support for monitoring external threats in wastewater, such as diseases, environmental toxins and terrorist threats like anthrax. Fewer people expressed support for tracking lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking or use of birth control, diet, and indicators of mental health, including stress hormones, which are emerging areas of monitoring not yet tracked in many local areas.
Our results suggest that the public may not want unchecked monitoring of their toilet flushes.
When we asked people to consider the various scales at which wastewater surveillance can happen, we found a general theme of “the bigger, the better.” Sampling from a larger area is a way to protect privacy, since one person’s information is mixed in with many others’.
More respondents said they were OK with monitoring an entire city compared with monitoring at the level of individual residences. Notably, more respondents who self-reported living in urban areas endorsed monitoring the entire city than those who self-reported living in suburban areas.
Looking at flushes is not going away
My colleagues and I did not find significant nationwide fear about sewage surveillance among our survey respondents. But those surveyed certainly had opinions that officials may want to consider more deeply when it comes to wastewater tracking.
While wastewater surveillance in urban or suburban areas provides good coverage for an overall picture of COVID-19 in the community, coverage is still not fully inclusive of the entire public. It would not capture data from the approximately 15% of the United States population whose homes do not have a sewer connection. That group includes people who have septic tanks in more rural areas.
How protected is individual privacy? Confirming that SARS-CoV-2 is present in a city is different than confirming it’s present in a neighborhood, and that’s different from confirming it’s present in a dormitory or prison building. Looking at a wider area ensures the sample stays anonymous. At the moment, there are no health privacy protection laws or regulations about sewage surveillance in the U.S. Officials rely on goodwill from utilities to gain access to wastewater and the health information it holds, and often partner with commercial laboratories, such as Biobot.
Wastewater data is immensely valuable. However this public health surveillance tool is used in the future, our survey suggests that there’s room for more education and conversation with the public. After all, they’re the one’s being monitored.
The rise and rapid adoption of the circular economy—a systems solution framework that seeks to keep materials, products, and services in circulation for as long as possible—is triggering an interesting shift in how wastewater is being viewed. One view posits that wastewater should no longer be seen as waste, owing to the possibility that industry may recover several valuable resources from it. These include water, energy, fertilizers, biofuels, biopolymers, and critical minerals.
Using reclaimed wastewater from water treatment plants to irrigate crops can be a viable solution to ease the effects of drought and reduce stress on local surface and groundwater resources. Yet, legionella pneumophila, which is widespread in man-made water systems, can survive the aeration and air transport from irrigation systems with potential harmful effects. People who inhale the tiny water droplets can contract Legionnaires’ disease, a serious form of pneumonia.
The Blue River Wastewater Treatment Plant, located near I-435 and Front Street, is transforming into one of the most critical water infrastructure projects in the Kansas City area, the Blue River Biosolids Facility.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have quickly become ubiquitous in the environment. Used for decades in everything from firefighting foams to nonstick skillets, these potentially toxic compounds are now being found in soils, groundwater and even rain and snow.
And they’re expected to stay in the environment for years—perhaps centuries—as the compounds’ sturdy fluoride-carbon bonds make it nearly impossible for them to degrade naturally. But now, scientists have developed a way to permanently break down two classes of these “forever chemicals” using relatively low temperatures and a few common reagents (Science 2022, DOI: 10.1126/science.abm8868). Brittany Trang, who co-led the study, presented the work on Wednesday at the ACS Fall 2022 meeting in the Division of Environmental Chemistry. William Dichtel, a chemist at Northwestern University, also introduced the work at a presidential event symposium on Tuesday.
Engineers at the University of Illinois Chicago have been awarded just over $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Alliance for Water Innovation to build a system that selectively removes and destroys poly- and perfluorinated substances, commonly called PFAS and referred to as “forever chemicals,” from industrial and municipal wastewaters. PFAS are man-made chemicals found in many common materials, and the grant will support the team’s work for three years.