PFAS levels can be monitored through wastewater pretreatment program

Before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it would be commonplace for factories to discharge pollutants into rivers and streams without any consideration of the effect of the natural world. 

Nearly fifty years later, there is a system of permits and regulations in place to improve water quality. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority is working with certain industries in the community to pre-treat industrial waste before effluent is released into the ecosystem. 

(This article originally appeared in the October 29, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement. Please consider a contribution through Patreon to help sustain this work)

Patricia Defibaugh is the laboratory manager for the RWSA.

“The purpose of this program is to protect the sewer system and wastewater treatment plants through limits on industrial waste discharges,” Defibaugh said. “This is a requirement of the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.” 

This is part of the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and an annual report is due to the DEQ by the end of every January. The goal is to remove as many fats, oils, greases as well as metals, nutrients, and acidity as possible by working with industries who create those waste products.

“The ones we’re concerned with are the significant industrial user, and that’s either a categorial user which is metal finishing, or semiconductor manufacturers,” Defibaugh said. “Or non-categorical which discharge more than 25,000 gallons per day or had a potential to adversely affect our treatment processes.”

The types of businesses of concern include restaurants, breweries, wineries, dentists, and dry cleaners. None of the breweries connected to urban water exceed the 25,000 gallon threshold. Gary O’Connell, executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority, said there is a program that seeks to remove cooking oil from the wastewater process. 

“There’s an active [fats, oil, and grease] program that goes on,” O’Connell said. “I know in our case it’s about 260 grease traps that we inspect.

On the more industrial level, the RWSA has three companies that are in the pretreatment program. These are Virginia DiodesMikro, and Northrup Grumman

For more information on this topic, visit Henrico County’s Industrial Pretreatment Program

PFAS concerns

Fifty years after the Clean Water Act, there are concerns about other pollutants that are not easily seen. 

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation requiring the Virginia Department of Health to study the level of polyfluorinated substances in drinking water (PFAS). These are chemical byproducts of the processes used to make non-stick cooking utensils, fire-fighting foam, food packaging, and other uses They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down. The health effects are being studied. (CDC fact-sheet on PFAS). 

The industrial pretreatment work will be used to help identify the scope of the problem. 

“DEQ is going to be sending out a survey to Rivanna’s significant industrial users to confirm their use and manufacture of PFAS compounds,” Defibaugh said. 

Yesterday, the DEQ announced that elevated levels of PFAS have been found in the Chickahominy River. They found out from a report from the Newport News Waterworks (NNWW) and now the DEQ will work with the VDH to further study the issue.  

“NNWW is continuing to monitor source waters in coordination with state agencies and has assured residents that the water it provides to its customers is safe to drink and has consistently shown PFAS levels well below the lifetime health advisory from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” reads the press release. 

Last week, the EPA announced a national strategy will be undertaken to confront the PFAS problem. 

“EPA’s Roadmap is centered on three guiding strategies: Increase investments in research, leverage authorities to take action now to restrict PFAS chemicals from being released into the environment, and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination,” reads a press release from that initiative

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