Comparing How the United States and Australia Take on PFAS

With the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) rolling out its PFAS Strategic Roadmap this month, I thought it would be interesting to see how this approach compares to that of Australia as both countries strive to tackle PFAS as a significant and widespread environmental issue. While each country is faced with similar challenges, officials have adopted different national approaches.

A PFAS roadmap for the U.S.

The PFAS Strategic Roadmap, published October 18, 2021, is a 26-page summary of the U.S. EPA’s aspirations for addressing PFAS in the next three years. This document seemingly supplants the U.S. EPA’s PFAS Action Plan published February 2019 and seeks to convert elements of the 2019 and 2021 PFAS Action Acts to regulation, which were passed in the U.S. House, but have not been voted on by the U.S. Senate.

The PFAS Strategic Roadmap puts emphasis on the three Rs – research, restrict, and remediate – in a “whole-of-agency approach.” The current permutation is based on the following strategic elements:

  • Consider the PFAS Lifecycle
  • Get Upstream of the Problem
  • Ensure Science-Based Decision Making
  • Hold Polluters Accountable
  • Prioritize Protection of Disadvantaged Communities

By placing emphasis on research, the U.S. EPA is working to get the science right before promulgating more regulations. The lifecycle approach also targets preventing PFAS from entering the environment in the first place. Other key themes found both in the PFAS Strategic Roadmap and its predecessor bills and action plans include establishing a national primary drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS and designating certain PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The PFAS Strategic Roadmap also addresses whether PFAS should be regulated individually or by class, noting that categories of PFAS will be identified based on toxicity/toxicokinetic commonalities and by applicability of removal technologies.

The existing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) will be leveraged by the U.S. EPA in the interim to address PFAS. The NPDES program already interfaces with many pathways by which PFAS travels and releases into the environment, ultimately impacting water quality and people. The U.S. EPA states it “will seek to proactively use existing NPDES authorities to reduce discharges of PFAS at the source and obtain more comprehensive information through monitoring on the sources of PFAS and quantity of PFAS discharged by these sources. U.S. EPA will use the effluent monitoring data to inform which industrial categories the Agency should study for future ELGs [Effluent Limitations Guidelines] actions to restrict PFAS in wastewater discharges.”

The PFAS Strategic Roadmap denotes a shift away from individual states regulating PFAS as a patchwork of jurisdictions, tailored by local concerns. This move by the U.S. EPA may smooth out the inconsistencies state by state and create a more unified national approach to tackle PFAS, or it could simply result in a list of recycled aspirations. The next three years will tell.

Down under and down the road

Australia published the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) in January 2018 and updated it in January 2020. The update is a 130-page document detailing prescriptive regulatory guidance to address PFAS at a national level, while recognizing, “the need for sound regulation of PFAS by each jurisdiction in a way that can adapt to local circumstances and emerging priorities.” While this is arguably easier to achieve with fewer states and territory that covers a comparable land mass, it may still be challenging given the varied and diverse communities.

NEMP emphasizes an evidenced-based approach rooted in scientific knowledge like the PFAS Strategic Roadmap. However, NEMP diverges from the PFAS Strategic Roadmap in that it acts on “precautionary principle” in lieu of scientific certainty. In other words, it takes a proactive stance to address and prevent PFAS environmental impacts while science regarding the contaminant continues to evolve.

As part of the proactive, detailed, and prescriptive regulatory direction taken by NEMP, it provides nationally recognized guideline values for only three specific PFAS (PFOS, PFHxS, and PFOA), but for multiple media and exposure scenarios, including:

  • Drinking water quality
    • Recreational water quality
    • Human health investigation levels for soil
    • Residential with garden/accessible soil
    • Residential with minimal opportunities for soil access
    • Public open space
  • Industrial/commercial
  • Ecological guideline values for soil
    • Ecological direct exposure
    • Ecological indirect exposure
  • Biota guideline values
    • Ecological direct exposure for wildlife diet
    • Ecological exposure protective of birds
  • Ecological water quality
    • Freshwater
    •  Interim marine

This approach has its benefits and drawbacks. While it seems NEMP covers all bases with a myriad of criteria for multi-media exposure scenarios, it becomes a matter of professional judgement for applicability in specific situations. These guideline values have become de facto enforceable under the Australian environmental auditor system despite the argument that some criteria are insufficiently protective while others are overly protective. For instance, guideline values for PFOS+PFHxS and PFOA in drinking water are 70 ng/L and 560 ng/L, respectively. Comparatively, the U.S.EPA Health Advisory Level (HAL) is 70 ng/L for PFOS and PFOA, setting a more stringent guideline for drinking water in the United States with individual states promulgating stricter standards. Conversely, the interim marine ecological water quality guideline value of 0.23 ng/L for PFOS is based on freshwater studies and considered extremely stringent. In some instances, this has stalled progress of remediation at PFAS impacted sites. It also reflects the United States emphasis on drinking water compared to the Australian ecological drivers, which ultimately comes down to a different mode of human ingestion of PFAS.

While the PFAS Strategic Roadmap focuses on the early lifecycle to prevent PFAS from entering the environment, NEMP provides guidance on the end of lifecycle, specifically regarding landfills and wastewater treatment plants as PFAS receptors. NEMP provides detailed guidance for on-site management and landfill construction to contain PFAS waste, whereas the PFAS Strategic Roadmap indicates there is more to come on destroying and disposing PFAS, which also creates a bottleneck for site remediation and disposal of spent treatment media.

Both NEMP and the PFAS Strategic Roadmap are concerned with protecting disadvantaged communities and providing equitable access to PFAS solutions, but NEMP takes it a step further invoking the concept of generational equity when addressing PFAS.

Keeping tabs on the regulatory landscape

Drawing on my personal experience of navigating the PFAS regulatory landscape in both the United States and Australia, it is interesting to compare the national approaches each is undertaking. One is rather plodding and general, while the other is proactive and prescriptive. Both approaches have benefits and drawbacks that are evident, each shaped by their country’s unique geopolitical factors. However, PFAS is a global environmental issue, and we can benefit from learning how other countries work to overcome the pervasive PFAS challenges. Here at Woodard & Curran, we are monitoring the local, national, and international regulatory framework to stay informed of this dynamic environment and assist our public and private clients with strategic PFAS management.


Dan Bryant Practice Leader Emerging Contaminants

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