In January 2020, more than 80 leaders in the water industry gathered for the "Breaking Down PFAS" workshop in Fountain Valley, California, the base of operations for the Orange County Water District (OCWD) and the location of one of the world’s largest groundwater replenishment systems. The system re-routes wastewater headed for the Pacific Ocean and triple-purifies it using an innovative mix of technologies. It was fitting, then, for the forward-thinking group of west coast water purveyors to welcome a PFAS team operating at the cutting edge of treatment solutions. OCWD and CDM Smith developed the workshop to share the latest developments and insights related to PFAS treatment and risk management with OCWD member agencies and other interested municipal water purveyors in Southern California.
At the start of the workshop, the mood in the room seemed to reflect the same anxiousness that runs through most PFAS conversations, but by the end of the four-hour session the participants were exchanging information on best practices and pragmatic solutions.
Al LeBlanc, a veteran engineer with CDM Smith who led the design of a water treatment facility using granular activated carbon (GAC) in Massachusetts, opened his remarks by passing around physical samples of both GAC and anion exchange resin (AIX). As carbon chips and tiny resin microbeads passed though the hands of attendees, LeBlanc shared lessons learned from his experience with the two technologies.
Bench-scale test results help tell a stronger story for the good of water customers.
Considering stakeholders and action plans
Regardless of state and federal positions on PFAS, ordinary public citizens have been able to influence policy at a grassroots level. Melissa Harclerode, a discipline leader for sustainability and green cleanups with CDM Smith and an expert in stakeholder engagement, advised workshop attendees to practice inclusivity. Public engagement has been shown to both support and challenge action plans. Combined with the overwhelming accessibility of factual information and misinformation, Harclerode encouraged public officials to open transparent channels with their stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle. “As you’re engaging the community, new questions, new concerns are going to come up,” she said. “Policy may be changing over time, so this is a continuous process.”
When the town of Westfield discovered its PFAS problem in 2016, public officials and citizens alike were playing catch up on available information about these pervasive contaminants. At the same time Westfield was learning about PFOA and PFOS, the two chemical culprits discovered in their wells, new information was coming out about other potentially hazardous members of the PFAS family. And about an hour northeast, the town of Ayer, Massachusetts discovered PFAS in its wells, attracting even more media attention. Massachusetts was still three years away from issuing guidance on the emerging contaminants, but in towns like Westfield and Ayer public opinion had already jump-started the search for a solution.
Engineering toward water customers' expectations
Westfield’s Department of Public Works acted quickly and shut off affected wells. Town officials worked around the clock to work out a treatment strategy, but in the meantime the deactivated wells meant potential water shortages and restrictions for residents. Instead of rushing toward treatment to appease a restless populace, town leaders put their trust in lab experiments. Those experiments, or bench-scale tests, ultimately paid off in the form of public support.
Westfield’s bench-scale tests, the details of which were captured in this documentary short, showed the early favorite, GAC filtration, was the best treatment fit for the city. Their findings may not seem groundbreaking now, but at the time they helped provide relief to a city on edge. “Our clients felt much better,” LeBlanc said. “They were able to tell a stronger story for the good of the water customers.”
With a proven plan of attack, the town moved forward with construction. The proactive response and careful treatment selection earned praise from local media outlets and community activists. Even Erin Brockovich, the famed environmental crusader, touted the city’s plan on social media. “Congratulations to the City of Westfield, Massachusetts for taking the bold step to get out ahead of this contamination and protect their consumers,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
Getting back to business as usual
Finding PFAS in their water wells initially inspired knee-jerk fear responses from the public. But after selecting a treatment strategy, LeBlanc said that going forward, it was pretty much business as usual for water professionals. “We go from the shock of ‘Oh my God, we have PFAS!’ to ‘OK, so what does treatment look like?’” he recalled. For Westfield, it ultimately looked like a lot of other water treatment projects. The team acquired permits and civil engineers mapped out transport options for personnel and materials into and out of the project site. “All these things, which are normal and not specific to PFAS, become the star of the show after a while,” LeBlanc said.
OCWD and CDM Smith covered far-reaching and pivotal innovations that are moving the needle toward lower costs and more sustainable PFAS solutions. Dr. Megan Plumlee, director of Research for OCWD, and Jennifer Hooper, senior research engineer at CDM Smith, introduced the next generation of PFAS treatment, which included new and regenerable sorbents that are proving more effective at removing PFAS and produce little to no waste stream. Some of the latest technologies require no sorbent at all.
Other topics included a regulatory update from the California Water Resources Control Board, exposure impacts from an expert in toxicology, and PFAS-related litigation. Download the full presentation slide deck for more information. If you would like to set up a similar workshop, contact our PFAS Team. We would be happy to organize a program tailored to your group.
The PFAS removal successes we’ve had are outstanding. We’ve averted crises through planning by intelligent, genuinely-invested professionals.