Contaminant Regulation, Where Are We Now?
By Shannon P. Murphy
Lead with lead
Focusing on contaminant regulations, in general and recently, lead has been king, which brings up the topic of HR 5320 (www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-5320). Effectively, it’s a revision to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). It is important to note, however, that buried within the confines of this bill is a motion to mandate on a national level the new lead laws that were birthed in California Law AB-1953. Specifically, HR 5320 mandates that the “weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures” be implemented on a federal level.
The intent is there: lead is bad and it is easy to understand why there would be new laws wanting to get it out of plumbing systems entirely. The rule, however, is not as ironclad as I believe the authors would like it to be, as a small faucet made of higher lead-content brass could technically pass this requirement today, if sufficient lengths of tubing were to be attached to the product prior to sale. I prefer text that is currently in the SDWA that indicates maximum lead content of brass that is being used itself, as opposed to weighted content of a product. Lead content of brass can be confirmed through ASTM standards. Overall weighted content of a product requires in-depth product evaluation, and depending upon how interpreted, lead analysis may be required on all plastic and rubber parts of a system, as well as the metal ones. This leans more toward a certification body evaluating the product, which adds cost to a product through the need to have each wetted item on the bill of material reviewed, tested and each system listed annually as compliant to the new lead regulation levels. This is an important differentiation to understand. Unlike the NSF standards, which allow extraction testing on a complete system where one extraction test result of that system is reviewed for compliance, this new law requires that each component be tested for lead content. If you have a product like an RO, which can have over 40 different wetted components, the cost for compliance testing can get very high, as each component needs to be reviewed and possibly tested. Keep a close eye on this one, especially for any new associated bills that mandate certification to this standard on a federal level. Sound familiar?
Who enforces these regulations anyway?
Regulations and the act of enforcement are ever changing, frequently surprising activities that have many faces and paths that seem never quite the same twice. A perfect example of this occurred here, in our new facility. The office and production location were initially a shell of a building, which required a complete design and build out. As with most moving projects, there were last-minute patches and bugs that were being addressed while settling in. Walking through the new facility, I noticed one of the interior finishing workers prying off the men and women signs attached to the wall by the restrooms. I asked him why and was surprised to hear that the inspector tagged them as a violation. Upon measuring the placards, it was noted that they were three-quarters of an inch too high and were red-tagged (to be fixed) to the proper regulatory code height before final approval. The worker was carefully trying to remove the signs from the wall; however, in the process, both signs were destroyed and the wall damaged. This seemingly unnoticeable three-quarters of an inch then required the wall to be cleaned, patched, resurfaced and painted and new signs had to be purchased. Additional trips (cost) by the construction crew—as well as the inspectors—were required in order to gain final approval; additional cost and time for seemingly little added value.
On January 22, 2001, US EPA adopted a new standard for arsenic in drinking water at 10 ppb, replacing the old standard of 50 ppb. Subsequently, there was significant buzz regarding this new regulatory level. Seminars packed with professionals and specialists from numerous medical and health boards were held, all reinforcing the significant health benefits for reducing regulated arsenic levels to 10 ppb. Arsenic had been deemed a significant carcinogen on its own, as well as a significant co-carcinogen for other factors in life, such as smoking. There were surprising revelations about ingestion of arsenic related to increase in lung cancer, which departed from any other type of consumed (but not inhaled) product in the environment. The science and specialists mandated a swift and absolute reduction rule for arsenic in the SDWA. Following a year of review and expert analysis from multiple sources, the rule became effective on February 22, 2002, with an implementation date of January 23, 2006. It was determined that a five-year allowance (from the date the rule was first adopted) would be put into place in order to provide adequate time for the drinking water industry to develop and provide cost-efficient solutions for affected communities, and to allow these communities to develop a strategy and financial plan to gain compliance. Science showed that the drop from 50 to 10 ppb would lower the cancer rates from one in 100 to one in 500.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years (since the new level was proposed) and five years after all communities across the US were to be in compliance. Based upon continued investigation and meetings with communities, operators and engineering firms, there remains a significant number of communities that continue to be out of compliance with this regulation. The vast majority of these drinking water systems have been granted extensions or exemptions, based upon a number of options that became available after the regulation went in to effect. One example of an extension that was provided was aimed at total arsenic loading over a set period of time.
In summary, if a community has a 50-ppb level of arsenic in their water, based upon the five-year allowance for compliance, this would allow for a total of 250-ppb loading over that period of time (50 ppb x five years = 250 ppb over five years). Therefore, if a community had a 25-ppb level, they would then be permitted 10 years to come into compliance, since the time-averaged loading would be the same for those communities with 50 ppb (250 ppb/25 = 10 years).
There are other factors involved as well, including a number of initiatives specifically directed at small and very small communities that were unable to afford centralized treatment for compliance. These extensions and exemptions are permitted under the 1996 Amendments to the SDWA, whereby primacy agencies are permitted to grant variances to small water systems that provide evidence that they are unable to afford the technology to come into compliance with various regulated substances. These variances allow a system to install technology that can reduce a contaminant to the maximum extent that is affordable and protective of public health, in lieu of technology that can achieve compliance with that regulation. One of the tools available to these small water systems is a review of other systems that are of the same size with similar source water that have not achieved compliance but do provide some treatment under this variance tool. Frequently, it is associations like the National Rural Water Association that go to bat and fight for these extensions and exemptions for the small and very small water utilities. By small and very small water utilities, we are looking at populations under 3,300 individuals for the small and 500 for the very small.
Why does this matter now?
Between 2004 and 2006, the world of arsenic-reduction products, media and hardware was developing and being aggressively marketed at a dizzying rate. New products came out monthly (almost weekly it seemed), claiming lower cost, longer life and US EPA approval. There were so many options available that, as soon as a decision was made for a community or engineering firm to use one type of system, it was bombarded with information about a new, better, faster, stronger product that should have been considered. Today, much of this chaos has gone by the wayside. Many of the functional processes for arsenic remediation have bubbled to the top and remain successfully in service for these communities.
Enter the realm of small communities with their extensions and exemptions. Gradually, these agreements are coming to a point where the system operators are being pressured by their primacy agency to come into compliance. States like Nevada, Texas and California are addressing many of these smaller communities on a case-by-case basis, now that the frenzy has passed and there is time to look at these cases with a more reasonable completion timeframe and agency staff workload. For these smaller communities, the POU program remains one of the best solutions for compliance.
California recently passed AB 2515, allowing POU as a means for compliance for small water systems. Nevada’s Department of Environmental Protection recently finalized its program for POU remedies, and is actively moving forward with a number of projects, both pilot and full implementation. Texas was once considered the ‘never’ state for POU. Following several meetings over the course of a number of years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has embraced POU applications as a viable means for compliance. Texas is now very interested in developing their POU program through monitored pilot testing with small communities for arsenic, as well as a few other contaminants that seem to affect small water systems throughout the state. In Arizona, POU programs have been up and running for years and doing well; the nuances of the program, however, can get a little tricky, depending upon the location of the community and how long the system has been utilizing POU options.
POU treatment for arsenic is just the tip of the regulatory iceberg. As we start peeling back the layers of regulatory issues, to include current drinking water ‘sleeping’ regulations (like those for radium and radionuclide, future developing perchlorate, personal-care products and endocrine disruptors) the efficiencies for POU treatment will continue to prove beneficial.
What does it mean for me, the reader of this article?
In this time of economic uncertainty, everyone is working hard to differentiate their business and provide niche products or services. The lesson to take away from this journey down regulatory lane is that there is a developing market for affordable small-system compliance through point-of-use technology. I know this has been talked about before in a number of articles over the past few years; however, as these systems are now actively looking for solutions, the time for cost-efficient, decentralized treatment seems to be emerging. For the heavily hit states, mainly in the southwest, most of the communities that have the financial ability to implement a full arsenic treatment program—either through their own funding or through funding opportunities such as the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund, or the Rural Utilities Service of the US Department of Agriculture—have completed their projects. For the estimated 800 or so small communities that have yet to achieve compliance, however, the main reason has been the financial inability to implement a full treatment plant program. These communities have relied on variances and extensions in order to stay off the violators list. As these extensions come to term, these communities are looking for viable options for compliance.
What makes a POU project successful? After nearly eight years of working with engineers, regulators, water systems and installers, I have found that the most important part of a successful program is the local water dealer. It is the ability to meet directly with engineers, operators and, most importantly, the community, to review and discuss POU treatment options. Many operators and engineering firms remain leery of POU technology, relegating its use to a secondary option. At some point, however, communities start pushing back on cost; when economics come into play, the conversation often turns to POU technology.
For most compliance projects, reverse osmosis still remains one of the best solutions for these communities. When calculating a 10-year cost summary for a project, it is not the initial cost of the POU systems that affect the overall long-term cost. Heavy cost burden for the POU program occurs with the maintenance of the systems. Media-based systems are completely dependent upon total volume of water treated; therefore, each house or treatment unit will reach their monitored capacity at a different time of the year. A house with two people may have a year before a unit needs to be serviced, but a unit being used on a family of six with pets will require maintenance much earlier. These unscheduled service calls tend to be more expensive and are very difficult to manage for the individual responsible for the service contract. Through the use of RO units, maintenance can be anticipated with a pre-scheduled, annual service program, where the pre- and post-filters can be changed out and the system serviced. During this time, the water technician can test the TDS reduction capabilities of the RO membrane to determine if they need to be changed out as well. Due to compliance rules, each system should be equipped with a TDS monitor. However, pre- scheduled, annual service checks can easily determine the need to replace the RO membrane a little early. This saves on a second servicing later in the year if the membrane is close to needing replacement. An additional benefit to the RO system is its ability to reduce more than one contaminant. As new regulations are enforced and developed, RO systems remain a proven technology to handle these new and developing contaminants.
In summary, there remain opportunities in this area, but the ability to work with engineering firms, product providers, operators and regulators is necessary to fulfill all requirements for the state or primacy agency. Like putting up bathroom signs, it is important to know beforehand what the regulations are, and make sure they are followed before any installations can be completed properly. Otherwise, the signs may have to be ripped down and the walls repaired, which is an unnecessary cost in time and money.
About the author
S Shannon P. Murphy is Vice President of Municipal Water Programs for Watts Water Technologies (Arizona), a division of Watts Water Technologies of North Andover, MA. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, in biology and Master’s Degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Previously, Murphy was with NSF International. He can be reached at (480) 675-7995 x139 or MURPHYSP@watts.com