By Regu P. Regunathan, PhD and Pauli Undesser, CWS-VI
Arsenic regulatory background
A US EPA rule that established the arsenic maximum contaminant level (MCL) to 0.01 mg/L (10 μg/L) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) became enforceable on January 23, 2006. The arsenic regulation was one of the first rules to significantly impact a substantial number of small systems. Congress recognized the special challenges faced by small water systems to comply with this rule well before the compliance timeframe and directed US EPA to review its entire approach to the small systems impacted by this rule. In 2003, US EPA prepared the Congressional Report on Small System Arsenic Rule Implementation Issues. The report outlined several areas for improvements including:
- Examination of the affordability provisions
- Provision of financial assistance to small systems
- Allow additional time to comply with the regulatory deadlines.
- Provide technical assistance to implement this and future rules.
- Recommend legislative changes, if necessary.
Even with these considerations to prevent hardships with the final arsenic rule, 716 small systems serving over 1.6 million citizens were out of compliance in 2011, five years after enforcement began. For this reason, Congress is focusing attention on it once again.
New congressional charge
The 2012 US Congress conference report required the establishment of a working group to provide input and recommendations on barriers to use of POU and POE treatment units, package plants (including water bottled by public water systems) and modular units, as well as alternative affordability criteria that give extra weight to small, rural and lower income communities. Congress set a deadline of June 20 for US EPA to obtain the input from a working group and submit a report on actions to make alternative compliance methods and a report on alternative affordability criteria.
RESOLVE, an organization contracted by US EPA, contacted key stakeholders to seek out individual members with a broad background of experience related to arsenic compliance for small systems. The final working group consisted of 20 individuals representing various regulatory, municipal and manufacturing entities. As part of the working group, Shannon Murphy of Watts and Beth Thomas of AdEdge Technologies were included to represent manufacturers of POU, POE and packaged systems. In addition to participating on the US EPA working group, both Murphy and Thomas worked closely with other members of the Water Quality Association as part of their task force. WQA’s Pauli Undesser assembled the task force of water treatment industry experts, key stakeholders for water treatment devices for arsenic and other inorganic contaminant reduction, to prepare responses for this report. Additional members included Regu P. Regunathan, ReguNathan & Associates & Technical Consultant to WQA; Mark Brotman, Kinetico Incorporated; Randy Eddinger, Suburban Water Tech/Suburban EcoWater; Gary Hatch, Hatch Global Consulting Services; Jennifer Rice, Multi-pure Drinking Water Systems; Jim Stewart, Culligan International Company; Becky Tallon, Pentair Water and Chris Wilker, EcoWater Systems LLC. This article, focusing mostly on POU devices, is based on the report submitted by this task force to the larger group convened by RESOLVE.
Barriers to use
When assessing the barriers for multiple technology categories (POU, POE, package plants and modular units), the WQA task force identified those common to all technology categories and those that were unique to POU technology. The barriers are broken out and discussed as follows.
Barriers common to all technology categories
Decision makers’ lack of education on alternative technologies
The main barrier that all alternatives combat is an overarching lack of education regarding alternative technology quality, capabilities and design. Frequently, communities rely on advice for treatment options from engineers who are regulators or contractors. In the case where central treatment is the only option to review, this works out well because engineers are well-trained and informed. When small-scale alternatives are being reviewed in addition to central treatment as potential options for compliance, however, the advice from engineers is unqualified due to lack of academic/professional training or hands-on experience regarding these smaller-scale water treatment devices. US EPA guidelines lack information regarding the professional who can assist the system with identifying alternatives, developing costs and device selection. For this reason, the guidelines should be updated to include prescriptive information regarding training and qualifications of the professionals who will assist in reviewing and providing advice on alternative technologies.
Decision maker conflict of interest
Lack of education is amplified when a conflict of interest exists among those providing advice or making decisions, because of the potential for monetary gains. For example, an engineering firm that provides services for project development may naturally lean toward a proposal for centralized treatment that will require further engineering services over alternatives that in most cases will not require engineering involvement and thus, no further monetary benefit to the provider. This barrier is demonstrated by examples across the US.
Why, AZ was a typical example of this scenario. The community of 90 to 100 homes (approximately 400 residents) and served by a local utility with three water wells presented with arsenic levels between 50 and 150 ppb. Various options were reviewed for treatment; however, the decision was made to provide central treatment costing over one million dollars in lieu of POU treatment, estimated at five percent of the cost of central treatment ($50,000 including installation). There were no technical or regulatory barriers preventing the use of POU devices. To compound the issue, technical difficulties and difficult water quality characteristics led to the failure of the initial central system and need for redesign in order to make it operable. Environmental factors, such as warm temperatures, would not have been a factor for POU devices that are typically located in temperature-controlled environments.
To further illustrate a comparison of costs for various options to address a similar situation, task force members provided cost estimates for a community of 100 households treating water with 50 ppb of pentavalent arsenic at a pH level of 7.5 and silicate level of 20 ppm. Table 1 clearly shows how the options compare with each other. While POU media and POU RO have clear cost advantages to a central system, use of a POE system in each household of this scenario does not offer the same advantage, although use of POE would be appropriate for commercial and institutional establishments.
Another example, on a larger scale, is to compare the estimated costs of central treatment against POU to bring all of the 716 communities currently out of compliance for arsenic reduction into compliance. If centralized treatment were provided to each, at an assumed cost of $300,000 per community, the total cost would be $214.8 million. A conservative estimation to provide POU technologies for all these communities would be 11 percent of central treatment cost (~$23.6 million). The savings is significant enough that the choice is obvious. Primarily due to lack of awareness/education and conflict of interest, however, this decision is not clear to many regulators and contracted engineers. To address such a situation, a standing committee can be formed by US EPA to provide assistance to communities or states that face such violations. This committee can be populated with experts selected from the Rural Water Association, Rural Community Assistance Partnership, National Ground Water Association and WQA, all of whom are more attuned to the problems faced by such small systems.
Lack of funding support
The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) is the main source of funding to build compliance options to meet the requirements of the SDWA. The DWSRF, however, excludes operation and maintenance expenditures as well as lab fees for monitoring. In many cases, alternative technologies have a low capital cost compared to central systems, but operation and maintenance (O&M) costs and/or monitoring lab fees might be higher than that of a central system. Because of such funding anomalies, centralized treatment might be chosen more often, even though in the grand scheme of the US government, it would be the more costly approach overall. To overcome this limitation and to aid the implementation of more cost-effective and viable technology options, the DWSRF needs to address coverage of O&M costs and lab fees for monitoring in addition to funding capital costs.
Barriers unique to POU technology
State restrictions beyond US EPA guidelines
While a few states have embraced alternative technologies to provide safe drinking water to their communities, other states are reluctant to use alternatives and force centralized treatment as the only option, regardless of exorbitant costs or time delays in doing so. In many cases, these roadblocks are imposed due to lack of understanding of POU devices. From Survey of States on Use of POU/POE for Community Water Systems conducted in February 2011, 44 US primacy agencies responded: 21 allowed POU/POE for compliance and an additional five states allowed POE but not POU devices for compliance. The results of the survey show that less than half of US states allow POU for compliance. From an earlier survey conducted in 2008, Figure 1 shows the states that allowed POU/POE at that time. The numbers are similar to a recent survey done in 2011. Additionally, state-imposed limitations in the states that do allow POU and POE use was also collected. States responded with the limitations listed in Table 2. These restrictions and others indicated why (in the 2011 survey) only 60 percent of the states that allow POU/POE technologies for compliance actually have POU installed for use. Figure 2 shows the states that actually have POU used for compliance in their states as of 2008.
Figure 1. States accepting POU/POE for Compliance (2008)
Figure 2. States with POU/POE usage (2008)
Table 2. State limitations for POU and POE use for small system compliance
Excessive pilot-testing programs
Excessive pilot-testing programs required by regulators and engineers also detract from the use of alternative technologies. In the case of POU and POE technologies, accredited independent certifiers conduct testing according to the NSF/ANSI performance standards at accredited laboratories, in addition to conducting facility audits and certification. NSF/ANSI standards are designed to test devices in a rigorous manner; for example, at a challenge of 300 ppb (or 50 ppb) of arsenic. Although testing with 50 ppb of arsenic is allowed in the standards, most POU RO devices have been tested with 300 ppb pentavalent arsenic in the challenge water. Even with the use of higher challenge water concentration, most RO devices attain non-detectable levels of arsenic in the product water. Furthermore, these units have real-time monitoring capabilities to warn users to change the membrane element if water quality decreases beyond expectations set in the standards. Testing of POU technologies containing media is conducted to 120 percent of the stated capacity of the device when a performance indicator is included. The challenge water contains not only the contaminant but also any potential interfering chemicals (such as silicates) to create worst-case challenge water. To further evaluate product performance for inorganics, two tests are conducted, one at pH 6.5 and another at pH 8.5. By testing products under worst-case water quality challenges, products are over-qualified for most situations and ensure that issues resulting from variations in water quality are minimized. For these reasons, further extensive pilot testing of certified products is unnecessary. In most cases, again due to lack of knowledge of these devices, testing protocols and certifications, regulators and engineers impose such unnecessary requirements. Further restrictions posed by state regulators affect installation, operation and maintenance. For example, some regulators require a licensed plumber to install such units. Installation of POU/POE devices requires specific knowledge of handling and performance of these products, in addition to specifically adhering to manufacturer recommendations. Such knowledge can be found among the dealers who stock the specific devices in that region because they have already been trained by the manufacturer on the proper installation and operation of these devices.
Sampling diversity across states also requires detailed protocol guidelines. It is important to sample POU devices per US EPA sampling protocols, but it is unnecessary to make them any more stringent than the guidelines for central treatment requirements. When there is a central treatment system in operation in a small community, the system is required to take one sample every quarter at the entry point to the distribution and analyze the same to report for compliance purposes. Some states have made this a requirement for every POU device installed in each household of the system. This is excessive and whatever cost benefit that had been realized in selecting the POU option would soon be lost in time and cost required for excessive sampling. Additionally, some states stipulate that if one POU device on a system is out of compliance, the whole system is out of compliance. This mentality is proper for central systems, but inaccurate for site-specific devices. POU device performance in one location has no bearing on any other location within that system. US EPA needs to issue clear guidance on the required number of samples taken for analysis on a statistical basis. This should be based on the reality of how these devices have been tested and certified and how they incorporate end-of-life warning devices.
Compliance lists underrepresent POU/POE technologies
Only the arsenic and radionuclide rules list POU technologies as small system compliance technologies (SSCTs). Other contaminant rules were in place prior to POU/POE guidelines and have not been updated with the POU/POE options that have been identified by US EPA as SSCTs. Many of these contaminants can be reduced by POU and POE technologies; NSF/ANSI standards exist for the testing and certification of these devices. These SSCT lists need to be updated to accurately reflect effective POU technologies for compliance for many of these inorganics.
US EPA guidelines require revision to reinforce POU and POE technologies as permanent solutions. Lack of guidance on this point does not give clear direction to state regulators to adopt these technologies as permanent solutions. Many states are setting sunset timelines or stating that POU and POE are temporary solutions, while in other states, they are permanent solutions. The guidelines need be revised to provide guidance on an approved approach to try to achieve as close to 100-percent participation and accessibility as possible. It is unrealistic for utilities to obtain 100-percent participation right away due to some stubborn individuals in the community. US EPA guidance is required to overcome this limitation by describing a due-diligence process that can be implemented to attempt to achieve 100 percent, but if that is not achieved and the process was followed, then it is the one or few consumers’ choice to reject treatment, but not prevent others within the community to benefit from the process. US EPA guidelines also require revision to diminish restrictions imposed on POU technology based on the number of people or connections being served. If the technology can affordably support viable water treatment for larger communities, it should be allowed. A case where this is most likely to occur is when there are multiple water contaminants, such as arsenic and a radionuclide that need to be addressed. Communities in Texas are dealing with this scenario and are entertaining POU RO options due to the prohibitive cost of central treatment. They should be allowed to choose the best option without being curtailed artificially.
Five years after implementation of the arsenic rule, 716 systems still do not comply. A similar situation exists for other contaminants. Central treatment alone cannot solve the problem, or it would have been resolved by now. This exemplifies that alternative technologies are essential for small-system compliance with the arsenic or other rules. However, current education and guidance of consumers, regulators, engineers and utilities are insufficient to ensure successful implementation of alternative technology programs. For this reason, it is imperative that US EPA review the content of this report in detail and take action on items that present barriers for successful implementation of alternative technology programs, such as POU, POE and packaged systems. When they are utilized to their full potential, alternative technologies will improve overall public health and safety by providing several benefits, including the delivery of safe water to more people and the flexibility to readily replace outdated technologies as necessary and at lower overall cost.
About the authors
Dr. ‘Regu’ P. Regunathan has been part of the Water Treatment industry for over 38 years. He has served as Vice President of R&D and Operations and later as President of Culligan International subsidiary Everpure, Inc. Regunathan was subsequently appointed Senior VP of Science & Technology of Culligan Water Technologies and later US Filter Consumer Group. He currently owns a consulting company, providing serverices to different businesses and organizations, including Water Quality Association. Regunathan received his basic civil and public health engineering educational degrees from University of Madras in India. He obtained his postgraduate educational degrees from Iowa State University-Ames, Iowa. Dr. Regunathan has participated in several US EPA and AWWARF-sponsored research activities over the last 35 years and served as a member of US EPA’s NDWAC from 2004 to 2007.
Pauli Undesser is Director of Regulatory and Technical Affairs at WQA. In addition, she maintains the position as Toxicology Manager for the WQA Gold Seal Certification Program and has previously held the position of Product Certification Supervisor. Undesser holds an MS degree in biochemistry from Northern Illinois University and a BS Degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign.