Comparing PFAS to other groundwater contaminants: Implications for remediation

Authors: C. Newell, D. Adamson, P. Kulkarni, B. Nwedo Nzeribe , H. Stroo
Published: June 2020 in Remediation Journal.


Established groundwater contaminants such as chlorinated solvents and hydrocarbons have impacted groundwater at hundreds of thousands of sites around the United States and have been responsible for multibillion dollar remediation expenditures. An important question is whether groundwater remediation for the emerging contaminant class comprised of per‐ and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) will be a smaller, similar, or a larger‐scale problem than the established groundwater contaminants. A two‐pronged approach was used to evaluate this question in this paper. First, nine quantitative scale‐of‐remediation metrics were used to compare PFAS to four established contaminants: chlorinated solvents, benzene, 1,4‐dioxane, and methyl tert‐butyl ether. These metrics reflected the prevalence of the contaminants in the U.S., attenuation potential, remediation difficulty, and research intensity. Second, several key challenges identified with PFAS remediation were evaluated to see similar situations (qualitative analogs) that have been addressed by the remediation field in the past. The results of the analysis show that four out of nine of the evaluated quantitative metrics (production, number of potential sites, detection frequency, required destruction/removal efficiency) indicate that the scale of PFAS groundwater remediation may be smaller compared to the current scale of remediation for conventional groundwater contaminants. One attenuation metric, median plume length, suggests that overall PFAS remediation could pose a greater challenge compared to hydrocarbon sites, but only slightly larger than chlorinated volatile organic compounds sites. The second attenuation metric, hydrophobic sorption, was not definitive regarding the potential scale of PFAS remediation. The final three metrics (regulatory criteria, in‐situ remediation capability, and research intensity) all indicate that PFAS remediation might end up being a larger scale problem than the established contaminants. An assessment of the evolution of groundwater remediation capabilities for established contaminants identified five qualitative analogs for key PFAS groundwater remediation issues: (a) low‐level detection analytical capabilities; (b) methods to assess the risk of complex chemical mixtures; (c) nonaqueous phase dissolution as an analog for partitioning, precursors, and back diffusion at PFAS sites; (d) predictions of long plume lengths for emerging contaminants; and (e) monitored natural attenuation protocols for other non‐degrading groundwater contaminants. Overall the evaluation of these five analogs provided some comfort that, while remediating the potential universe of PFAS sites will be extremely challenging, the groundwater community has relevant past experience that may prove useful. The quantitative metrics and the qualitative analogs suggest a different combination of remediation approaches may be needed to deal with PFAS sites and may include source control, natural attenuation, in‐situ sequestration, containment, and point‐of‐use treatment. However, as with many chlorinated solvent sites, while complete restoration of PFAS sites may be uncommon, it should be possible to prevent excessive exposure of PFAS to human and ecological receptors.

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