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TDEC Moves to Assess PFAS Impacts in Tennessee

The State Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is spearheading an assessment of the public risk posed by exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals in Tennessee by sampling all public water supply sources in the state.

PFAS, as the group of over 5,000 manmade chemicals is collectively known, have been widely used for decades in manufactured goods including food packaging, nonstick cookware and water-resistant clothing as well as firefighting foams. PFAS have received widespread publicity as an emerging contaminant linked to adverse health effects. [1]

PFAS can be dispersed in the air, from manufacturing or fire training locations; bioaccumulated in the food chain including fish consumed by humans; and even concentrated in residuals from waste treatment like wastewater treatment plant sludge or landfill leachate. Currently, no federal enforceable regulatory standards exist for drinking water or groundwater (though EPA announced on Jan. 19 its intention to develop one for PFAS and PFOA), but states across the country are proceeding forward with a variety of standards. Tennessee has not established its own standards, but is developing a statewide assessment of PFAS in drinking water and the environment that could be used to inform future regulatory standards or response efforts. TDEC has established a website with centralized information about PFAS, the actions of the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actions and TDEC’s response. [2]

EPA has taken several preliminary steps to learn more about PFAS, its presence in the environment and its health effects. In May 2016, EPA issued a lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS (either one or combined), two of the most common and best known PFAS. [3] EPA released an updated PFAS action plan in February 2020, including adding 172 PFAS chemicals to the Toxics Release Inventory reporting system, [4] issuing interim recommendations for assessing groundwater, [5] and issuing an interim strategy for monitoring PFAS in federal NPDES permits. [6]  In January 2020, on the last day of the Trump administration, EPA determined to proceed with developing a primary drinking water standard for PFAS and PFOA. [7]

A number of federal assessments have generated data on the prevalence of PFAS in Tennessee. EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment data from 2008-09 included testing fish tissue from rivers across the state, including the Tennessee, Cumberland, Wolf, Nolichucky, Duck, French Broad and Mississippi rivers. PFAS was detected in fish tissue from each of the rivers tested. Data from the 2013-14 survey are recently been published and are under review. [8In 2015 and 2016, through the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, 130 community drinking water systems serving more than 10,000 customers sampled finished drinking water for certain PFAS. As reported at the May 2019 Environmental Show of the South in Chattanooga, that sampling revealed just two public water systems with detectable concentrations of PFAS and those levels were well below EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt. Other sampling in Tennessee has occurred at Department of Defense installations in Tennessee, including Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville, McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Knoxville, Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma and Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington. PFAS were detected in groundwater samples taken at each location.

In light of continuing human health concerns related to PFAS exposure, TDEC is now undertaking a comprehensive sampling survey of all public drinking water sources in the state, which is anticipated to encompass more than 1,200 sources and over 750 facilities. [9] TDEC plans to sample raw water from drinking water sources, with finished water only sampled where PFAS detections in raw water indicate it is advisable. Sampling is funded through a grant from EPA and State Revolving Fund set-asides and the University of Tennessee is providing laboratory analytical support for 29 separate PFAS analytes. This program is intended to give TDEC a comprehensive picture of PFAS contamination in drinking water, which has been the most studied exposure scenario so far. If finished water is found to be above EPA’s health advisory level, TDEC plans to provide notice to residents using the water and is developing a communication strategy to address public concerns, including a website, FAQs and other resources both for public water systems and for customers.

According to Kendra Abkowitz, Director of TDEC’s Office of Policy and Sustainable Practices, the agency is also watching the results of the 2021 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting cycle to guide future inquiry about potential PFAS contamination. As noted above, EPA has added 172 PFAS chemicals to the TRI, which will produce data on facilities that manufacture, process, or otherwise use any of the listed PFAS in quantities over 100 pounds. While the reporting threshold is relatively high, the data reported by July 1, 2021, will identify facilities that may be sources of PFAS in the environment. While TDEC has not indicated any threshold or protocol for testing of environmental media around any identified facilities, the agency would likely follow up on the TRI data to evaluate potential impacts.

To date, TDEC’s evaluation of potential human exposure to PFAS has been focused on drinking water ingestion.  Other states, however, have documented PFAS impacts in soil and air, as well as in infrastructure that serves as a repository of societal uses of PFAS like wastewater treatment plans and landfills. TDEC announced at the December meeting of the Underground Storage Tanks and Solid Waste Disposal Control Board, that it has convened a Landfill and WWTP Working Group, comprising of TDEC (Water Resources and Solid Waste), public and private landfills, utility services and the University of Tennessee to evaluate technical, legal and economic issues associated with PFAS that ends up in WWTP sludge or effluent and in landfill leachate. [10] The Division of Remediation has not moved forward with any formal policy on investigating or remediating PFAS at sites in its programs, given that EPA has not yet finalized a determination that they constitute hazardous substances under federal superfund law. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that PFAS sampling has occurred at a few sites; PFAS compounds are likely to become a common analyte in the future.

PFAS has become something of a celebrity among “emerging contaminants.” TDEC is developing its knowledge about the prevalence of PFAS in the environment in the state, as well as potential human exposure. TDEC has not, on the other hand, undertaken to develop its own drinking water screening levels in advance of EPA action, as a number of other states have done. As the agency’s 2021 drinking water sampling data is communicated to the public, we expect heightened public interest in the issue, with calls for action putting pressure on regulators and those entities that generate or manage PFAS to take steps to address the issue.


[1] Liza Gross, “These Everyday Toxins May Be Hurting Pregnant Women and Their Babies,” NY Times (Sept. 23, 2020)

[2] https://www.tn.gov/environment/program-areas/opsp-policy-and-sustainable-practices/policy/pfas.html

[3] 81 Fed. Reg. 33250 (May 25, 2016)

[4] 85 Fed. Reg. 37354 (June 22, 2020)

[5] “Interim Recommendations for Addressing Groundwater Contaminated with PFOA and PFOS,” (Dec. 19, 2019)

[6] “Interim Strategy for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in Federally Issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permits” (Nov. 22, 2020)

[7] https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/pre-publication-federal-register-notice-announcement-final

[8]https://www.epa.gov/national-aquatic-resource-surveys/ecoregional-results-national-rivers-and-streams-assessment-2013-14

[9] “TDEC’s Strategy to Assess the Impact of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Compounds on Public Drinking Water Sources in Tennessee (Fall 2020)

[10] Hooper, Jeremy. “PFAS Updates and DWR Sampling Initiative

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