An interview with Wilfried Ludwigs and Olaf Kaspryk
The human organism is unable to clear perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) from the body – or only after many years. They accumulate and, above certain concentrations, can potentially trigger diseases. In the summer of 2012, the executive board at Rastatt Utilities discovered PFAS in the raw water used to produce drinking water at Rauental waterworks. TRANSFER magazine spoke to Wilfried Ludwigs (Steinbeis Transfer Center: Consulting of Medium-Sized Business) and Olaf Kaspryk (Managing Director of Rastatt Utilities) about the specifics of damage control and the consequences drawn from the incident.
Hello Mr. Kaspryk. How exactly were the PFAS discovered at the waterworks in Rauental?
They were discovered by chance since so far there was no obligation to test PFAS in drinking water. Our experts were performing a detailed analysis of the raw water that was used to produce drinking water. Afterwards, hazardous high concentrations were also found in raw water samples from the neighboring waterworks in Niederbühl. It is only at the main waterworks in Ottersdorf where PFAS pollutants have not yet been detected in relevant concentrations. As a consequence, the two waterworks in Rauental and Niederbühl were closed as a precautionary measure and a significant danger was posed to drinking water supplies for the population of Rastatt.
The presumed cause was large-scale dispersion of a mixture of biocompost and waste containing PFAS from paper production. Currently, around 1,200 hectares of agricultural land are affected by PFAS in the districts of Baden-Baden and Rastatt. If we had not discovered it in time, the local population would have continued to absorb hazardous amounts of PFAS chemicals in their bodies for years.
What did you do about it?
Rastatt Utilities has significantly increased the number of raw water measuring sites and carried out regular raw water analysis upstream of the waterworks to establish a basis for a suitable groundwater model. As part of a research project, a technological concept has been developed and tested to remove PFAS from raw water at the waterworks in Rauental. A special groundwater model was created for the land in Ottersdorf so that cause-and-effect relationships could be observed and analyzed specifically on site. The first issues were when and to what extent contaminated raw water would flare up and reach the only waterworks that was still fully functional at the time in Ottersdorf. As mentioned before, we immediately closed the PFAS-concerned waterworks in Rauental and Niederbühl. Our strategy revolved around self-help and taking the initiative. We focused on researching contamination and getting in touch with anyone affected by incidents. Thanks to the support of Consulting of Medium-Sized Business, the Steinbeis Transfer Center, we came up with a concept: an expert forum with experts in this topic to discuss in detail the proposed actions and better technologies for PFAS removal.
A question for you, Mr. Ludwigs. What were the biggest challenges with the first PFAS expert forum?
The initial idea was to share information on the current situation with forum members and then consider upcoming decisions. This made it necessary to switch from a conference format to a workshop format. The more than 25 experts from all over Germany showed strong interest in regional factors and they endorsed the concepts that had been developed, i.e. regional networking, a systematic monitoring of groundwater and drinking water and new facilities for cleaning raw water.
And now one for you, Mr. Kaspryk: The idea of a “contamination overview” came up during the forum. What’s that about?
The guests who took part in our first expert forum in 2016 appealed to all waterworks in Germany to carry out PFAS tests on their own initiative to end uncertainty regarding a possible threat posed by PFAS. The discussion carried out during our first PFAS Forum allowed us to have more information regarding further cases of PFAS contamination sites, chemistry of these pollutants as well as new concepts for treating raw water.
While we were preparing the second expert forum, we ascertained that still not enough was known about the threat posed by PFAS on a national level. So we asked Mr. Ludwigs if the forum members would be able to discuss the structure of the contamination overview. It soon became clear that as trace elements, PFAS are a continual challenge in terms of water quality and safety.
During the second expert forum that took place in 2017, it became apparent that providing a contamination overview would create transparency and make it easier for affected stakeholders to systematically share their experiences.
We were so pleased that the Steinbeis Transfer Center had supported us with the design of a contamination overview and the creation of a basic data.
In the run-up to the third expert forum in 2019, we decided to introduce a PFAS contamination overview as an information service provided by Rastatt Utilities. We commissioned Steinbeis to check the underlying data used for the PFAS contamination overview and complete it. The online system was implemented by WebSmart-Ware to show the nationwide level of threat and various causes, such as fire drills, fire damage, contaminated compost, or industrial production. The Steinbeis experts then researched and published this information. Rastatt Utilities provided the PFAS contamination overview in the form of consumer information, as a supplement to technical communication on its website.
The patterns within the data were discussed with the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and the Federal Ministry for the Environment. The database was handed over to the UBA during the forum and an interactive database was published online alongside geodata.
In the meantime, the EU Water Framework Directive has been extended to include further limits on trace elements. This meets key concerns expressed at the PFAS forums. What will be achieved now with a European contamination overview for trace elements?
Further to bilateral activities with France, we quickly realized that what was needed was a European overview of trace element contamination. Under the new regulations, we anticipate that – just like Rastatt Utilities – many water providers will have to act and look for solutions in Europe. From experience we know that many private individuals and commercial enterprises with their own water wells will need quick answers as to whether they face a threat. Offering multilingual information should appeal to different user groups. The way we see it, the priority is to protect consumers and provide water suppliers, the responsible authorities, and administrative departments with technical information. An online reporting system could post the results of water samples, show how much progress has been made with remedial measures, and publish fire damage reports. Offering practical support – such as taking samples and analyzing them, or providing expert advice online – would add appeal to the service.
One key takeout of our forums was that providing finance through foundations, funds, or insurance – in conjunction with an international center of excellence for trace elements – could be a quick and viable solution. Given the monumental investments and additional operating costs, the question is who picks up the tab if there is PFAS contamination. In Rastatt, it is the drinking water customers who foot the bill, even though they are not responsible for the damage caused by PFAS contamination. Protecting our environment – in this case groundwater quality – is also about fairness.