Environmental group sets its hopes high for EPA’s coming PFAS ‘roadmap’

Advocates with the Environmental Working Group want EPA’s plan to set standards for drinking water, groundwater cleanup; limits on industrial discharges.

Detailed view on the newly installed system to filter out PFAS Forever Chemicals

Detailed view on the newly installed system to filter out PFAS Forever Chemicals at Well #2 of the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority facility in Horsham, Pa., on August 22, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce in the coming weeks a plan to address contamination from PFAS, the class of toxic chemicals that have been detected in water sources nationwide.

Known as forever chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been used for decades in household products such as nonstick (Teflon) cookware, flame-retardant fabrics, and some food packaging. PFAS are also found in firefighting foam used at airports and military bases.

In March, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection announced that about one-third of 114 water systems tested for PFAS chemicals were found to contain the substances over 17 months of sampling. Some of the highest PFAS concentrations have been found in Bucks, Montgomery, and Berks counties.

And in July, the State of Delaware reached a landmark $50 million settlement with three companies — DuPont, Chemours, and Corteva — over water pollution and related contamination from PFAS, which have been found in drinking water wells, including some wells near Dover Air Force Base. Four New Jersey towns have also sued these companies for selling products containing PFAS, despite knowing they were harmful.

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The Environmental Working Group estimates that more than 200 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with PFAS. President Joe Biden has pledged to address issues surrounding PFAS, which can contribute to cancer and reproductive problems.

At a virtual press briefing Thursday, the advocacy organization said it was hopeful that the EPA’s forthcoming plan would include major steps, such as setting standards for drinking water and groundwater cleanup; restricting industrial discharges of PFAS into air and water; designating the chemicals as hazardous under law, which would kickstart the cleanup process, especially at contaminated Department of Defense sites (nearly 400 installations are contaminated with PFAS); ending unnecessary use of PFAS, especially in firefighting foam and household products; and ensuring proper disposal of PFAS waste.

“Communities have waited more than 20 years for EPA to act,” said Environmental Working Group’s Scott Faber. “EPA first became aware of the risks posed by PFAS at least as early as 1998. And that’s why we’re so excited to finally see a roadmap that treats this emergency like an emergency.”

Yet the group also has some concerns that the EPA won’t be as proactive as it could be, noting that many industrial dischargers of PFAS were not included in the agency’s latest plan, released Sept. 8, to address industrial discharges under the Clean Water Act.

The plan, Preliminary Effluent Guidelines Program Plan 15, identifies opportunities to protect public health and the environment through regulation of wastewater pollution. The agency determined that revised effluent limitations guidelines and pretreatment standards are warranted for organic chemicals, plastics, and synthetic fibers to address PFAS discharges from facilities manufacturing PFAS; metal finishing, to address PFAS discharges from chromium electroplating facilities; and meat and poultry products to address nutrient discharges from those companies.

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“That plan would leave thousands of companies that could be discharging PFAS, like paper mills, tanneries, paint companies, electrical component manufacturers, and plastic molders out of the picture,” said Environmental Working Group legislative attorney Melanie Benesh.

The organization estimates that 30,000 companies could be dumping PFAS waste.

Also concerning, the group said, is that the FAA is seeking to delay efforts that allow airports to replace firefighting foam made with PFAS with PFAS-free alternatives. The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act directed the Federal Aviation Administration to permit the use of alternatives to aqueous film-forming foams containing PFAS by Oct. 4 of this year. The environmental advocates say they’re worried the FAA won’t meet that deadline. 

Other efforts are being made to address PFAS. The EPA under the Biden administration has proposed expanding monitoring and developing better PFAS detection methods, providing funding to local communities, closing loopholes in the law, and demanding PFAS data from polluters.

The budget reconciliation bill moving through the U.S. House includes $80 million to help local fire departments replace firefighting foam and gear that’s made with PFAS. The Fast Action Act, which sets deadlines for EPA action, passed the House earlier this year. Versions of the National Defense Authorization Act include PFAS reforms, and the House version includes funding to clean up contaminated sites.

Faber said he hopes those actions will help clear the way for the EPA’s forthcoming announcement.

“This is a really critical moment, because it will set the stage for the next three years and beyond,” he said.

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