Relief and Frustration as EPA Readies Toxin Response Plan

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The acting administrator of the EPA came under fire Thursday as he announced a long-demanded plan for national guidelines on a class of seemingly indestructible chemicals known as PFAs.

Acting Environmental Protection Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at a press conference in Philadelphia on Feb. 14, 2019. The EPA says it is moving forward with a response to a class of long-lasting chemical contaminants, amid criticism from members of Congress and environmentalists that it has not moved aggressively to regulate them. Wheeler calls the chemicals, commonly referred to as PFAS, “a very important threat.” (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Part of a nationwide series of press events focused on drumming up awareness about polyfluoroalkyl acids and their sister chemicals, Acting EPA administrator laid out an action plan in Philadelphia this morning to reach a maximum contamination limit, or MCL, in keeping with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

PFAs have been used for decades in everything from nonstick cookware and household carpets to fire suppressants at airports, but the exposure to the chemicals has also been associated for years with cancer, thyroid disease and other health issues.

PFAS do not break down easily and are found in ground and drinking water supplies nationwide, often in former and current industrial areas and near Army bases. The EPA’s own testing showed 1.3 percent of drinking water contained more than the recommended amount of PFAS, 70 parts per trillion, but other studies, using larger data pools, have pushed that number up to 20 percent. 

While EPA and state environmental agencies have been addressing the chemicals in different ways for years, there is yet to be a national standard for what limit is dangerous and how states should handle contamination sites. 

“If you had a grandchild drinking water that was contaminated with PFAS that several states say is unsafe, would you feel your action plan at the federal level is moving fast enough?” Joanne Staunton, a member of the local Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, asked Wheeler today at the briefing.

“I think it is,” Wheeler said. “We’re still cleaning up; we’re taking enforcement actions.” 

And those actions are impressing those who work with PFAS regularly.

Among them is Seth Kellogg, a member of the board of scientists and engineers section of the National Groundwater Association, a nonprofit group of scientists with a focus on groundwater and its contaminants. After a PFA contamination forced the closure of a municipal water supply in Blades, Delaware, Kellogg told Courthouse News last year that the compounds were an issue Americans had delayed addressing after relying on them for so long. 

Despite her concerns about its prevalence in water supplies, Kellogg said she took heart in several aspects of Wheeler’s plan, including the addition of the compounds to the Toxic Release Inventory and the use of map data to pinpoint polluted areas so that those who need support most will get it.

“They will give the public more tools and more transparency on whom will be impacted by these contaminants,” Kellogg said in a phone interview.  

Many stakeholders including members of Congress have complained about the EPA’s timeline, but Kellogg’s history with EPA regulation made her uniquely familiar with the lengthy process. 

She pointed to EPA’s work with perchlorates, a substance used in controlling static electricity in food packaging, for which the EPA proposed a maximum contamination limit in 2011. Eight years later, that process is still underway. 

Wheeler warned of a similarly length process, noting a new MCL hasn’t been finalized since the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996. 

“We’re charting new territory and can’t give you a definite answer for how long it will take,” he said. “None of these processes can be done overnight. In order to make sure they stand up in court we have to follow the regulatory process.” 

Lauren Schapker, the director of government affairs at the National Ground Water Association, agree that it takes time to get things right.

“Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for the regulatory process to move slowly,” Schapker said. “Determining the economic, health, and technical requirements needed to set a standard that’s also feasible takes time.”

Still others have balked at the vague timelines offered by Wheeler. 

“While I’m glad to see the Environmental Protection Agency release their long-awaited National PFAS Management Plan, it falls short of delivering the certainty that families impacted by PFAS exposure need and deserve,” New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement after Thursday’s briefing. 

Shaheen has seen some of the impacts from PFAS at military bases around her state and said Wheeler’s plan lacked a commitment to develop enforceable drinking water standards. 

“There’s no certainty that this strategy will sufficiently confront the challenges PFAS chemicals pose to states and affected communities,” the senator said. “I’ll continue to urge the EPA to heed the bipartisan calls in Congress and establish enforceable drinking water standards to maintain consistency in safety levels from state to state.”

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