Environment

Critics pounce on the lack of urgency in EPA’s “Action Plan” on PFAS

Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker spoke at EPA’s office in Research Triangle Park to unveil the agency’s national PFAS Action Plan. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Environmental advocates and residents of contaminated communities are irate. The Cooper administration is disappointed. But 3M, a primary manufacturer of per- and polyfluorinated compounds — PFAS — is satisfied.

After receiving 120,000 written comments and holding listening sessions and a National Leadership meeting with state officials, the EPA unveiled its national PFAS Action Plan yesterday, but the most notable aspect of the 60-plus page report was its lack of action. The EPA began implementing rules and guidelines about a few of these toxic compounds nearly 20 years ago, but it has yet to establish an enforceable drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, just two of thousands of per- and polyfluorinated compounds. 

Nonetheless, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency’s “top priority is getting this action plan done quickly and right.”

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement calling the EPA’s plan “weak.”

“I am disappointed that the agency’s action plan does not commit to setting standards, lacks detail on what research is planned on specific compounds like GenX, and seems to ignore the urgency of the problem,” Gov. Cooper said. “Today’s announcement contradicts promises made in public meetings in North Carolina last summer to work swiftly to set standards and recommendations for these compounds. People deserve to have confidence in the water they drink, and this weak action by the EPA negatively impacts state efforts to protect water quality and public health.”

A 3M spokesperson said the company “supports regulation rooted in the best-available science and believe that this plan may help prevent a patchwork of state standards that could increase confusion and uncertainty for communities. 3M also urges the EPA to continue to fully engage with communities and to ensure action items in the plan are completed on a clearly-defined schedule. This will provide citizens with the highest degree of confidence in the quality of their drinking water.”

Wheeler and Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker — she held a press conference at the agency’s offices in Research Triangle Park — assured the media and public that  proposed drinking water standards are coming — at the end of the year. Even then, it could take months, well into 2020, before an official maximum contaminant level, an MCL, is established.

But these standards won’t include GenX and the thousands of other related compounds. They are on the waiting list, even for final determinations of their toxicity. That assessment is expected to occur later this year — and beyond.

Under a voluntary phaseout that ended in 2002, the industry has retired PFOA and PFOS from production. Yet because of their chemical composition, the compounds persist in the environment and people. Agency officials estimate 99 percent of people in the US have some level of these compounds in their body. Nearly 2,000 of the nation’s 151,000 public drinking water systems contain levels of PFOA and PFOS above the federal health advisory goal of a combined 70 parts per trillion. This figure doesn’t include households that rely on private wells, which are fed by groundwater.

Nor does the plan address how to dispose of the tons of these compounds that are contaminating water and land.

The EPA is known for its glacial pace in rule making, although with climate change, some glaciers calve more quickly than the agency moves. The report lays out extended timelines for meaningful progress:

  • The EPA “is considering” adding PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory. The TRI is a public database established under the Community Right-to-Know Act. Although industries voluntarily self-report the data, the TRI gives the public an inkling of who is polluting what and where.
  • The EPA “is working on” listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund program. Such a move would require responsible parties, such as Chemours, DuPont and 3M, to pay to clean up the contamination and potentially cover costs for upgrading water treatment plants.
  • Under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, the EPA will “propose” nationwide drinking water monitoring for PFAS, but not until the next round begins in 2020. And that’s merely monitoring, not regulatory action.
  • The agency is expected to develop “interim” cleanup recommendations for groundwater contaminated with PFOA and PFAS that “are protective” and call for “timely clean up.” That action is “anticipated” sometime this year.
  • It will develop testing methods for PFAS in surface water, wastewater, soil, sludge, fish and air — between 2019 and 2021.
  • Two years from now the EPA plans to determine if the science supports limiting the amount of discharges to waterbodies.
  • The agency uses “enforcement tools, when relevant and appropriate” to address PFAS exposures. Relevant and appropriate aren’t defined. (Yesterday, Policy Watch reported that the agency did cite Chemours in Fayetteville for several violations, but has yet to announce a financial penalty.)
  • And in 2022, the EPA says it will develop toxicity data to better protect aquatic life.

“EPA’s proposal for PFOA and PFOS is an empty gesture for American families and communities,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. The firm is representing Cape Fear River Watch in court to stop PFAS pollution from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville. “We know that these chemicals are only two members of a larger group of toxic pollutants already in our rivers, groundwater, and water supplies, all of which must be cleaned up. While it’s essential that polluters are forced to clean up their existing pollution, EPA must also act to prevent industry from discharging these toxins and endangering people in the first place. The agency’s plan does nothing to stop ongoing pollution, a role that this administration has abandoned.”

One Comment


  1. Geoff Daly

    February 18, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Wow, I attended the Announcement at the MA EPA Lab and was a rehash of the June 2018 Exeter NH Conference slightly polished up, only slightly. The printed Booklet – 63 pages long- was poorly written and rather obfuscating with repeats throughout a Junior high school student could have written a better Tome.

    The time lines just keep extending, especially since the EPA were aware back around 1954 of reports of Health problems by DuPont’s own scientists. They never did anything, even when the FDA banned DuPont in 1966 from using the then named PFC’s [now PFAS} for coating Food Wrappings and Containers. The EPA never filed the paper work they got from the FDA [what happened, went into File 13?]
    Here we are now more than 53 years later [FDA did authorize Daikan in Al to coat Food Papers with PFAS and admit they only went back to the 1970’s for any orders of Approval, Disgraceful lack of Due Diligence, knowing what was going on in Drinking Waters and ground Contamination from the Air, AFFF and Turn-Out Gear Cancer problems.

    I made the suggestion, which was noted and on record that the MCL should be 10 or lower until Proven otherwise by further studies. Including full enforcement, not advisories, on any new/reformulated PFAS coming onto the Market. Use the FDA Protocols for approvals before being allowed to sell into any Markets. Stop the manufacturers from hiding behind”Its a trade secret” for its formulas (DOD/DOE and other Government Contracts for supplies requires full chemical disclosure if a contract is to be given…..has never happened!)
    All agencies involved are like SILOS and stay that way, with no real inter-agency interaction or real efforts for cooperation and reduction of efforts, which keep being Duplicated or even Equal in results.
    These studies they keep referring too are moot unless they had looked 30+ years ago for means to remove from Water, Soils and Air, which they never have done. Always “we need to study what this Family of Chemicals are [originally 5 Formulas now over 3,400 formula types and up to 35,000 variations of Compounds and still growing with NO Controls or Product Oversight/Enforcement during this Time]
    Another factor is that NIOSH/OSHA, CDC, ATSDR do not seem to be involved,yet NIOSH/OSHA cover work place environments and CDC covers Health and ATSDR just does Research reports

    The Nations Citizens cannot wait any longer for Actions based on this New “Action Plan”, if we do a whole generation of Children will be further affected if contaminated [90+% of the Population has PFAS in there Bodies and Blood, bio-accumulating every day these PFAS Chemicals are allowed to permeate the Environment where they live, breath, drink water and eat food].
    The ORD section of the EPA needs to cut all the BS out of its red-tape and allow companies, individuals, Universities to Demo methods of Filtration, Soil Remediation, Air Filtration. In order to get ahead so, viable systems can result quicker than they are talking about— 3 to 5 years. NO WAY.

    Law suits will tie up the courts by continued inaction and working in Silos, as one WH person said with reference to the ATSDR report ; ” a PR nightmare if they let out these low numbers” and they just raised them from the 7/10 PPT to 70 PPT and is back firing like crazy. Numerous States have numbers in the Low Teens and soon may be lower. So lower the MCL to 5 until proved otherwise and this keeps everyone who makes or uses this family of Fluorinated Chemicals reined in. Then get them to find alternatives.

    The EU have a better enforcement and approval protocol in place than the US has. They also have developed numerous non-fluorinated chemicals to take the place of PFAS.

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