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.”

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