EPA proposes new rule to crack down on PFAS, forever chemicals in our water

Image: Adobe Stock

This is a developing story. 

The EPA today announced its proposed maximum contaminant levels — MCLs — for six types of toxic PFAS in drinking water and acknowledged that no amount of these compounds is safe.

“EPA anticipates if fully implemented the rule will prevent tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses or deaths,” the agency wrote in a slide presentation obtained by Policy Watch.

Known MCLs, they are legally more robust than the agency’s previous health advisory goals, in that they’re enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act. If the rules are finalized, public utilities will face a herculean and expensive task of installing advanced treatment systems to reduce the compounds from treated water.

The EPA set an MCL of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. It is essentially detection level — the lowest concentration that can be reliably detected by most laboratories.

For four other PFAS types, the EPA would measure them as a mixture: GenX, PFNA, PFBS and PFHxS, either individually or combined, should not exceed 1 .

Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers.

These are the types of PFAS under the proposed new rule
PFOA 4 parts per trillion
PFOS 4 ppt

And any individual or combination of these compounds should not exceed 1 as a hazard index.
A hazard index is the sum of the chemicals in a mixture and is used to characterize risk.

In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast food containers, firefighting foam, water-, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products.

There are upward of 12,000 types of PFAS; they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

If the rules are finalized as written, public utilities would be required to monitor for the six types of PFAS, notify the public of the levels, and reduce the concentrations in drinking water.

“No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear in a prepared statement. “… Today is a good step towards tackling our nation’s massive PFAS public health crisis by including commercially relevant PFAS like GenX.

“We now need every office within the EPA, and all other federal agencies, to use a whole of government approach to address PFAS as a class, stop all PFAS exposures at their source, make responsible parties pay for the clean-up, and give overexposed communities access to health monitoring.”

Because PFAS can’t be removed by traditional treatment methods, most public utilities would have to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their systems. Some of this funding would be available through the federal infrastructure plan.

“This is going to have a serious impact on water providers across the nation because PFAS is so ubiquitous and systems will be required to test, monitor and remove these substances if the amount found exceeds the MCLs,” wrote Valentina Marastoni-Bieser, vice president of marketing and client engagement for the SL Environmental Law Group, based in New Hampshire.

“We have yet to see a contaminant with such a combination of dangerous attributes … This is truly unprecedented and likely to be the most expensive environmental hazard in history. Unless the manufacturers responsible for this pollution are held accountable, rate payers — who have also likely been exposed to the toxic chemical — will be the ones to bear the burden of billions of dollars needed to clean the contaminated water.”

The most common advanced systems for public utilities include reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon. But that’s not necessarily the end of the PFAS waste. Contaminated material must be disposed of in special landfills.

Drinking water from many public utilities in North Carolina have concentrations of PFAS above the EPA’s proposed regulatory levels.

Public drinking water in Brunswick County, which is upgrading its northwest plant, contains 7.48 ppt of PFOS, according to test results from last month.

Likewise, PFBS and PFHxS were at 1.72 and 1.89 ppt, respectively.

And in 2019, the City of High Point had levels above the EPA’s proposed regulations, according to the NC PFAS Testing Network:

  • PFOA 4.4
  • PFOS 9.4
  • PFBS 3.9
  • PFHxS 10.1

For the PFOA and PFAS, the agency set an additional MCL goal of 0 ppt. MCLGs, are they’re known, are voluntary and non-enforceable. But they signal to the public that this is the level where no negative health effects are expected.

In other words, if an MCLG is 0 ppt, that means the compounds aren’t safe at any detectable level.

The EPA has set zero-level MCLGs for other well-known contaminants; lead, for example has a MCL of 5 parts per billion, but a MCL goal of zero.

For the other four compounds, the MCLG is 1 ppt.

Environmental advocates and concerned residents have long urged the EPA to set legally enforceable standards. Previously, the agency had issued only recommendations.

Last June, Radihka Fox, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, announced the more stringent lifetime health advisory goals at the national PFAS conference in Wilmington. Although legally unenforceable, the new and alarming figures were game-changers for public utilities and private well owners, as well as state environmental regulators and the chemical industry. Essentially the EPA concluded that no amount of PFAS in drinking water was safe.

“We welcome the strong drinking water standards proposed by EPA. They should be adopted,” said Brian Buzby, executive director of the NC Conservation Network. “As North Carolina continues to combat forever chemicals, we urge state leaders to pursue solutions that will prevent the release of toxic forever chemicals before they ever enter our rivers, lakes, and other drinking water sources.”

This story has been corrected to explain that GenX, PFNA, PFBS, PFHxS have a hazard index of 1, not a maximum contaminant level.

The Cape Fear River is contaminated with PFAS, some of it from groundwater seeps originating at the Chemours plant in north Bladen County. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Trump criticizes DeSantis, calls for national ‘school choice’ at first 2023 Iowa event

Former President Donald Trump arrives for an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13, 2023 in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

DAVENPORT, IOWA — Former President Donald Trump, in his first Iowa stop as an official presidential candidate, took aim at a potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Trump said if DeSantis joins the 2024 presidential race, his track record on ethanol and Social Security could cost him the Iowa caucuses. “I don’t think you’re gonna be doing so well here,” Trump said. “But we’re gonna find out.”

In 2017, DeSantis – then a U.S. representative – supported legislation that would have ended the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets how much renewable energy must be be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. Trump said he would defend the Iowa ethanol industry from lawmakers seeking to cut subsidies, and he pledged to support increasing ethanol production.

“Just as I did for four straight years, I will protect the ethanol and I will go after anyone who wishes to destroy it,” Trump said.

Trump came in second in the Iowa caucuses in 2016 to another anti-ethanol candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

But Trump said Monday that DeSantis’ record of supporting changes to Social Security and Medicare like raising the retirement age to 70, also will make him unpopular in Iowa.

Trump said DeSantis reminded him of Republicans like U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who he called a “RINO (Republican in Name Only) loser.”

More than 1,000 people came to see the former president speak at Adler Theater in Davenport, with a line stretching around the block. After the theater reached capacity, some people stayed outside while he spoke.

DeSantis held a book tour event Friday in Davenport. His stops there and in Des Moines with Gov. Kim Reynolds marked his first trip to Iowa.

Trump slips in Iowa Poll

While DeSantis has not yet announced a bid for the presidency, the governor is considered a strong alternative to Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.

The most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found a majority of Iowans still see Trump in a positive light: 80% of Iowa Republicans said they have a “very favorable” view or “mostly favorable” view of the candidate. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, 74% of Republicans responded they would likely vote for him.

But that support is shifting: 47% of Iowa Republicans said they would definitely vote for him in the 2023 poll, down from 69% who said in the June 2021 poll that they would definitely support him. Read more

GOP lawmakers plan to ban more college majors in FL like ethnic studies, ‘radical’ feminist theory

Florida State University. Photo: Diane Rado, Florida Phoenix

State has been a frequent model for NC Republicans

Republican lawmakers are proposing to expand legislation that would further limit majors and minors available to Florida university students, which would exacerbate concerns from faculty and other opponents of the bill that has already shaken up higher education in the state.

The legislation also would further undermine tenure protections for professors.

The bill in question is HB 999 and it’s called Public Postsecondary Educational Institutions. Lawmakers will be discussing an updated version at a Monday committee meeting, where they will decide whether to accept or reject new expanded language in the bill.

The American Association of University Professors said that the proposed language would “enact the most draconian restrictions on higher ed in US history. It bans all majors & minors in ANY critical theory & allow unqualified political appointees to call for post-tenure review of any faculty member at any time,” according to a Saturday tweet.

As currently written, HB 999 prompts the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, to give “direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems,” according to the legislation.

But lawmakers will consider an expansion to the bill Monday which would direct the Board of Governors to “provide direction to each constituent university to remove from its programs any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality, as defined in Board of Governors regulation.”

The majors and minors listed in a staff analysis, which is created by the GOP-controlled Legislature, may not reflect what these majors or minors are actually called in other higher education settings. Read more

EPA proposes new rules for toxic pollutants discharged from coal-fired power plants

A map showing Duke Energy's remaining coal-fired electric plants: Rogers, west of Shelby; Allen, near Gastonia; Marshall, on Lake Norman; Belews Creek in Stokes County; and Roxboro and Mayo, both in Person County. (Map: Duke Energy)

Duke Energy’s remaining coal-fired electric plants: Rogers, west of Shelby; Allen, near Gastonia; Marshall, on Lake Norman; Belews Creek in Stokes County; and Roxboro and Mayo, both in Person County. (Map: Duke Energy)

The EPA has proposed new and stricter limits on toxic contaminants that utilities can discharge from their coal-fired power plants and coal ash landfills — but it’s still unclear how the rules would affect  Duke Energy’s facilities in North Carolina.

That’s because facilities that stop burning coal by 2028 and 2032 could comply with earlier, less stringent rules, enacted under the Obama and Trump administrations.

The EPA said this “flexible compliance pathway” would allow “early adopters” to avoid spending significant sums on upgrades when the plants will be retired soon, anyway.

Duke plans to retire four of its six remaining coal-fired power plants by the EPA deadlines, according to the Carbon Plan, approved late last year by the NC Utilities Commission:

  • Allen, Gaston County, 2024
  • Cliffside/Rogers, Cleveland/Rutherford counties, 2026
  • Mayo and Roxboro, Person County, 2029

However, if there is a delay in retiring those coal-fired plants, they could then be subject to the stricter discharge limits, effective the day after the scheduled closure date.

“This way, EPA would ensure that dischargers would not benefit from less stringent limitations based on closure by a certain date if that closure does not occur,” the rules read.

Later retirements include the Marshall plant in Catawba County (2033) and Belews Creek in Stokes county (2035-36) that could be subject to the new rules.

Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, told Policy Watch via email that the utility has already implemented technology to help it meet the rule requirements. “Our comprehensive and proactive strategy of installing dry bottom ash handling systems and upgrading or adding entirely new wastewater systems has positioned us well for meeting this rule,” Culbert wrote.

Since 2015, Duke Energy has completed more than 40 wastewater projects and invested more than $870 million  in technology upgrades to comply and meet wastewater discharge limits, Culbert said. “We support provisions that recognize facilities that are in compliance with the 2015 and 2020 rules have significantly reduced the discharge of pollutants to receiving waters.”

Wastewater from coal-fired power plants contains toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, arsenic, cadmium and bromides.

Bromides are important because when they enter the drinking water supply, they can interact with other chemicals at water treatment plants and produce “disinfection byproducts.” High levels of disinfection byproducts in drinking water have been linked to cancer.

Pollution from Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant resulted in levels of this harmful pollution far above standards in downstream drinking water systems for the towns of Eden and Madison, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

If the wastewater discharge limits are finalized, there would be an annual reduction of 580 million pounds of pollutants nationwide, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said last week.

“EPA is doing the right thing for families and communities by eliminating toxic water pollution from coal plants using technology that’s available and affordable,” said Nick Torrey, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in a prepared statement. “It’s essential that EPA stand firm on these zero discharge standards and strengthen its limits on wastewater from coal ash landfills, because that is the only way to stop poisoning the drinking water sources that families and vulnerable downstream communities depend on.”

Utilities would be expected to use “best available technology” to comply with the new rules. But they would have latitude on their choice of technologies to do so.

“Zero-discharge limits” would apply to wastewater from bottom ash — residue found in boilers — and from scrubbers used to reduce air toxics. That means essentially no contaminants could be present. This can be accomplished by reverse osmosis and membrane systems, according to the EPA.

Millions of tons of contaminated ash is being excavated from unlined pits and placed in lined landfills Duke’s coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. (The process is complete at four plants.) Discharge from those landfills and unlined ponds would be subject to the new daily and monthly limits for arsenic and mercury.

“We are reviewing the rule to determine how the provisions align with our planned retirement of coal operations as well as assessing the ability of current installed treatment technology to meet the limits,” Culbert said. “All of our facilities will be affected by the landfill leachate provisions because leachate will be generated regardless of coal combustion.”

In its environmental justice analysis for the rule, the EPA noted that coal-fired power plants tend to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, including indigenous lands.

These areas are often disproportionately burdened with many pollution sources.

In North Carolina, more than half of Duke Energy’s 14 coal-fired power plants — both retired and existing — lie within environmental justice communities, according to census data: Belews Creek, Dan River, Allen, Mayo, Weatherspoon, Sutton, Lee and Asheville.

When finalized, the EPA’s new rules are scheduled to go into effect in 2024.

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