EPA’s PFAS Plan Likely To Generate News, If Not Fixes, in 2022

November 10, 2021
The Biden administration has laid out an ambitious roadmap to confront pollution from PFAS, a family of chemicals with potential health effects found in products throughout our consumer and industrial economy, including fast food wrappers and grease-resistant pizza packaging. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: EPA’s PFAS Plan Likely To Generate News, If Not Fixes, in 2022

By Joseph A. Davis

The PFAS “forever chemicals” issue will get even newsier in 2022. Unfortunately, it may not get any easier to fix.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a class of more than 4,000 separate chemical compounds used, often for their nonstick properties, throughout our consumer and industrial economy, in products from firefighting foam to grease-resistant pizza packaging.

Though prevalent in the environment, they do not break down readily and have been implicated in human health effects: certain cancers, weakened immunity, thyroid disease, higher cholesterol and reduced antibody responses to vaccines.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have been grappling with PFAS for years — without much success.

 

The backstory

People are already alarmed about PFAS in many parts of the United States — typically where they have been found in drinking water. 

That apprehension has grown steadily since PFAS were found in the water of Bennington, Vt., in 2016. The Trump-era EPA of then-Administrator Scott Pruitt held a “summit” on PFAS in 2018.

 

Whatever the administration,

PFAS issues are hard to understand,

hard to assess and hard to fix.

 

Not much came of it. One reason is that whatever the administration, PFAS issues are hard to understand, hard to assess and hard to fix.

Now, under President Biden, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan will have a go, announcing an ambitious “national strategy,” or roadmap, to confront PFAS pollution. It lays out an agenda sure to generate news as it is carried out in the next few years.

 

What’s the EPA plan?

The single most critical part of the EPA’s plan is to set an enforceable limit on how much PFAS are allowed in public drinking water.

Regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act, however, are complex. That enforceable limit could be a “maximum contaminant level,” or MCL — the most definite kind of enforceable limit. But that laudable goal runs up against some problems. PFAS is not one chemical but many chemicals — so this would require setting an MCL for each of them.

Even setting a single MCL is a rigorous scientific and legal process. Setting a number for 4,000-plus chemicals individually would be overwhelming. It could be that the EPA could proceed without setting an MCL for each individual chemical, by working on smaller groups of similar or problematic chemicals, or dealing with the worst single chemicals first.

 

Keeping tabs on the timeline

Another key part of the roadmap is a series of timelines for different actions. For example, the roadmap says that for the drinking water MCL, the EPA will shoot for a proposed rule in fall 2022 and a final rule in fall 2023.

The roadmap contains actions for each relevant organizational part of the EPA. This mobilizes a lot more resources to address the problem. For example, one reason PFAS are contaminating the environment is that they are in widespread commercial use.

So the roadmap sets goals for the EPA program that decides whether new chemicals should go into commerce — a set of rules under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Another part of the roadmap would add PFAS to the list of hazardous substances that can trigger Superfund waste cleanups. This could mobilize the forces of the Superfund program for cleanup of the worst PFAS contamination sites.

That is not automatically a blessing. Superfund cleanups often involve litigation to pin liability on “responsible parties,” if they can be found.

Yet another part of the roadmap would be under the Clean Water Act — to add PFAS to effluent guidelines (the basis of state-issued discharge permits) for nine industries.

Just considering the EPA alone, the agency’s roadmap requires an array of hearings, listening sessions, meetings, rulemakings, etc. So scan agency calendars for upcoming dates. The timetable goes through 2022 and well beyond.

 

Story ideas

  • Is there a PFAS contamination controversy in your state or locality?
  • If so, where is the problem (or problems) and what are the biggest known sources of PFAS contamination in your area?
  • What, if anything, has the U.S. EPA done to address the problem?
  • Has your state taken measures to deal with PFAS contamination?
  • Is your state one of those that has set its own MCL for PFAS in drinking water? How do those levels compare to other states?
  • What solutions are available to people who get their water from their own private wells, when those wells are contaminated by PFAS?
  • Is the solution in your area to move those currently using wells or small systems to a bigger drinking water utility? Will new federal infrastructure legislation help pay for the pipes?
  • Are local businesses that sell directly to consumers in your area using products that contain PFAS? Pizza boxes? Food wrappers? Furniture with stain repellent? Have any of those businesses done anything to reduce or minimize exposure?
  • Is there a military base or airport near you that uses firefighting foam containing PFAS? Has it contaminated water? What is the prospect for remediation?

 

Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here,

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