A large-scale federal plan to address the regulatory issues surrounding Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) has drawn both praise and criticism in nearly equal measure.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its PFAS Action Plan earlier this month in the face of accusations that it had done little previously to stem release of the chemicals into the environment. So far, the issue has been addressed largely through a combination of state actions and civil litigation.
“The PFAS Action Plan is the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA,” said Andrew Wheeler, EPA acting administrator. “For the first time in EPA history, we utilized all of our program offices to construct an all-encompassing plan to help states and local communities address PFAS and protect our nation’s drinking water.”
The PFAS family of toxic chemicals are believed to cause certain kinds of cancer. Initially believed to be non-toxic, they have been used in a broad range of products until recent years, when manufacturers withdrew them from production in the United States. Among the most widespread uses were in the manufacture of Teflon coatings, firefighting foam, waterproofing clothing, carpet treatments, and popcorn and pizza boxes.
Although imports are essentially unregulated and remain an ongoing concern. PFAS also are found throughout the country in drinking water as the result of manufacturing process discharges. EPA said it has identified several industries that are likely to be discharging PFAS in their wastewater and will begin a more detailed study to evaluate the potential for PFAS presence in these wastewater discharges.
As part of this study, EPA plans to gather more detailed information for the following point-source categories: organic chemicals, plastics, synthetic fibers, pulp and paper, textiles and airports.
The EPA plan includes steps that the agency already had announced in May 2018, along with certain other short-term solutions (defined as taking less than two years) and long-term strategies (defined as taking two years or longer).
Announced last year were initiation of steps to evaluate the need for a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS); beginning the necessary steps to propose designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” through one of the available federal statutory mechanisms; developing groundwater cleanup recommendations for PFOA and PFOS at contaminated sites; and developing toxicity values or oral reference doses (RfDs) for GenX chemicals and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).
New short-term steps announced by EPA are developing new analytical methods and tools for understanding and managing PFAS risk; promulgating Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) that require EPA notification before chemicals are used in new ways that may create human health and ecological concerns; and using enforcement actions to help manage PFAS risk, where found to be appropriate.
Long-term regulatory and research approaches EPA said it will pursue include reducing exposures and seeking better understanding of the potential human health and environmental risks associated with PFAS. It added that some long-term actions may result in intermediate steps and products that can help to reduce PFAS exposures and protect public health.
“Ecological risks are of great concern to many stakeholders due to the widespread distribution and persistence of PFAS in the environment and the wide variety of PFAS chemicals for which environmental fate and transport is currently uncharacterized,” the agency said. “While this Action Plan focuses mainly on human health, characterizing potential ecological impacts and risks are important areas of work for the EPA.”
Among the other federal agencies EPA intends to work with are the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Toxicology Program, the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Defense. To support states in managing their water quality, EPA says it will evaluate development of ambient water quality criteria.
Based on the very limited amount of data available, EPA points out that it has identified several industries likely to be discharging PFAS in their wastewater and will begin a more detailed study of the potential for PFAS presence in their discharges. As part of this study, the EPA said it plans to gather more detailed information for the point-source categories including organic chemicals, plastics, synthetic fibers, pulp and paper, textiles and airports.
The chemical industry likes the new plan. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said it supports inclusion of initiatives that can be implemented quickly that are based on the best-available science. “It is also essential that EPA communicate effectively to the public to build confidence, transparency and credibility in the actions it is taking,” ACC stressed. “A science-based management plan will help states by providing access to a broader range of resources; ensuring uniform standards across the country to enable straightforward compliance; and minimizing the burden on states that are already short on resources.”
Not so happy are state agencies and environmental advocacy groups. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection accused the EPA of “leaving millions of Americans exposed to harmful chemicals for too long by choosing a drawn-out process.” EPA countered: “This is not a delay. This process will provide regulatory certainty, while ensuring the legal defensibility of EPA’s regulatory actions,” adding that it expects to issue a proposed regulatory determination by the end of the year.
“This is an action plan with no action,” declared Suzanne Novak, an attorney for Earthjustice. She described the announced plan as “a long list of initiating steps that EPA should have been doing for the past few years, but no concrete actions. Meanwhile, PFAS are linked to chronic health issues, even death, and are highly unregulated despite a national emergency affecting entire towns.”
The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) asserted: “The EPA just kicked the can down the road again,” adding that the plan “pushes enforceable standards, if they come at all, five to 10 years down the line.” Erik Olson, senior director for Health & Food at NRDC, offered, “While the agency fumbles with this ‘mis-management plan,’ millions of people will be exposed to highly toxic PFAS from drinking contaminated water.”