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EPA plans to create new standards for toxic chemicals in water

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler walks to a podium a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

Environmental Protection Agency officials said Thursday they plan to create new required standards for PFAS contaminants in drinking water before year's end after certain steps including public comments are taken.

EPA officials said that it intends to establish a maximum contaminant level for PFOS and PFOA, part of the class of so-called forever chemicals, as outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act. This would ensure the nation has safe water to drink and consume, the federal officials said, but not as stringent and soon enough for some environmental groups.

The EPA currently has a health advisory level for PFAS compounds in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion that was established in 2016, but officials did not indicate what new level they plan to set.

Dave Ross, the assistant administrator for water at the EPA, told reporters in a conference call that the new action plan will address the contaminant level issue and whether the more regulation "is appropriate for other chemicals in the PFAS family."

The agency already has begun the regulatory process for listing PFOA and PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund statute, Ross said. And the EPA, he said, will release interim groundwater cleanup recommendations for sites contaminated with PFAS and PFOA.

Michigan has at least 30 such sites. Among the contamination sites are the Huron River in Metro Detroit, parts of the Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River in Macomb County, a small community water supply in Parchment, residential wells around a Rockford tannery in West Michigan, and marshes, rivers and lakes around military bases in Oscoda, Alpena and Grayling.

"Groundwater is a source of drinking water for many communities across the country and it is vital for our nation's agricultural sector," Ross said. "These recommendations will give states a much-needed framework to facilitate timely clean-up efforts that are protective of groundwater."

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials said in a statement the EPA's action is too slow.

"While we continue to support federal action on PFAS, we are concerned that the timeline for federal action on PFAS standards and regulations is not more aggressive," the statement read.  "We look forward to receiving more clarity from EPA on its anticipated timetable for accomplishing the priorities it laid out this morning."

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who convened a Senate subcommittee on PFAS last year, also criticized the EPA brass for still not doing enough on PFAS.

“This plan falls far short of the commitments promised by EPA leadership a year ago," Peters said. "We know PFAS contamination can have devastating health impacts — and Michigan families across the state that have been exposed for too long rightly deserve answers, but more importantly they deserve action."

The report, Peters said, "makes it even clearer to me that this Administration will continue to delay action for as long as possible."

The EPA said it will take into account public input, modern research and advice from its drinking water advisory board before developing the new level.

These chemicals, officials say, have been found in the drinking water for more than 16 million citizens across the country, including Michigan, where there have been outbreaks in PFAS contamination in drinking water from Western Michigan to Kalamazoo.

In announcing the plan today, EPA officials say it is taking steps in how "we research, monitor, detect and address PFAS."

But some environmental groups criticized the EPA's plans.

Researchers at the Environmental Working Group said the plan would only make the nationwide crisis of pervasive pollution from fluorinated compounds worse and fail to curtail the "introduction of new PFAS chemicals, end the use of PFAS chemicals in everyday products, alert Americans to the risk of PFAS pollution or clean up contaminated drinking water supplies."

“Once again, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is the nation’s first pro-cancer president,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG, which has studied PFAS chemicals for almost 20 years.

“This so-called plan is actually a recipe for more PFAS contamination, not less,” Faber said. “It’s shameful that the EPA has taken two decades to produce a plan that allows increased exposure to compounds whose makers have used the American people as guinea pigs and, with the EPA’s complicity, covered it up.”

Michigan's PFAS Science Advisory Committee in December issued a 90-page report that noted the levels of PFAS lower than 70 parts per trillion can hurt human health.

The report didn't recommend a specific new level, but advocated for one based on a combination of both toxicological and epidemiological data.

The state has urged the EPA to provide guidance, or even a new federal standard, for safe PFAS levels in drinking water. 

Democratic state Sen. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids has been advocating for lowering the state's drinking water health advisory level to 5 ppt. Experts such as Alan Robertson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, have said it is doubtful the technology exists that could treat water for 5 ppt of PFAS and the cost would be too expensive for small communities.

The EPA standard-making process "needs to be determined by public health officials and scientists, not politicians," said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, who concerned about contaminated sites in West Michigan. "I encourage the EPA to continue working to develop federally enforceable standards with urgency.”

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, said  "the EPA must act with an urgency that matches the scale of the problem. While today’s announcement is a start, further aggressive and impactful actions must be taken by the Administration to protect Americans’ communities."

Ross said the EPA will better monitor PFAS and will include it in the next nationwide drinking water monitoring under the unregulated contaminant monitoring program.

EPA officials said they will introduced a PFAS "risk communication tool box" that includes materials that states, tribes and local communities can use to communicate the threat with the public.

"We owe it to the American public to be able to explain in very simple and easy to understand terms what are the risks that they face in their daily lives," Ross said.


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