EPA urged to set national, enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich., pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

Washington — Experts and lawmakers told a U.S. House panel Thursday that federal regulators should act to set a national, enforceable standard to deal with drinking-water contamination by a potentially harmful class of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS.

The current health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 can't be used to enforce cleanups or regulate the chemicals' use, they said.

"I know we all keep asking the same question, but I think what's got everybody worried is we need to change the national standard for what is a safe level," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, told an EPA official. 

"How do we create that sense of urgency that cuts through bureaucracy and keeps Americans safe drinking their water?"  

But the EPA official who appeared before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Thursday did not commit to setting an enforceable national standard.

The agency is evaluating the need to set a maximum contaminant level for the well-known PFAS compounds PFOA and PFOS, said Peter Grevatt, director of the agency’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.

EPA will consider designating the two compounds “hazardous substances," and it's developing groundwater cleanup recommendations for certain PFAS-contaminated sites, Grevett added.

The head of Michigan’s PFAS “response team,” Carol Isaacs, told lawmakers on the panel that more federal funding is needed for the Pentagon to fully remedy PFAS contamination at military sites.

She also urged closer coordination between federal agencies to better safeguard drinking water. 

"This is a national issue. The states can't do it all," Isaacs said. 

A representative for the Natural Resources Defense Council called PFAS “the new PCBs," noting they are toxic at even low levels. 

Erik D. Olsen, senior director for health and food at the environmental group, slammed the EPA for failing to regulate the manufacture and use of PFAS, not issuing drinking water standards and not ensuring contaminated sites are cleaned up.

"There are obviously concerns about setting an EPA drinking water standard. We'd like to see the EPA move forward," Olson told the subcommittee.

"Unfortunately, the agency has known about this problem for a more than a decade and hasn't even made a determination that a standard is necessary." 

Dingell asked Grevatt why the EPA didn't schedule a stop in Michigan as part of its PFAS “community engagement” tour, which included visits to five states since June.

"The Flint water crisis is something that every member on this dais has in their head. And the PFAS crisis in Michigan is scaring people more than Flint water did," Dingell said. 

"Why did you cancel Michigan, and could we get you to still come?" 

Grevatt said, "If they have now decided they want us to come, we will."

At the hearing, Republican Reps. Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Tim Walberg of Tipton backed Dingell's invitation for EPA to hold a community forum in Michigan. 

Isaacs later said, "Michigan has always wanted the EPA to come in, and we look forward to that." 

"We want them to hear what we've been hearing from our communities," she added.  "I'm not involved in that negotiation. I'm understanding it's logistical, and that it is still certainly going forward." 

Upton told a Defense Department official he was "troubled" by the statement in her testimony that the agency would share PFAS information with communities in an "open and transparent manner." 

He noted a draft report dropped off at his office late Wednesday with the results of 14 test sites at the Kellogg Air National Guard Base in Battle Creek — nine of which showed PFAS levels over 1,000 ppt and others even higher.

The testing was performed four months ago, he said. 

"How is that open and transparent, when it came out four months after the testing?" Upton asked Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment. 

Upton noted that turnaround for the state's test results in Parchment, Kalamazoo County, came back in four days last month. 

Sullivan said she wasn't familiar with the specifics in Battle Creek and would have to get back to Upton. 

PFAS detection

PFAS compounds, which build up in the environment and the body, have been used in manufacturing to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, packaging for food and other products resistant to water, grease or stains.

Michigan has 35 confirmed PFAS sites, including four public water supplies and five active or former military grounds, according to the state.

Health officials have said the continued exposure to certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water could harm human health. Studies link exposure to developmental effects on fetuses, cancer and effects on liver and immunity function, among other issues. 

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing PFOS and sometimes PFOA for emergency response and training.

Sullivan testified that the military has identified 401 active and former U.S. installations worldwide with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of PFOS or PFOA.

Military departments are now prioritizing remediation for the sites based on “worst first,” addressing first the sites that pose a greater potential risk to human health and the environment, Sullivan said.

"We’ve been disappointed in the pace of response" by the Department of Defense, Isaacs said. "I wish the pace was faster."

Michigan response 

Walberg described Michigan's "czar" model of bringing 10 agencies together under an umbrella in the governor's office as a kind of "Marshall Plan" for PFAS.

He asked Isaacs if the structure is "replicable" in other states, and she said it is.

The state intends to test all 461 schools on a private well system by year’s end, Isaacs said, and has already undertaken testing of all public water systems through a $1.7 million appropriation from the Legislature.

That municipal testing is what recently uncovered the high levels of PFAS in the drinking water in Parchment, where levels were 20 times higher than the advisory limits set by the EPA in 2016.  

Isaac's task force, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, has overseen the delivery of alternative water to more than 1,600 households where PFAS was detected, as well as the installation of more than 700 household filtration systems, Isaacs said. 

The team has also funded $1.5 million in in-state laboratory upgrades to accelerate PFAS testing, she said. 

Isaacs was among those urging the federal government to move forward with additional research and setting an enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water. 

“In full partnership with EPA, it would provide an additional tool that we could use together in looking at holding responsible parties responsible," she said. 

"We are currently working with EPA on enforcement actions, but if we had this new tool, it would be more effective. We might not need to go to court as often if we have established process that everyone knows about.”

Isaacs said she would like to see the EPA work more closely with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to "strengthen the interface between health advice and the application of cleanup standards." 

She also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture should work with the states to better understand how PFAS compounds interact with the food chain, including research related to PFAS uptake within plants.

A Senate subcommittee is holding a similar hearing Sept. 26 on PFAS contaminants.