Biden administration to regulate PFAS chemicals that have contaminated water in Michigan

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

The Biden administration announced plans Monday to regulate and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS substances known as "forever chemicals," which have been detected in the water of numerous Michigan communities. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it intends to take administrative and enforcement actions including a national drinking water standard and a commitment to designate two well-known compounds, PFAS and PFOA, as hazardous substances under the Superfund statute. 

Lawmakers and advocates have long said the latter step would make it easier for regulators to require responsible parties to undertake or pay for contamination cleanup under the relevant law, known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Foam along the Huron River can be seen downstream from the Barton Dam in the Barton Nature Area in Ann Arbor. The Biden administration announced plans Monday to regulate and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS substances known as "forever chemicals," which have been detected in the water of numerous Michigan communities.

“For far too long, families across America — especially those in underserved communities — have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air or in the land their children play on,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

“This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full life cycle of these chemicals. Let there be no doubt that EPA is listening, we have your back, and we are laser focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable.”

The EPA said it's already begun work on developing a national primary drinking water standard to be implemented by 2023 and is working on a new toxicity assessment to be issued by career scientists at the agency for GenX and a related compound known as PFBS. 

Michigan already has some of the strictest rules in the nation limiting chemical contaminants in drinking water supplies, with rules that took effect last year governing the presence of seven per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals in drinking water.

The rules set maximum contaminant levels at 6 parts per trillion for PFNA; 8 ppt for PFOA; 400,000 ppt for PFHxA; 16 ppt for PFOS; 51 ppt for PFHxS; 420 ppt for PFBS, and 370 ppt for HFPO-DA or Gen X.

The state's rules include guidelines for water sampling, treatment and the release of public health advisories when elevated levels of the chemicals are found.

New PFAS rules set to take effect Aug. 3, among nation's strictest

The EPA’s current health advisory level is 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS exposure through drinking water.

PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals" for their persistence in the environment, have long been used to make furniture, paper packaging for food and cookware resistant to water, grease or stains. 

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing PFOS and sometimes PFOA for emergency response and training, leading to the contamination of groundwater around military installations. 

The chemicals are linked to health problems including certain cancers and damage to liver and immunity functions, developmental impacts on fetuses, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children. 

Eight agencies in total are part of President Joe Biden's PFAS plan, including the Pentagon, which advocates criticize for dragging its feet in responding to PFAS contamination or warning service members of the risks at military installations where firefighting foam containing PFAS was used for decades.

The White House said the DOD is currently conducting PFAS cleanup assessments at 700 installations and National Guard sites where PFAS was used or might have been released, though assessments won't be completed until the end of 2023. 

Officials say the Pentagon also this year began quarterly public outreach to stakeholders to discuss PFAS-related work in an attempt to be more transparent.

The Food and Drug Administration said it's expanding its testing of the food supply to estimate dietary exposure to PFAS chemicals from food, and the Department of Homeland Security said it's working on a set of initiatives to remediate PFAS, including the first inventory of PFAS use and prior releases from DHS facilities. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, applauded Biden's plan Monday but said it does not negate the need to adopt the bipartisan PFAS Action Act, which she has sponsored with Republican Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph. The bill passed the House in July but has not been taken up by the Senate.

Dingell's bill would designate PFAS and PFOA as hazardous substances under the Superfund program within two years and would set national drinking water standards. It would also designate PFAS as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS and set aside $200 million annually for PFAS wastewater treatment. 

"The EPA can act even faster and take real steps to carry out this strategy that will protect public health safety, jump start clean up in our communities, and prevent further contamination in the environment," Dingell said in a statement. "It’s time for the Senate to act."

Some environmental groups were disappointed the administration didn't go further in its Monday announcement plans. 

A group of local, state and national government natural resource and environmental professionals panned Biden's PFAS plan as "woefully inadequate" and effectively "kicking the can down the road." 

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) said the plan is weak because it promises future regulatory limits on only PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, and toxicity standards for only seven PFAS chemicals; relies on voluntary stewardship programs that "consistently failed" the public and lays out no mechanism for safely managing the generation, transportation and disposal of waste contaminated with PFAS. 

“This plan is a complete dud,” PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse said. “The PFAS crisis is going to get much worse unless there are major course corrections far beyond EPA’s terribly timid plan.”

The Environmental Working Group recognized Regan for his PFAS road map but urged the agency to act swiftly to address other PFAS chemicals and do more to regulate the disposal of PFAS wastes, such as a ban on the incineration of the waste and required testing for PFAS in sludge applied to farm fields. 

EWG also wants the FDA to prohibit the use of PFAS in food packaging.

A statement from the American Chemistry Council said it would review the EPA’s PFAS Roadmap with its members and work with the agency on the issue, praising the EPA for not taking a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating PFAS.