The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced a road map for limiting toxic chemicals, called PFAS, now widespread in drinking water.
“This is the most comprehensive cross-agency action plan for a chemical of concern ever taken by the agency,” said Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a press conference in Philadelphia.
But critics say the plan lacks details and lags behind steps that some states are already taking to limit the contaminants in water.
“The language is vague. It’s hard to tell if they’re actually committing to taking certain actions,” Anna Reade, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told BuzzFeed News.
“This so-called plan is actually a recipe for more PFAS contamination, not less,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.
The EPA is proposing to kick off a process to set a drinking water limit on two of the best known PFAS compounds (PFOA and PFOS) before the end of the year. Also, the agency committed to mapping the sources of PFAS contamination and monitoring for PFAS compounds in sources other than drinking water.
PFAS chemicals are lab-made compounds that are used in the manufacturing of nonstick coatings for clothes and cooking pans. (PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.) Scientists have dubbed them “forever” chemicals because they do not break down in the environment and can last a long time. “They can contaminate our environment very quickly,” Reade said.
The announcement follows a “National Leadership Summit” hosted by former EPA head Scott Pruitt in Washington, DC, last year, and after EPA held meetings near communities that are facing major PFAS contamination problems.
Rob Allen, the mayor of Hoosick Falls, New York, where high levels of PFAS were detected in the drinking water, wrote on Twitter that Wheeler’s message echoed Pruitt’s past comments.
EPA’s first survey of PFAS compounds, announced in 2016, listed 63 drinking water systems in 22 states that had levels above the agency’s health guidelines, and an estimated 6 million Americans are served by such water systems. The CDC estimates that most Americans have detectable levels of some of these compounds in their blood.
Since then, more states have found sites with high PFAS levels, and the water crisis has caught the attention of health experts and legislators. In January, a bipartisan group of members of Congress announced that they formed a “PFAS Task Force” to craft legislation on PFAS in the House.
Task force cochairs Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania, described EPA’s new plan as “a start,” adding that “further aggressive and impactful actions must be taken by the Administration to protect Americans’ communities.”
In the new action plan, the EPA proposed to test for PFAS compounds in the next cycle monitoring unregulated contaminants in drinking water. But such surveys typically focus on very large water systems, and can miss problems in smaller communities, according to Christopher Higgins, an environmental chemist at the Colorado School of Mines, who studies PFAS compounds in the environment.
Vermont and New Jersey are among the states already taking steps to establish drinking water limits for the compounds. In Minnesota and Michigan, state agencies have expanded warnings to include consuming fish and deer. Reade, of the NRDC, said that states tend to be strapped for resources to investigate environmental contaminants locally, and look to the EPA to lead the way.
3M, a major manufacturer of PFAS chemicals, also acknowledged the EPA’s latest steps.
“3M supports EPA’s creation of a PFAS Action Plan and looks forward to reviewing the plan in detail,” the company said in a press release, adding that “this plan may help prevent a patchwork of state standards that could increase confusion and uncertainty for communities.”
3M settled a lawsuit in Minnesota in 2018 over PFAS contamination in local drinking water, and agreed to pay the state $850 million.