The Environmental Protection Agency has released its plan for tackling widespread contamination by the highly toxic persistent industrial compounds known as PFAS, which have been found in drinking water around the country. The agency’s “PFAS Strategic Roadmap” is part of an interagency push by the Biden administration to combat the chemicals, which are associated with a range of health problems and last indefinitely in the environment.
“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,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who appeared in North Carolina, where he previously served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to launch the plan. “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 document lays out an accelerated timeline for various steps to regulate, remediate, and conduct research on PFAS, a class of chemicals used to make nonstick pans, firefighting foam, and hundreds of other products. The agency committed to designating two of the best-known chemicals in the class, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act by the summer of 2023. By that fall, the agency plans to set enforceable drinking water limits on those same two compounds. The EPA has pledged to finalize a risk assessment for PFOA and PFOS in sludge by the winter of 2024.
But environmental advocates and people living in contaminated communities criticized the plan for containing more promises and planned actions than concrete policies. “I first wrote to U.S. EPA March 6, 2001, asking and urging the agency to take action to protect people from PFOA in public drinking water,” said Robert Bilott, an attorney who represented some 80,000 people whose drinking water was polluted with PFOA from a DuPont plant in West Virginia. “It is now 20 years later, and we are still waiting for them to actually do it, as opposed to announcing plans to do it years in the future.”
“We’ve had two prior action plans, which went nowhere, so it’s frustrating because there’s no actual actions being announced as opposed to plans,” said Bilott, who noted that the EPA acknowledged that the fulfillment of its commitments is contingent upon appropriations.
The road map, which was produced by the EPA Council on PFAS created earlier this year, attempts to broaden the agency’s focus on the thousands of chemicals in the class. The document lays out plans to sample for 29 PFAS compounds in water systems in 2024 and 2025. And the agency will soon begin to publish toxicity assessments for seven PFAS compounds, including GenX, which was introduced as a substitute for PFOA.
The EPA also plans to subdivide the thousands of PFAS compounds based on their toxicity, chemical structure, and the techniques used to remove them from the environment, according to the document. The agency will then identify the gaps in research about these compounds and, in some cases, require the companies that make the chemicals to conduct and fund the research themselves.
“This is a big deal,” said Betsy Southerland, a scientist who worked at the EPA for 33 years. “Finally, this is going to be used to get the industry people rather than the federal government and academics to have to fill in all the critical missing data.” The agency could then use the information to regulate all the chemicals within the category. But the process of restricting or banning uses for a single category would take at least seven years, even if it begins immediately, Southerland said.
Critics pointed out that several of the planned regulatory steps focused on only PFOS and PFOA and said that the EPA fell short of regulating PFAS chemicals as a class, an approach environmental groups have advocated because it would speed up the process and bypass the cycle of replacing one toxic chemical with another.
“They have the option under the Toxic Substances Control Act of saying that PFAS comprise a class and are going to be treated as a class, but they’re not doing that,” said Robert Sussman, an attorney representing six environmental groups that have petitioned the EPA to require testing of 54 PFAS compounds released by a former DuPont plant, now owned by DuPont spinoff Chemours. The plant has released hundreds of PFAS compounds into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, which supplies drinking water to 1.5 million people. Although the plan said that the agency would issue its first round of orders for companies to do toxicity testing by the end of this year, Sussman expressed skepticism that it would meet the demands of the environmental groups he’s representing.
“There’s nothing in the road map that increases my confidence that EPA is going to require the testing that we’ve asked for,” said Sussman. “Just in the Cape Fear watershed, we’re dealing with hundreds of compounds. We need to be getting a handle on what people are exposed to in the real world.”
While emphasizing the agency’s commitment to safeguarding communities from PFAS contamination, the road map makes it clear that the EPA does not plan to remove compounds that entered the market through a loophole that allows them to bypass a thorough safety review. Instead, the agency document cites an existing program meant to encourage companies to voluntarily withdraw the approvals the EPA has previously granted them through these loopholes. So far no companies have chosen to do so.
Nor will the agency prevent all new compounds in the class from entering the market, promising only to “apply a rigorous premanufacture notice review process for new PFAS to ensure these substances are safe before they enter commerce.”
“It just says ‘rigorous review process,’” said Eve Gartner, managing attorney for the Toxic Exposure and Health Program at Earthjustice. “But we’ve seen that the rigorous review process that has been in place for a long time has resulted in in hundreds of PFAS being approved.”
“Since we also know the process has been corrupted by industry influence, how can we trust this supposedly rigorous review process for PFAS?”
Gartner also pointed to recent evidence of corruption within the EPA presented by whistleblowers in the agency’s New Chemicals Division. “Since we also know the process has been corrupted by industry influence, how can we trust this supposedly rigorous review process for PFAS? The only answer is to say no new PFAS will be approved,” said Gartner. “It’s disappointing that EPA is not just closing the door on any new PFAS.”
For some who have been directly affected by the chemicals, the road map is just the latest disappointment with regulators who have failed to protect them from the poisonous chemicals. “From a community perspective, this all should have been done yesterday,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, an alliance of advocacy groups organized around the PFAS contamination in North Carolina.
Donovan, who has collected foam samples from local beaches that have tested positive for PFAS made by Chemours and has dozens of PFAS in her drinking water, doesn’t have the patience for the EPA’s extended timeline. “I’m grateful for the work on PFOA and PFOS, but we can’t stop there,” said Donovan. “The level of total PFAS in our tap water keeps rising, and at the very minimum, EPA should be doing toxicity analysis on those compounds ASAP.”
Meanwhile, as the EPA was launching its “PFAS Strategic Roadmap” with fanfare yesterday, it also released its “National PFAS Testing Strategy,” quietly posting the document on its website. The much awaited testing plan is intended to gather information about the toxicity of thousands of PFAS compounds that have not been studied and has been a focal point of interest for communities exposed to the chemicals.
The EPA began its search for testing candidates with 6,504 PFAS compounds, which it subdivided by category, ultimately identifying only 24 chemicals to be tested. While the agency emphasized to the press that it would be making the polluter pay for such toxicity research, for more than half of the PFAS categories — 32 of 56 — there’s no “identifiable manufacturer,” according to the testing plan, making such accountability impossible.
What’s more, the EPA testing plan is based on a definition of PFAS that scientists have already criticized as “too narrow.” The PFAS testing plan refers only to “chemicals with at least two adjacent carbon atoms, where one carbon is fully fluorinated and the other is at least partially fluorinated,” as opposed to a broader definition that was adopted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As a result, it would leave out important chemicals that are released in large volumes — including some of the new coolant chemicals produced by Chemours and other companies and trifluoroacetic acid, or TFA, a toxic, persistent water contaminant that’s created when the coolants break down.
In the testing plan, the EPA does not commit to doing any particular test but instead lists tests for carcinogenicity, prenatal developmental toxicity, and reproductive toxicity on the third of three tiers under the heading “Potential Tests.”
Sussman, who represents PFAS-affected community groups in North Carolina, was dismayed by the testing plan. “Slicing and dicing the PFAS category into 24 subcategories and then conducting a multi-phased testing program on 24 compounds is not an efficient or expeditious way to regulate commercial uses of PFAS,” said Sussman. “The EPA strategy also fails to recognize that communities are not interested in testing as an academic exercise but want information that helps them understand the risks of harm from the PFAS they’ve actually been exposed to in the real world.”
Update: October 19, 2021, 2:30 p.m. ET
This article has been updated with details about the EPA’s national testing strategy, which was posted to the EPA website but went unmentioned in the release of the “PFAS Strategic Roadmap.”