Earlier today, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler laid out the agency’s action plan to address PFAS, a family of chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS. PFOA and PFOS are toxic substances that have contaminated drinking water in a number of New York communities, including Hoosick Falls and Newburgh.
EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Dave Ross briefed the press about an hour prior to Wheeler’s announcement, calling the agency’s action plan historic.
“The PFAS action plan is the most comprehensive, cross-agency action plan for a chemical of concern ever undertaken by the agency,” Ross says. “This is the first time we have utilized all of our program offices to deal with an emerging chemical of concern.”
He then highlighted five points of the plan, including the following.
“Contrary to misinformation in the press, EPA is moving forward with a maximum contaminant level, also known as MCL, process outlined in the Safe Water Drinking Act for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well-known and prevalent PFAS chemicals,” Ross says. “By the end of this year, EPA will propose a regulatory determination, which is the next step required by the Safe Drinking Water Act for establishing an MCL.”
In other words:
“I want to be crystal clear about this. Our intent is to establish an MCL for PFOA and PFOS,” says Ross. “To do so, we are committed to following the MCL rulemaking process as established by the Safe Drinking Water Act and will begin that rulemaking process this year.”
He says EPA is also considering if regulation is appropriate for other PFAS chemicals. Former EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck tuned into acting Administrator Wheeler’s announcement that the agency might propose a new drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS.
“He did not commit to doing it. He did not discuss whether the number would be lower than 70 parts per trillion, which is the current EPA health advisory number,” says Enck. “So I think the EPA announced what they’re calling as an action plan, which was short on action and all about a potential plan. It does very little to provide public health protections immediately, which is what is needed.”
Enck, who is a regular contributor to WAMC’s Roundtable, adds:
“I was pretty disappointed with acting Administrator Wheeler’s announcement, and I’m trying to figure out is it based in indifference? Is it based on incompetence? Maybe it’s both,” Enck says. “But this is a pretty serious drinking water issue and to put out a bureaucratic plan without commitment to do specific things is really falling short.”
Environmental groups are critical of EPA’s announcement. The Environmental Working Group, which has studied PFAS chemicals for nearly 20 years, says the EPA continues to drag its feet in regulating this class of chemicals, and calls EPA’s plan a recipe for more PFAS contamination, not less.
In December, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council recommended MCLs for three chemicals — 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, emerging contaminants found in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh, respectively. The council also voted to recommend an MCL of 1 part per billion for 1,4-Dioxane, which has contaminated water in several Long Island communities.
Liz Moran is environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. She urges New York state to take the lead in adopting MCLs for PFOA and PFOS in the face of federal inaction.