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EPA unveils plan for chemicals found in West Plains drinking water; critics say it’s not enough

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 15, 2019

Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights, on Friday May 19, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights, on Friday May 19, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday unveiled a plan to address PFAS chemicals, a class of toxic man-made compounds that have contaminated drinking water around Fairchild Air Force Base and other communities across the country. PFAS chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyls, are prized for their nonstick, stain-resistant and fire-retardant qualities.

The plan involves additional monitoring and increased research, cleanup and risk-communication efforts. The EPA also plans to take a first step toward setting an enforceable limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water by the end of 2019, Chris Hladick, the agency’s regional director for the Pacific Northwest, said in a conference call with reporters.

But the first stage of that rulemaking process only determines whether a maximum contaminant level, or MCL, is needed.

“If it’s a yes, then they’re still years away from setting an MCL,” said Barbara Morrissey, an expert in the environmental toxicology division of Washington’s Department of Health.

Environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers were quick to criticize the plan, saying it effectively delays much-needed regulations on PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems after decades of use in consumer products and firefighting foam.

“The EPA plan will not protect Washingtonians from these harmful chemicals that last indefinitely in the environment and get into drinking water,” Erika Schreder, science director for Toxic-Free Future, a Seattle-based advocacy group, said in a statement. “Washington state is far ahead of EPA in providing residents real protections from these chemicals and must continue to lead.”

A spokeswoman for Toxic-Free Future noted that Democrats in Olympia are sponsoring legislation that would require manufacturers to provide information on certain “priority chemicals,” such as PFAS compounds, to the state Department of Ecology. One of those bills passed the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology on Thursday.

EPA officials, including Hladick, described the PFAS plan as the first of its kind, a concerted nationwide effort that will address the “emerging” public health threat on multiple fronts. Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s acting administrator and President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the agency permanently, called the plan a “pivotal moment in the history of the agency.”

U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both of Washington, were among 20 Democratic senators who signed a Feb. 1 letter to Wheeler, urging the EPA to quickly adopt enforceable drinking-water standards.

“Washingtonians should not have to worry if their water is contaminated with harmful chemicals,” Murray said in a statement Thursday, “yet once again the Trump administration has chosen to sacrifice public health in pursuit of loose rules for wealthy special interests that would further pollute our water supply and cause additional harm to our environment.”

In an email, an EPA spokeswoman said the agency is “committed to following the (maximum contaminant level) rulemaking process as established by the Safe Drinking Water Act – a process that is designed to ensure public participation, transparency and the use of the best available science and other technical information. This process will provide regulatory certainty, while ensuring the legal defensibility of EPA’s regulatory actions.”

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment Committee, said in a statement: “I urge Mr. Wheeler to reverse course and treat this public health threat with the urgency it deserves. And I ask my colleagues in the Senate to take note of Mr. Wheeler’s lack of urgency in addressing this threat as they consider his nomination to be EPA’s permanent administrator.”

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., did not immediately have a comment on the EPA plan.

The two most prevalent PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, were used for decades in food packaging, cookware and stain repellents. They were phased out of use in the United States by the mid-2000s, but experts say similar replacement chemicals, including one called GenX, may be just as hazardous.

The chemicals degrade extremely slowly, if at all, and are known to accumulate in the environment and in people. Tests on lab animals have linked the compounds to an array of health problems.

Their effects on humans are less clear, but Morrissey, with the state Health Department, said new studies are being published each week.

“It’s a really active area of research, and so I think we’re going to know a lot more in the next few years,” she said.

The EPA issued an unenforceable health advisory for PFOS and PFOA in 2016, saying concentrations in drinking water should not exceed 70 parts per trillion.

But a report released last summer by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that “minimum risk levels” for oral exposure to those chemicals are much lower than the EPA’s recommended limit.

The EPA, under former Administrator Scott Pruitt, along with the White House, had sought to block the publication of the HHS report, with one Trump administration aide warning it would cause a “public relations nightmare.”

Fairchild officials first acknowledged in early 2017 that groundwater around the air base was contaminated by PFAS chemicals. They were key ingredients in aqueous film-forming foam, a widely used fire retardant that seeped into the water table from training sites on the base. The contamination prompted lawsuits and forced Airway Heights to flush millions of gallons from its drinking water system.

Tens of millions of people in the United States rely on tap water containing unsafe levels of the compounds, according to the Environmental Working Group. In their Feb. 1 letter to Wheeler, the Democratic senators wrote that a lack of clear guidance from the EPA “has led to a patchwork of conflicting drinking water standards and guidelines in nine states with widely varying maximum contaminant levels.”

Manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, including DuPont and 3M Co., have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over drinking water contamination. In a statement Thursday, the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobbying group, voiced support for the EPA plan.

“We continue to support strong national leadership in addressing PFAS and firmly believe that EPA is best positioned to provide the public with a comprehensive strategy informed by a full understanding of the safety and benefits of different PFAS chemistries,” the group said.

The New York Times reported in October 2017 that Nancy Beck – a top EPA political appointee and former executive at the American Chemistry Council – had pushed for rule changes that make it harder to regulate PFOA and other chemicals. Beck holds a doctorate in environmental health from the University of Washington and worked at the state Health Department from 1999 to 2000.

Morrissey said the EPA tends to rely on its own data when creating new regulations. The agency’s own sampling several years ago found PFAS contamination in only small pockets of the country, but later samplings by the military and other researchers found the problem was much bigger, she said.

“If the EPA doesn’t consider all of that, they might say, ‘Hey, we don’t need to regulate it because there’s not a significant occurrence,’” Morrissey said.

In an email, an EPA spokeswoman said the agency would continue monitoring efforts because new lab methods can detect PFAS chemicals at lower concentrations than previously possible.

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