EPA on ‘forever chemicals’: Let them drink polluted water
Standing before a room mostly filled with industry lobbyists last week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a clear message to the hundreds of American communities with drinking water contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS: Let them drink polluted water.
PFAS are man-made “forever chemicals” that never break down once released and they build up in our bodies.
Calling Congressional efforts to clean up legacy PFAS pollution in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2020 “just not workable,” Wheeler instead will continue to study the matter.
Wheeler has so far refused to designate PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law.
By doing so, the EPA would kick-start the cleanup process at contaminated sites and ensure that polluters pay their fair share of cleanup costs. The Department of Defense has cited the absence of a “hazardous substance” designation when refusing to clean up sites contaminated by fluorinated firefighting foams. So far, the Environmental Working Group has documented 297 military installations that are contaminated by PFAS, threatening nearby communities.
Even former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pledged to pursue the designation for some PFAS, vowing in 2018 that it was “a national priority.” But this week Wheeler parroted chemical industry talking points to contend that cleaning up contaminated sites would be putting politics “ahead of the science.”
“You don’t solve a problem with a chemical by just declaring it hazardous,” Wheeler said.
Actually, the EPA has designated hundreds of chemicals as hazardous under federal statutes meant to fulfill the agency’s mission to, you know, protect people.
By doing so, the EPA has reduced releases of hazardous substances from industry into the air and water and cleaned up sites that are badly contaminated. As House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) noted during a markup last week, a hazardous substance designation is not a ban. Many of the chemicals deemed hazardous by the EPA are still used in products.
According to news accounts, Wheeler also relied upon earlier EPA approvals of some PFAS chemicals as proof of their safety — despite recent evidence that the agency knowingly ignored studies showing serious health risks. The EPA’s own inspector general just announced a probe into whether agreements on the production of GenX – a notorious replacement chemical for older PFAS — have been enforced.
To be fair, Wheeler is not the first EPA administrator to fail communities struggling with PFAS pollution.
The EPA was first alerted to the risks of these ‘forever chemicals’ in 1998. The first “action plan” for dealing with them was released in 2009. Not much happened. Last year, the EPA released another “action plan” that did not include a single new action.
Despite the risks posed by PFAS pollution, Wheeler’s EPA has done nothing to reduce ongoing releases of PFAS into the air and water.
EWG has identified nearly 500 manufacturers that may be making the current PFAS contamination even worse. Last week, the EPA announced that it may require the reporting of PFAS releases in the Toxic Release Inventory — and even that would not happen for years. That’s right: Not only are PFAS discharges completely unregulated, we don’t even know where they are coming from.
Our analysis of unreleased EPA data indicates that water supplies for more than 100 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS. But, standing before industry lobbyists last week, Wheeler didn’t even pledge to set a PFAS drinking water standard — walking back a promise he made to senators when he was nominated for the job.
No wonder Congress isn’t waiting for Wheeler’s EPA to act.
The House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act include PFAS reforms that would designate PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law, subject ongoing PFAS discharges to clean water safeguards, require reporting of many PFAS releases, set a deadline for a legally enforceable drinking water standard, and quickly end the military’s use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging.
That may be bad news for Wheeler’s chemical industry cronies. But it’s good news for American communities facing a contamination crisis that is growing with no end in sight.
Scott Faber is the senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health organization.