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EPA moves to limit financial pressure on 'forever chemical' manufacturers under cleanup law

EPA moves to limit financial pressure on 'forever chemical' manufacturers under cleanup law
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A proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would absolve the nation’s manufacturers of cancer-linked “forever chemicals” from broad financial responsibility for cleaning up their product as it leaches into the water supply across the country. 

The class of chemicals known as PFAS, which are noted for their persistence in both the environment and the human body, are used in a variety of nonstick products.

As PFAS contamination spreads into city water supplies in every state but Hawaii, there has been growing pressure from lawmakers to have manufacturers help fund cleanup efforts.

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A notice of the EPA’s proposed rule posted to the Federal Register Friday would exclude manufacturers of PFAS from providing financial assurances under the Superfund law, which directs the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. Companies would not be required to prove they have the financial backing to clean up any contamination.

The move comes as data shows the Trump administration has the highest number of unfunded construction projects at Superfund sites of the last 15 years.

Melanie Benesh, an attorney with the Environmental Working Group, which tracks PFAS contamination, said the move is part of an unfortunate trend in which the government seeks funds only after there is a problem.

“If you don't require these companies that are the most likely to be contributing to Superfund contamination, if you're not asking them to provide financial assurances, EPA may not be able to recover money to clean up that site, and there may not be enough in appropriated funds to clean up that site,” she said. 

“This is a relatively small burden on companies. They’re not asking them to pay anything at this point; they’re asking them to show they have the money — that if you dump a bunch of chemicals in people’s air or drinking water that you at least have the money to clean it up, which seems like the bare minimum that we should be expecting.”

EPA argues that current management practices at PFAS facilities do not pose a financial risk taxpayers, who would otherwise foot the bill for a cleanup.

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“The degree and duration of risk associated with the modern production, transportation, treatment, storage or disposal of hazardous substances by the chemical manufacturing industry does not present a level of risk of taxpayer funded response actions that warrant imposition of financial responsibility requirements for this sector,” the EPA wrote.

If finalized, the EPA would still retain the power to impose Superfund responsibilities at individual contaminated sites. 

Some lawmakers have been pushing hard to have PFAS sites designated as hazardous under the Superfund law in order to open more funding for cleanups. Such a provision was included in sweeping PFAS legislation passed by the House in January, though it's expected to have little prospect in the Senate.

The notice comes the day after the agency announced it would set a national drinking water standard for PFAS.