Last week the EPA announced its “Action Plan” for a group of chemicals referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS chemicals. In its news release, the agency described this effort as “historic” and as the “most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA.” However, environmental advocates and people who live in communities contaminated by PFAS chemicals were not impressed by the agency’s plan. Group after group released news statements blasting the plan as inadequate and lacking action, lamenting the agency’s failure to create a standard to regulate PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
In response to questions from reporters, EPA expressed the need to set a standard that would be defensible in court and promised that the agency will develop a standard “according to where the science directs us.” While this might make a good sound bite, it falls far short of what environmental advocates and people who live in communities contaminated by PFAS chemicals had hoped for.
The National PFAS Contamination Coalition, a network of communities impacted by PFAS contamination described the agency’s plan as “woefully inadequate for those who have been suffering from exposure to contamination for decades” and that “it fails to prevent current and future exposure to PFAS in the environment.”
The EPA’s failure to set a health standard for PFAS chemicals is nothing new for the agency. They have not issued a new standard for drinking water in over 22 years since the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1996. Andrew Wheeler, Acting Administrator of EPA, described setting a standard for PFAS chemicals as “charting new territory” at the agency’s press conference. Really? Has it been so long that the agency no longer recalls what it needs to do to issue a new standard?
Not having a health standard is huge. Without a standard, there is no clear legal handle that the agency can use to force a polluter to clean up contaminated water to the standard or to require that a water company to provide water that does not have PFAS at the level of the standard. With only a health advisory, the agency has no standing to force a polluter to take the necessary steps to clean up contaminated water or require a water company to provide water that does not have PFAS at the level of the advisory. They can ask. They can recommend. But that cannot require. At least not legally.
More study and analysis as called for in the EPA “Action” plan, will not change this scenario. The agency needs to stop stalling, recall its roots and issue a health standard for PFAS chemicals. The communities that have been contaminated by PFAS chemicals and the American people deserve nothing less.