News: CJ Exclusives

EPA plan addressing chemical pollutants gives few details on dealing with health risks

Photo image courtesy of Pixabay
Photo image courtesy of Pixabay

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released Thursday a long-anticipated federal action plan to address chemical pollutants such as GenX. But critics immediately voiced disappointment the report offers few details about the relief affected communities can expect.

The 23-point plan is heavy on describing how to navigate regulations under a variety of federal environmental acts. It is less specific about timetables for holding polluters accountable, setting toxicity levels, listing chemicals as hazardous substances, and putting in place more stringent testing and remediation methods.

GenX is of particular concern in North Carolina. Chemours’ Fayetteville Works Plant has polluted the drinking water of 200,000 people with GenX and other industrial chemicals, and has been the subject of state and federal lawsuits.

GenX is part of an enormous family of what are known as PFAS synthetic chemicals, nearly all of which are unregulated. Little is known about the risks they present.

Some studies have concluded they may pose the same health risks as the dangerous chemicals that preceded them, resulting in large legal settlements when people exposed to the chemicals get sick. The older chemicals were found to produce thyroid disorders; reproductive, developmental, and hormonal problems; high cholesterol; a depressed immune system; and cancer.

Sometimes called emerging chemicals, PFAS compounds exist in hundreds of consumer and industrial products. They are in nonstick Teflon cookware, slippery food wrapper coatings, dental floss, cosmetics, and stain-resistant materials. They are in firefighting foam, and have been detected in large volumes at airports and military installations.

The EPA says most Americans have been exposed to PFAS materials because of their widespread application and use since the 1940s.

The EPA’s action plan is designed to create scientific tests and technologies to fill the knowledge gap created when the quickly emerging chemicals entered the market without research from regulatory bodies. Among the plan’s provisions is enacting Significant New Use Rules requiring EPA notification before chemicals are used in new ways that may create human health and ecological concerns.

Gov. Roy Cooper wasn’t impressed with the EPA’s plan.

“I am disappointed that the agency’s action plan does not commit to setting standards, lacks detail on what research is planned on specific compounds like GenX, and seems to ignore the urgency of the problem,” Cooper said in a statement. “Today’s announcement contradicts promises made in public meetings in North Carolina last summer to work swiftly to set standards and recommendations for these compounds. People deserve to have confidence in the water they drink, and this weak action by the EPA negatively impacts state efforts to protect water quality and public health.”

The Sierra Club issued a statement saying the action plan doesn’t go far enough to protect public health and safety by immediately limiting emissions to air, water, and control disposal. The environmental group worries that the plan mostly targets PFOA and PFOS, just two of potentially thousands of known and unknown PFAS chemicals.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the action plan at a morning press conference live-streamed from Pennsylvania. He addressed concerns about the pace of progress.

Designating a chemical a hazardous substance is not easy, Wheeler said.

“There may be [legal] challenges. We have to follow the regulatory process,” he said.

Scientists working on PFAS concerns are simultaneously working on other drinking water problems related to lead and copper.

Wheeler expects a maximum contaminant level to be established for PFOA and PFOS by the end of the year. That would be the first new level set since the rule regulating that action was implemented in 1996. Then it would go through the rulemaking process.

Wheeler said the EPA does not need a maximum contaminant level to force cleanup. The agency continues enforcing its current health advisory limits for safe exposure to 70 parts per every trillion parts of air, water, or soil in which the chemicals exist. North Carolina’s limit is 140 parts per trillion.

EPA Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker held a press conference at the agency’s research and development campus in Research Triangle Park. She spoke in broad strokes on what help local water utilities can expect with cleanup efforts.

“We are aware of the challenges that utilities face. We’ve got an aging water infrastructure. We have a number of needs,” Walker said. The action plan allows EPA to earmark 31 percent of the drinking water set-asides in a state revolving fund for developing additional water capacity.

She did not directly address a question from Carolina Journal whether the action plan includes disposal guidelines for the many household and industrial products that contain GenX and other PFAS compounds, including solar panels.