The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Critics say EPA action plan on toxic ‘forever chemicals’ falls short

Sara Dean and her husband, Matt, play with their 2-year-old son, Patrick, after dinner at home in Parchment, Mich., in October. The Deans moved to Parchment about three years ago from Chicago, looking for a quieter, more affordable place to raise a family. But after tests found the town's drinking water contaminated with high levels of unregulated chemicals known as PFAS, they have questioned their decision. (David Kasnic for The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced what officials called a historic effort to rein in a class of long-lasting chemicals that pose serious health risks to millions of Americans. But environmental groups and residents of contaminated communities said that the agency’s “action plan” is short on action, saying ample evidence exists to regulate the chemicals in the nation’s drinking water.

The EPA promised in the spring to devise a plan to address the widespread contamination caused by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, which have been detected in numerous communities and military bases. The agency’s leader at the time, Scott Pruitt, called the problem “a national emergency.”

The manmade chemicals have long been used in consumer products, including water-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware and grease-resistant paper products, as well as in firefighting foams. Long-term exposures have been associated with health problems that include thyroid disease, weakened immunity, infertility risks and certain cancers. Because PFAS do not break down in the environment, they have become known as “forever chemicals.”

Agency officials vowed by year’s end to begin the lengthy process of setting drinking water limits for two of the most widely detected compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA. The EPA also said it will issue guidance on cleaning up groundwater contaminated by the chemicals, require more testing for PFAS in public water systems, undertake additional research on the health effects of less-studied compounds and better communicate the risk that communities face.

“Americans count on EPA every time they turn on their faucet,” EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia. “That’s why communities across the nation have asked us to provide a comprehensive approach to understanding PFAS in drinking water. Our action plan provides just that."

But environmental advocacy groups, Democrats in Congress and residents of communities that have lived for months or years on bottled water said the measures fall short of the aggressive action needed to tackle the problem. They have long urged the agency to set a national threshold for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water — something several states have begun to do in the absence of federal regulation.

“It’s been more and more evident that these chemicals are really bad for human health,” said Michael Hickey, an insurance underwriter who began testing the water in his town of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., after his father died of kidney cancer in 2013. His work brought to light serious PFOA contamination linked to a nearby industrial facility.

“It’s just disheartening,” Hickey said of Thursday’s announcement, adding that he implored EPA officials to move more rapidly to regulate the chemicals during a meeting in Washington last month. “These are real illnesses that happen every day. This EPA doesn’t understand the severity and what it actually does to a small town when there’s this kind of contamination.”

More than 700 miles west in Parchment, Mich., Tammy Cooper was also disappointed Thursday. In her town, where the chemicals were once used by a long-shuttered paper mill, tests in the summer found PFAS levels in the local water system in excess of 1,500 parts per trillion — more than 20 times the EPA’s recommended lifetime exposure limit. Families there continue to wrestle with the unknown long-term implications of that exposure.

“Residents are quickly losing faith in the agency,” said Cooper, who traveled to Washington last year to lobby for tougher standards. “If the EPA doesn’t take decisive action soon, Michigan residents will continue to be poisoned.”

Erik Olson, health program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA has not regulated any new contaminant in drinking water for more than two decades, across multiple administrations. But he said that seldom had it been so clear as with PFOS and PFOA about the need for national limits on specific chemicals.

“EPA continues to punt and has failed to even lift a finger to regulate these dangerous contaminants that are in millions of people’s drinking water,” Olson said. “If they can’t regulate something like these highly toxic chemicals that are all over the country, what can they regulate?”

Despite such criticism, EPA officials on Thursday described their efforts as “groundbreaking,” saying that the proposals represent an agencywide effort to assess the dangers of PFAS chemicals, work to clean them up and begin protecting the nation’s drinking water from future contamination.

David Ross, assistant administrator in the EPA’s water office, told reporters that the agency’s plan is based on input from local meetings across the country over the past year, as well as 120,000 written comments it received. Ross dismissed suggestions that the EPA does not intend to set a drinking water standard or that it is moving too slowly.

“I want to be crystal clear about this — our intent is to establish a [maximum contaminant level] for PFOA and PFOS,” he said. He added that the agency must proceed carefully so that any new regulation can be defensible in court. “We will develop the standard at the level the science dictates,” he said.

Harvard University researchers have reported that public drinking water supplies serving more than 6 million Americans have tested for the chemicals at or above the EPA’s suggested threshold of 70 parts per trillion — which many experts argue should be even lower to safeguard public health. The agency first issued that guideline in 2016.

Scientists have long studied the effects of PFOS and PFOA, which companies phased out years ago amid growing evidence that both were ending up in the blood of nearly every American. But thousands of other PFAS chemicals remain in use.

“EPA is still not actually taking any concrete action on PFAS. Promising to conduct more studies, investigations, and further work toward formal regulatory action at some point in the future, is not the same as actually taking formal regulatory action now,” said environmental attorney Robert Bilott, who has successfully sued DuPont on behalf of plaintiffs exposed to PFOA in Ohio and West Virginia.

A federal study released last year suggested that the EPA’s existing threshold from 2016 is inadequate to protect public health.

Meanwhile, some states have acted on their own. New Jersey became the first to regulate certain types of PFAS chemicals in its drinking water, and others such as New York and Vermont have followed a similar path. Judith Enck, who served as a regional EPA administrator under President Barack Obama, said Thursday that other states should follow suit.

“EPA’s inability to act beyond issuing a plan is a reminder that every state in the country needs to establish state-level drinking water standards,” Enck said, even as she praised the EPA for saying it intends to declare PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous” substances under the Superfund cleanup law. “People in polluted communities deserve so much more than the EPA announced today.”

Both houses of Congress have held hearings about the problem, and lawmakers introduced bills to compel the government to test for PFAS chemicals nationwide and to respond wherever polluted water and soil are found. EPA officials, who held a PFAS “summit” in the spring and visited numerous affected communities to meet with residents and local leaders, insisted Thursday that its proposals will help meaningfully reduce the risks of exposure to the chemicals for many Americans.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called the agency’s plan a first step.

“EPA must speak clearly about the risk that this class of chemicals poses to public health and the environment,” said Barrasso, who indicated that he plans to hold a hearing on the plan in the spring. “The agency must be willing to take decisive action where it is warranted.”

But what Barrasso calls a first step, some colleagues see as another delay.

"While EPA acts with the utmost urgency to repeal regulations, the agency ambles with complacency when it comes to taking real steps to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “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.”