EPA will regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday announced it would regulate “forever chemicals” that have been leaching into the water supply in cities across the country.

The announcement kicks off a lengthy process to regulate a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which are known for their persistence in both the environment and the human body. The substance has been linked to cancer and other ailments.

The decision was welcome news to environmentalists, who often argue the Trump administration EPA has earned a reputation for rolling back environmental regulations rather than bolstering them.

“Under President Trump’s leadership, EPA is following through on its commitment in the Action Plan to evaluate PFOA and PFOS,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement, referring to the two forms of PFAS that would be regulated under Thursday’s action.

The EPA had promised to decide whether or not to regulate PFAS by the end of last year, earning a rebuke from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) as the anniversary of the agency’s PFAS Action Plan came and went. 

EPA currently recommends water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS, but it’s not mandatory, and many health advocates argue that number is too high. In the absence of EPA action, a number of states have passed laws requiring lower levels of PFAS for drinking water.

"Today’s decision shows that an avalanche of public pressure and overwhelming science is finally forcing EPA to act,” Melanie Benesh with the Environmental Working Group said in a statement.

EPA’s decision to regulate PFAS kicks off a two-year period for the agency to determine what the new mandatory maximum contamination level should be. Once that is formally proposed, the agency has another 18 months to finalize its drinking water requirement.

“We’re not going to be seeing a drinking water standard for at least four more years,” said Betsy Southerland, who helped set the voluntary 70 ppt standard while working as the director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration.

PFAS contamination has been found in every state but Hawaii, according to data collected by the Environmental Working group, with cities in Michigan and New Jersey, where some PFAS substances were manufactured, being hit particularly hard. 

However, there are many municipalities with no contamination — something Southerland worried would limit EPA’s appetite to set a national standard.

“There are all these small systems in the country and if it looks like there is low likelihood that all these small systems have this contamination you don't want to impose the cost of even the monitoring technology on them,” she said.

Municipal water suppliers are the most likely to caution against setting too aggressive of a drinking water standard. Though vocal about the health concerns from PFAS, they would be saddled with the costs of monitoring for the substances or investing in equipment to remove them. 

"We haven't said there should or shouldn't be a number, a maximum contamination level. What we ask is that we make a sound decision,” said Steve Via with the American Water Works Association, which represents water utilities.

“We’ve got a range of perspectives. We have folks that clearly have gross contamination, they need to address it, so they're looking to know what standard of care EPA and the regulatory community is interested in,” Via said. 

But other members with low levels of PFAS are concerned they may have to foot the expense to treat water when doing so may provide little health benefit, he said.

EPA will initially develop two drinking water standards, one based purely on health and another that takes into account the financial factors of compliance.

The agency’s decision could defuse what has been a regular sticking point for lawmakers who are otherwise eager to address PFAS.

More stringent PFAS regulations were not included in the defense policy bill after lawmakers couldn’t agree on whether to force EPA to set a drinking water standard.

The collapse of conference negotiations led House Democrats to push their own sweeping PFAS legislation, which passed in January.

Updated at 6:34 p.m.

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