By Kevin Westerling,
With the U.S. EPA’s announcement on Tuesday proposing maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a key and long-awaited step toward a final rule, stakeholders throughout the water industry — representing utilities, industry, the environment, legal interests, and public health — were quick to offer opinions on the details of the proposal.
Those details include regulation of:
- PFOA and PFOS, at a level they can be reliably measured at 4 parts per trillion (ppt).
- PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals as a mixture. According to the EPA announcement, “For these PFAS, water systems would use an established approach called a hazard index calculation, defined in the proposed rule, to determine if the combined levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk.”
Upon publication in the Federal Register, a 60-day comment period will ensue, and a public hearing for verbal comments will be held on May 4, 2023 (register here). The rule is expected to be finalized in late 2023 or early 2024, and drinking water systems will then have three years to comply.
The following is collection of reactions on the big news from various corners of the industry:
Walt Marlowe, Executive Director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF):
“Putting forward regulations like this helps to ensure public health; that is the core mission of everyone in the water sector. As a community, we have a responsibility to engage with this rulemaking procedure to ensure that all decisions are based on sound science and do not overlook unintended consequences that could come along with these limits.”
Tom Dobbins, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA):
“AMWA intends to provide EPA a robust set of comments to help strengthen the rule and ensure decisions are made with the best available science while taking costs into account, as required under the Safe Drinking Water Act. AMWA is concerned about the overall cost drinking water utilities will incur to comply with this proposed rulemaking.”
“Ultimately, without more federal support for upgrading current treatment technologies, average Americans will have to pay the cost of further treatment through higher rates for their water.”
Joel Johnston, partner and shareholder at law firm Hall Estill, specializing in environmental and regulatory issues and large infrastructure projects:
“The EPA’s move to regulate PFAS and related chemicals in drinking water is going to have potentially significant impacts. Given these chemicals tend to linger in the environment and build up over time, coupled with their previous widespread use in both industrial and common household applications, it is likely that a significant number of water systems/supplies across the country are impacted, so water utilities and managers of impacted systems will need to implement new technologies to remove the compounds, or change their water source.
“In some parts of the country, such as the arid west, changing water supply may not be an option. We know there are supplies in Colorado that are known or likely to be impacted, which is likely the case in every state, so this is a local issue for everyone.
“In addition, by regulating PFAS in drinking water, these compounds will now need to be addressed by other environmental regulations such as those arising pursuant to RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] and CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act]. These new regulations could have a pretty widespread impact across the country.”
The American Chemical Council:
“[W]e have serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop these proposed MCLs and have previously challenged the EPA based on the process used to develop that science. We are not alone in our concerns, as others have been on the record criticizing their development. And new peer-reviewed research also calls into question the basis for EPA’s overly conservative approach to assessing one of the health endpoints.
“Importantly, the World Health Organization is also at odds with EPA on the health threshold for PFOA and PFOS. Furthermore, while we review the details, we would note that EPA has not yet evaluated two of the four chemistries included in the proposed ‘hazard index’ MCL. We will be interested to see how EPA explains its rationale for combining substances affecting different health endpoints into a single index, in violation of its own guidance.
“The EPA’s misguided approach to these MCLs is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs. The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it’s critical that EPA gets the science right.”
Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, attorney at environmental law firm Earthjustice:
“For the millions of people with PFAS in their tap water, strong national drinking water standards cannot come soon enough. Today’s proposal is a necessary and long overdue step towards addressing the nation’s PFAS crisis, but what comes next is equally important. EPA must resist efforts to weaken this proposal, move quickly to finalize health-protective limits on these six chemicals, and address the remaining PFAS that continue to poison drinking water supplies and harm communities across the country.”
Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group:
“Today’s announcement by the EPA is historic progress. More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water. Americans have been drinking contaminated water for decades. This proposal is a critical step toward getting these toxic poisons out of our water.
“The EPA’s proposed limits also serve as a stark reminder of just how toxic these chemicals are to human health at very low levels.”
Added Melanie Benesh, EWG’s vice president of government affairs:
“Polluters must clean up their own mess and stop PFAS contamination at the source, instead of passing those costs onto utilities and ratepayers. In addition to finalizing these limits, the EPA must move quickly to regulate industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water.”
Rob Bilott, attorney and author of Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer's Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont, which inspired the movie Dark Waters:
“Today we can celebrate a huge victory for public health in this country — EPA is finally moving forward to protect drinking water across the United States by proposing federally enforceable limits on some of the most toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals ever found in our nation’s drinking water supply.
“It has taken far too long to get to this point, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and delay action.”
Mark Ruffalo, activist and actor who portrayed Rob Bilott in Dark Waters:
“By proposing to regulate four other PFAS as a mixture, the Biden EPA is also putting our communities ahead of the polluters. My message to polluters is simple: After poisoning your workers and neighbors for decades, it is time to make our public health, not your profits, our top priority. My message to communities devastated by PFAS pollution is equally simple: Help is finally on the way.”
Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States:
“We applaud the Biden administration for following the lead of the states and stepping up to protect communities from these toxic ‘forever chemicals. These proposed standards are a positive step forward and reinforce the need for all parts of government to address the PFAS crisis. We urge the federal government to continue to follow the lead of states and phase out the production and use of these chemicals in favor of safer solutions so that we stop adding PFAS to our already polluted water, land, and air. We also urge the federal government to follow the lead of state attorneys general and hold polluters accountable for the mess they created.”
Liz Hitchcock, federal policy program director for Toxic-Free Future:
“The Biden Administration is taking important steps forward to help communities across the country suffering the health and financial consequences of ongoing exposure to these highly toxic ‘forever chemicals. To prevent further PFAS contamination, we must put an end to uses of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams used by military and civilian firefighters and in consumer products like food packaging and textiles. Congress has made progress in prior years’ military spending bills and in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization bill — they must keep moving forward to protect us from these toxic chemicals.”
Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future:
“While this standard is welcome news, it is clear our chemical regulatory system continues to allow companies to put cancer-causing PFAS into millions of products and is failing our health and putting the burden on taxpayers and ratepayers to pay the costs of cleaning up our drinking water. We need a new prevention-based approach modeled on states like Washington that bends the curve down on PFAS and all highly hazardous chemicals that shouldn’t be in products or our drinking water.”
And a final word from The Guardian’s coverage, quoting Linda Birnbaum, a former head of the U.S. National Toxicology Program and EPA scientist:
“Is 4 ppt where we would like to be? Absolutely not, and that’s why the EPA has much lower health advisories. But it is a heck of a lot better than the previous advisory of 70 ppt.”