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Biden’s EPA plans to tackle the ‘forever chemicals’ that contaminated drinking water in Philly region and U.S.

Activists, residents, and lawmakers reacted to the Biden administration's plan to take steps to regulate and control PFAS chemicals with both hope and skepticism.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan announced steps to combat PFAS pollution on Monday.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan announced steps to combat PFAS pollution on Monday.Read moreEvan Vucci / AP

The Environmental Protection Agency pledged Monday to take steps to regulate a group of toxic chemicals used in everyday products that have contaminated drinking water nationwide, outlining a sweeping plan that prompted both hope and skepticism in the Philadelphia region, where many have waited years for federal action.

The Biden administration’s strategy includes creating enforceable standards that limit the chemicals in drinking water and designating some as hazardous substances, which could help hold polluters accountable for cleanup costs. Its new “road map” will also create a national strategy for testing for the chemicals and take other steps to curb pollution caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — highly persistent compounds linked to cancer, infertility, and other health problems.

“This is a bold strategy that starts with immediate action,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told the Associated Press. “We’re going to use every tool in our toolbox to restrict human exposure to these toxic chemicals.’’

» READ MORE: From 2016: How Navy bases contaminated Pa. drinking water

Some of the steps have been long sought by residents and lawmakers in the Philadelphia suburbs, where PFAS-containing firefighting foam used on military bases in Willow Grove and Warminster seeped for decades into the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents.

The military began discovering that some communities near its naval air bases had high levels of the so-called forever chemicals in their drinking water in 2015 and 2016, including those in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

Affected residents, lawmakers, and environmental advocates have for years pushed for regulation, including in Congress and in multiple states — but there are still no federal laws protecting American drinking water from PFAS. More than 200 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water, according to the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.

The Department of Defense tested bases and is still planning cleanup at nearly 700 sites where PFAS were used. The Biden administration said Monday that process will be complete by the end of 2023.

Local activists and lawmakers said they welcomed the announcement but remained skeptical after years of inaction. Many said the Biden administration needed a more detailed plan for the military’s cleanups.

“People in my district are hopeful, but they’ve literally been on this roller-coaster for so long,” said State Sen. Maria Collett (D., Montgomery). “They’ve heard so many unkept promises. I think it’s going to be difficult for them to believe it until they see it for themselves.”

‘A real sense of urgency’

The effects are still rippling. In areas like Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington, the epicenter of the contamination in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, residents are drinking clean water, but the cleanup was costly for the towns — and concerns about other contamination remain.

Residents are still contending with higher water bills and, for some, health issues they believe may be linked to the contamination. Just last week, state environmental regulators warned residents not to eat fish from the 40-mile-long Neshaminy Creek after high levels of a PFAS compound were found in its species.

The chemicals are used in products from nonstick pans to furniture to food wrappers, and they have also caused contamination in communities near chemical plants and other sources. In New Jersey, the same pollution ran off major companies’ manufacturing plants, including in Gloucester County.

» READ MORE: Pa. last week warned residents not to eat fish from Neshaminy Creek due to ‘concerning’ levels of PFOS contamination

The EPA’s moves sound promising but came after years of inaction and frustration, said Hope Grosse, a PFAS activist and cancer survivor who grew up next to the naval air base in Warminster. ”It’s important first steps, but I feel like they’ve announced these important first steps for 10 years and we’re not going to be protected today by that,” she said.

A health study of PFAS’ impact on residents in Bucks and Montgomery Counties — which Grosse and others spent years pushing for — is set to begin in November. But Grosse said she remains frustrated that Pennsylvania, too, is not moving faster in its efforts to set a maximum drinking-water level for PFAS.

Under President Donald Trump, the EPA promised in 2019 to begin the process of setting drinking-water limits and classifying some types of PFAS as hazardous substances. But advocates said the plan moved too slowly, and similar state-level efforts, including in Pennsylvania, have also taken years to move forward. Regan told the Associated Press that he understands the gravity of the issue.

Before taking over Biden’s EPA he was North Carolina’s top environmental official and led negotiations to clean up a river there contaminated by PFAS used in manufacturing.

“PFAS contamination has been devastating communities for decades now, even before we knew how dangerous these chemicals were,’’ Regan said. He added, “There is a real sense of urgency.”

The new plan comes with an ambitious timeline and 28 goals to be completed in the next three years — ranging from drinking-water regulations to restrictions on manufacturers to research on the chemicals.

It includes creating enforceable drinking-water limits for PFOA and PFOS, two types of PFAS, by 2023. The EPA also plans to establish drinking-water advisories, or nonenforceable safety limits, for other types of PFAS.

New rules by 2022

Establishing limits on how much, if any, of the chemicals are legally allowed in Americans’ drinking water has been the top request of activists and residents affected by the contamination.

Pending budgetary approval from Congress, the EPA will also expand the number of drinking-water systems in the country that are subject to routine testing for certain chemicals, and require testing for PFAS. (Some forms of PFAS have been part of prior rounds of this testing.)

“I’m encouraged that EPA is giving this urgent public health threat the attention and seriousness it deserves,” said Sen. Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat. “This is truly a soup-to-nuts plan — one that commits to cleaning up PFAS in our environment while also putting protections in place to prevent more of these forever chemicals from finding their way into our lives.”

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The Biden administration also plans to restrict discharges of PFAS and, in some circumstances, require manufacturers to report to the federal government when they release the chemical.

By next winter, the agency expects to have new rules requiring manufacturers to report the amount of PFAS they are using, producing, and destroying or discharging. The substances are common in grease-, water- and stain-proof products, from pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags to nonstick cookware and fabric protectant to cosmetics and paint.

Environmental groups praised the new plan but said the EPA must move quickly and be given the money to execute it. Biden’s proposed sweeping infrastructure bills would contain money for monitoring contaminants including PFAS.

The Environmental Working Group, which has long advocated for tightening PFAS restrictions, applauded the EPA’s pledge to accelerate the creation of drinking-water standards but urged the federal government to speed military cleanup, ban the chemicals from food packaging, and curb the use of PFAS firefighting foam at commercial airports.

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Philadelphia) said he was pleased that there may soon be enforceable drinking-water standards — a measure he had proposed in legislation several years ago. ”Without these enforceable regulations, the EPA and other enforcement agencies are essentially unable to take on this crisis that has plagued families in my community and across the nation for too long now,” said Boyle, whose district includes parts of Montgomery County.

In Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington Townships, the military built filtration systems to meet the existing EPA guidelines, then local authorities acted to remove all traces of PFAS from their water supplies.

They became national pioneers of a “nondetect” standard — but that’s been costly. State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) said he hoped the Biden administration would “deliver on the promises that they’re making” — and that any coming regulations to hold polluters accountable would result in the federal government providing aid to his district.

“We have the highest water standards in the country right now at nondetect,” Stephens said. “Frankly, it ought to be the federal government footing the bill for us to do that.”

This report contains information from the Associated Press.