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‘We’re moving as quickly as we can’: EPA announces plan to address PFAS water contamination

Speaking in Philadelphia, the EPA said it will “move forward” with the process of creating a drinking-water limit for the PFAS chemicals that have tainted drinking water and groundwater in communities nationwide.

Andrew Wheeler, Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection, answers questions from the media during an EPA press conference announcing a nationwide plan to address PFAS in drinking water, and to set a limit of how much of the chemicals can be present in drinking water, in Philadelphia, February 13, 2019. PFAS water contamination has affected thousands in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
Andrew Wheeler, Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection, answers questions from the media during an EPA press conference announcing a nationwide plan to address PFAS in drinking water, and to set a limit of how much of the chemicals can be present in drinking water, in Philadelphia, February 13, 2019. PFAS water contamination has affected thousands in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Responding to water contamination that has affected communities across the country, including in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pledged Thursday to create new drinking water limits for harmful chemicals for the first time in more than two decades.

Unveiling the agency’s plan in Philadelphia, acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the EPA also would propose more testing to determine whether PFAS contamination is more widespread than currently known.

Critics, including members of Congress and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, immediately questioned whether the plan would address quickly enough the issue of exposure to PFAS, which have spread from military bases into water supplies, are present in many household products, and have been linked to health issues.

By the end of the year, Wheeler said, the EPA will take the first steps toward setting a drinking water limit for two types of PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. He did not say how long the process might take, but it could be years. The agency also plans to list PFOS and PFOA — two types of PFAS — as hazardous substances, a step that could help hold polluters accountable for cleanup costs.

“We are doing this because of the importance of this issue in so many communities around the entire country," he told a news conference at the agency’s Center City office. "The action plan commits EPA to take important steps that will improve how we research, monitor, and detect PFAS.”

The EPA has been under mounting pressure from the public and elected officials to act, as residents from the Philadelphia suburbs and communities across the country learned they had been drinking PFAS-contaminated water, and demanded health testing and cleanup funding.

“What the EPA laid out this morning is what I have been demanding for over three years,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.). “Though optimistic, I have watched this administration and the one before it be all talk and no execution. . … I intend to hold the EPA accountable for the promises they made today.”

It remains unclear how restrictive the EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant levels (MCL) would be; the current nonbinding EPA health advisory has been criticized by scientists as too lax.

“To be honest, the agency has not set a new MCL since the [Safe Drinking Water] Act was passed in 1996, so we’re charting a little new territory," Wheeler said. "We’re moving as quickly as we can.”

A stricter, enforceable drinking water limit from the EPA could make the federal government responsible for even more areas of cleanup, while a limit at the same level or looser than the current guideline would essentially let the military or others off the hook for remediation.

Officials in New Jersey, which has taken its own steps to set statewide drinking water limits for PFAS, expressed disappointment in the EPA’s plan.

“The Trump administration is leaving millions of Americans exposed to harmful chemicals for too long by choosing a drawn-out process that will delay establishing a federal maximum contaminant level," the state DEP said Thursday in a statement.

Lawmakers and activists alike said they would carefully watch whether the EPA makes good on its goals. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) said the proposed plan would “kick the can even further down the road.” The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on the EPA’s plan in the spring, said Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), who called the plan “only a first step” and said the EPA needed to take “decisive action.”

“This plan fails to do what science, community leaders, and elected officials demand: set a maximum contaminant level and enforce nationwide drinking water standards,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Pa.), a member of the recently formed congressional task force on PFAS.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were contained in firefighting foams used by the military for decades — including at the former bases in Warminster and Willow Grove — and were widely discovered in 2014 to have leached into drinking water and groundwater near military bases nationwide. Though in-depth health studies by the federal government are still needed, the chemicals have been connected to problems including cancer, high cholesterol, and reproductive problems.

The announcement comes after EPA administrators traveled to affected communities in 2018 and pledged they would attack the issue. Elected officials, residents and environmentalists have said the federal government should have taken major action much sooner.

Some states, including New Jersey, have already started creating their own drinking-water standards that are much stricter than the EPA guideline. The military has pledged to clean up drinking water only in places where the water supply contains more PFOA and PFOS than the EPA guideline suggests is safe, but has said it would comply with future standards set by the EPA or by states.

Wheeler said the EPA would use states’ standards where they are lower than the EPA advisory level in working with those states. He also said he believed the agency’s current health advisory level was “a safe level for drinking water."

The plan was also announced at simultaneous news conferences in the other nine EPA regions. Wheeler, the agency’s top official, chose Philadelphia to make his announcement. It was streamed live and drew a crowd that included Philadelphia-area residents affected by contamination.

“If you had a child or you had a grandchild drinking water that several states said was unsafe, would you feel that your action plan is moving fast enough to protect the American people?” Joanne Stanton of the BuxMont Coalition for Safer Water asked Wheeler. He said he believed it was.

Wheeler also said the EPA was working with the Department of Defense and continuing to help communities clean up using the advisory level. He said the EPA is testing groundwater in areas where the chemicals were used.

The agency plans to make recommendations for groundwater cleanup to prevent further spread of the chemical into drinking water and propose requiring public drinking water systems to test for the chemicals, he said. It will also increase monitoring of the chemicals in the environment and expand research on PFAS, including human health effects, cleanup options, and new technologies for removing PFAS from drinking water.

“Americans count on EPA every time they turn on their faucet,” Wheeler said. “Through these actions that I mentioned we are stepping up to provide the leadership the public needs and deserves.”

Politico reported last month that the EPA would not pursue a drinking water limit for the chemicals, which drew outrage from environmentalists and elected officials and prompted suggestions that PFAS could be an issue in Wheeler’s confirmation to the administrator post.

In Bucks and Montgomery, tens of thousands of residents were affected by tainted drinking water and drinking wells were shut down due to the contamination. Tests suggest PFAS is no longer present in the water in Horsham, Warrington and Warminster Townships, which made up the epicenter of the crisis, but recent blood testing revealed high levels of the chemicals in residents’ bloodstreams.

An analysis by the Inquirer found that the chemicals are present in drinking water in at least 22 other towns in the suburbs of Philadelphia; PFAS is likely to continue to spread until the groundwater and soil at the bases are completely remediated, experts say.

Stanton, who grew up in Warminster, said after the announcement that she was disappointed action will not be taken immediately.

“I’m happy there’s an action plan, but I believe it’s going to be too little, too late,” she said. “We’ve been exposed [to the chemicals in our water] for a long time.”