The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday released the first federal guidance for mitigating PFAS in groundwater, one step in its plan to address widespread contamination from the chemicals.
The guidance acknowledges the need to address the spread of PFAS beyond drinking water and could help hold polluters accountable for groundwater contamination. But like the EPA’s drinking water guidance, which is already in use by the military and others in cleaning up contamination, the interim recommendations are guidelines, not binding regulations.
Still, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the recommendations will “provide clear and consistent guidance" for cleanup programs and "help protect drinking water resources in communities across the country.”
PFAS, chemicals that are present in many everyday objects, have been linked to cancers and other illnesses. Concern has mounted over the last three years as the chemicals have been found in drinking water nationwide, including in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, where they were traced to the firefighting foams used during exercises on former military bases.
The EPA’s plan to address PFAS, announced in February, came under widespread criticism from advocates who said it was too slow, too little and too late. The groundwater guidance is one of the first major steps, but it does not suggest any stricter cleanup of PFAS than is already recommended.
The agency’s guidance recommends that the level of PFAS in groundwater — if a potential drinking water source — should be less than 70 parts per trillion. That’s the same level as the EPA’s drinking water guidance, which until now has been the only federal guideline on PFAS.
That level of 70 parts per trillion has been disputed by some experts and advocates; the federal government’s own scientists suggested it doesn’t go far enough to protect public health. Some states have set their own, stricter drinking water guidelines. Pennsylvania is in the process of creating a state guideline.
The new EPA guidance also recommends that investigators trying to determine whether a site has groundwater contamination should screen for PFAS levels of 40 parts per trillion or higher.
Advocates have called for swift and strict binding federal regulations on PFAS. Recent legislation is set to expand monitoring for PFAS in drinking and groundwater, and require reporting of PFAS in the Toxic Release Inventory, but advocates suffered a loss when the bill was stripped of provisions that would have regulated the chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law and set a two-year deadline for the EPA’s federal regulation of PFAS in tap water.