Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s promise last week to attack a dangerous threat to drinking water may have sounded soothing to thousands of residents of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, who have lived with contaminated groundwater for decades. But as U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) pointed out, Wheeler’s words cynically masked just another federal government dodge on cleaning up the toxic chemicals because he didn’t have a timeline and worse, the EPA did not even commit to actually setting safe standards for the toxic family of chemicals known as PFAS.
Fortunately, by the end of the week, Carper secured a solid commitment from the EPA to set safe drinking water standards by December. The back and forth is emblematic of why EPA must be under constant scrutiny.
PFAS have been found in alarming amounts in suburban Philadelphia. They were left behind by firefighting foam at two former military bases.
Known as per- and polyfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFAS, these chemicals are found in consumer products, such as flame-retardant fabrics and nonstick cookware, as well as firefighting foams used at about 400 military bases across the country, including the old Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, Bucks County, and the former Naval Air Station at Willow Grove, in Horsham, Montgomery County.
PFAS have been linked to thyroid and liver disease, low birthrates, low fertility in women and preeclampsia in pregnant women, as well as asthma, high blood pressure, kidney and testicular cancer.
Residents and politicians from both parties have been pressuring the EPA to set PFAS standards since at least 2014 and been met with empty promises.
For example, last year, EPA promised to set a guidance for groundwater cleanups by the fall of 2018. It’s the winter of 2019 and there’s still no such guidance. Carper pointed out that work on that plan has languished in the Office of Management and Budget since August 2018.
Carper wisely took EPA’s timeline commitment with caution, saying in a statement, “It’s about time he (Wheeler) showed some urgency on this important issue.” And, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Carper said, “I will also keep working to push EPA to accelerate the rest of the measures included in the PFAS Action Plan.”
That’s good because this is a growing problem. Last year, the Inquirer reported that PFAS-laced groundwater to spread to 22 other towns.
Residents don’t have the time for any more stall tactics. Their health is on the line.
Despite EPA’s commitment to a timeline to set safety limits, states should continue their work in protecting residents. And, state and federal elected officials should stay vigilant in forcing the EPA to set standards not only for safe drinking-water levels of PFAS, but for cleaning them up and for stopping polluters.